July 17, 2024

“ZTC Thinking” and the Hybrid OER Sustainability Model

Author: david
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This week on the blog I’m serializing a talk I gave for CSU Channel Islands last week as part of their Open Education Week festivities. My talk was titled, The State of Open: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In the first installment on Monday, I explained how a fundamental failure to understand copyright makes the definition of OER in the new UNESCO recommendation nonsensical. In the second installment yesterday, I described how it appears that many in the OER community have taken their eye off the ball of student learning. In this third installment I’ll talk about the impact of what I call “ZTC thinking” on the long-term sustainability of OER.

Image by annca from Pixabay

The search for a model that will reliably sustain OER initiatives over the long-term has been underway for over 20 years. While there have been many people working on many different aspects of OER over these two decades, I will focus below on three organizations that (1) create OER, (2) proactively advocate for OER adoption, (3) provide direct support to faculty for OER adoption, and (4) do these at national scale – Rice’s OpenStax, Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, and Lumen Learning. As we’ll see below, these three organizations’ similar goals create similar sustainability challenges and opportunities. I started working on open content in 1998. Rich Baraniuk (founder of Connexions and later OpenStax) started in 1999. CMU OLI launched in 2002. So we really are talking about 20 years of thought, iteration, and struggle to find a way to sustainably support the large-scale creation and adoption of OER in higher education.

There have been a number of important theoretical contributions to the topic of OER sustainability over the years. I would point specifically to papers published as part of an OECD convening on the topic in 2006, including contributions from myself, Dholakia, King, and Baraniuk, and Downes. However, as the revised and remixed saying goes, no business plan survives first contact with customers. These theoretical contributions were intellectually stimulating, but real progress wasn’t made on OER sustainability until people started quitting their jobs and betting their mortgages on their ability to sustainably impact student learning at scale with OER.

At a high level, OpenStax, OLI, and Lumen have all evolved to use essentially the same two-part sustainability model. In part one of the model, one-time funding (like grants) pays for the large, one-time cost of creating something new, like a new open textbook or online homework system. In part two of the model, ongoing revenue from product sales pays for ongoing costs like maintenance, improvement, upgrades, and the various costs involved in keeping an organization running. (It’s not quite this clean. For example, many grants allow a small amount (10%) to be spent on the overhead associated with running an organization. Also, when there’s enough revenue it can be used to support one-time R&D expenses. But hopefully you get the broad picture.) Each organizations’ product offerings are listed below:

Organization OER Product Offerings
OpenStax Free and open on their website Print copies: $25 – $90
OpenStax Tutor homework system: $10
Rover by OpenStax math system: $22
Technology partners’ products: $10 – $50 
Open Learning Initiative  Free and open on their website OLI adaptive courseware: $25
Lumen Learning Free and open on their website Waymaker adaptive courseware: $25
OHM math courseware: $25

I’ll call this “one-time funding plus revenue from product sales” approach the “hybrid OER sustainability model” below.

There are three incredibly interesting things about the hybrid OER sustainability model these three organizations are using. The first is that it’s actually working. After 20+ years of searching for way to sustainably impact student learning at scale with OER, it feels like we’re finally beginning to understand the “sustainably” part. (On the Lumen side, a large portion of the credit goes to our amazingly smart and creative CEO, Kim Thanos.) There’s still more for us all to learn about how to tweak and optimize the hybrid OER sustainability model, but it’s working.

The second incredibly interesting thing is the degree to which the hybrid OER sustainability model blends a more traditional business model (where one-time funds are investments instead of grants, and product sales support ongoing operations) with a more traditional non-profit model (where there are only one-time funds, and the products created with those grants are given away for free to make the world a better place). All three of these organizations provide interesting case studies in social entrepreneurship, in which the tools and techniques of traditional entrepreneurship are leveraged for social good.

The third incredibly interesting thing about the hybrid OER sustainability model is that ZTC thinking rejects it outright. When the primary goal of a campus-wide or system-wide ZTC initiative is to insure that no one pays for course materials, a consequence of that initiative is that it prevents organizations from using this model to sustain themselves. If every college and university in the US adopted this kind of initiative, what would happen? One of my favorite sayings explains the undeniably central role of cash in an organization’s sustainability – “no organization ever closed its doors because they ran out of strategy.” What an irony it would be if, instead of the clever tactics of commercial publishers, it was the ZTC initiatives championed by OER advocates that ultimately drove OER organizations like OpenStax, OLI, and Lumen out of business.

I’m still hopeful that people advocating for ZTC programs will recognize the effect their efforts can have on OER organizations. There are a range of creative ways to have your cake and eat it too – models where students pay nothing but organizations still have a path to sustainability, like the innovative partnership between SUNY and Lumen. But campus leaders won’t begin to look for these creative solutions until they recognize the problem ZTC thinking ultimately causes – short-term wins at the cost of long-term losses.

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