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Open VS. Affordable: A Balancing Act for Academic Librarians

by | Jun 1, 2022 | 3 comments


by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries

To better understand where in the curriculum open education resources (OER) were adopted by our faculty, our institutional Textbook Task Force turned a faculty survey on OER use into an inventory document. It could both track existing course adoptions and allow faculty to independently add content as they added or updated open course content. I thought getting the technology to work properly would be the most challenging aspect of this project. However, compared to reaching consensus on what to call this resource, getting it to work was a relative breeze.

What the library representatives on the Task Force suggested was “Temple’s Open Learning Materials Inventory.” This name was derived from the faculty survey we conducted. Its focus was OER adoption – open learning material. Sounds straightforward enough. Librarians who’ve administered a survey of this type can tell you it’s hardly that simple. That’s owing to faculty misperceptions about OER which leads them to conflate OER with free content. As we saw in our results, responses identified both licensed library resources and free web content as OER. 

This issue was acknowledged by Bay View Analytics, the organization that compiles and produces faculty OER survey reports. At an Open Ed 2021 conference presentation, the survey and report authors shared a new strategy they adopted to tackle the problem of OER/free conflation. In addition to asking faculty if they were aware of OER, they added a new question asking faculty if they were aware of Creative Commons Licensing. Though not quite an exact science, they were able to fine tune the results when faculty said they were aware of OER but lacked any awareness of Creative Commons Licensing. It follows in a highly probable way that if one claims awareness of OER but lacks awareness of the requisite licensing, a disconnect between OER and non-OER content is quite likely.  

Our survey responses pointed to use of OER and non-OER content, but all of which supported zero-cost learning for our students. Our non-library colleagues made the case that the Inventory was more than OER and that the name should reflect that. Point well taken. That is how we ended up with the name “Temple’s Open and Affordable Learning Materials Inventory.” This all seems innocent enough. As long as the Inventory supports the goal of identifying where in the curriculum OER is in use – or other zero-cost options – and faculty can support our efforts to track and share this information – what is the difference? On campus, perhaps there is no difference. In the wider world of open education, we need to take a step back and consider the implications of the terms “open” and “affordable”.

The inspiration for this reflection came from Nicole Allen, SPARC’s Director of Open Education. I was in attendance at a meeting when Allen made a point about a phrase many librarian open-advocates use: textbook affordability. Allen’s point was that the meaning of this term has been co-opted by textbook publishers, and using it may unintentionally make a case for inclusive access deals. Why? Because the publishers are promoting their digital textbook package to higher education administrators and faculty as the affordable option. This new wrinkle in textbook terminology stands to render “textbook affordability” as meaningless. 

Compared to the cost of their print textbooks, digital versions can certainly be more affordable. That’s the crux of the problem according to Allen. Affordability is relative and ambiguous. It may be affordable for some students. Those experiencing basic needs distress could find anything other than zero-cost learning material is unaffordable. There’s also no agreed upon definition of what dollar amount or range is considered affordable. It’s an important distinction, one well worth the consideration of open education advocates. It also creates a dilemma for academic librarians who find their faculty want more flexible options that meet a different perspective on affordable learning materials.

I’m partial towards zero-cost learning material as the term that best captures that mix of truly open textbooks, licensed library and miscellaneous free web-based content. It acknowledges that OER isn’t always an available solution for courses across the disciplines. That’s a constraint librarians must work with when assisting faculty who do want to make their course content affordable. No doubt, some open education advocates might take issue with “zero-cost” and the types of non-OER content to which it can refer. If a library purchases textbooks from the campus bookstore and puts them on reserve for student use, do we want to refer to them as “zero-cost textbooks”?

What about non-zero-cost options that can be framed as “affordable” by a mix of publishers and third-party suppliers? These options include all-you-can-use semester subscriptions, pay by-the-month packages, auto-bill inclusive access books and variations that involve open textbooks supplemented by pay-to-access add-on content. All options require a case-by-case consideration with a particular emphasis on what students are locked into, how their private data can be used, what types of usage tracking is made possible and other potentially student-unfriendly policies. The OER advocate’s position could be described as “free or fee – it all requires scrutiny.” 

Here are some recommendations for how to broach the open vs. affordable dilemma at your institution:

  • Position librarians as trusted advisors by having them take time to gain familiarity with the relative advantages and disadvantages of multiple options on the “truly OER to totally-not-OER” spectrum. If OER adoptions is the goal you need to know who the competition is and what they offer – and then have the capacity to help instructors determine their best option for savings to students.
  • Develop consensus on an acceptable approach to textbook affordability that prioritizes OER adoption as the number one goal but which allows for a host of other options as possible paths to lowering overall costs for students. “Acceptable” can allow for the exclusion of options deemed “student unfriendly”. Develop a set of concrete criteria for what then qualifies for that bad housekeeping seal of disapproval.
  • Engage non-library colleagues in reaching an institutional position or policy on the open versus affordable debate. Where will you draw the line on acceptable options? Is there a full commitment to OER as the campus standard? Are other zero-cost options welcomed? Do faculty want to define a dollar value for what passes as affordable?
  • Offer educational opportunities for faculty to become better attuned to what differentiates OER from non-OER. That may involve more clarity on Creative Commons Licensing, why licensed library content is not OER or other differentiating factors and concepts. Understanding options along the spectrum of open, affordable and unaffordable may allow faculty to be more intentional when designing a course for zero-cost content delivery.

Long-time advocates know that the type of change required to achieve the goals of open education requires a sustained effort over a period of years. Every step forward may be met by new forms of publisher initiatives to claim the mantle of affordability. Open advocates suspect that the publishers’ long game is to win over enough educators with affordable products, along with the elimination of other options, to allow for an eventual increase in the cost of their digital products. What passes for affordable now may become tomorrow’s unaffordable option. The last thing higher education needs is a return to a learning materials landscape dominated by broken textbook publishing and pricing practices.

About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib


  1. Robert Boissy

    I think revisiting the Charlotte Initiative might be in order to assess the sustainability of published textbooks. Also, yes it is true that publishers used the term affordable in reference to zero cost to the student of library licensed textbooks, and it would be a misuse of terms to call such textbooks open education resources. Licensing such books does not normally allow for sharing outside the institution or re-use. Open Access eBooks from publishers are starting to include some curriculum materials, so this could be considered a gray area. Frankly, the fact that the library pays for a very large amount of the content used for both curriculum and research purposes is lost on many faculty, so the textbooks arena should not surprise us. As with all published products, it is understood that library budgets are limited and so obvious relevance and value must prevail, and costs and business models must fit the requirements or there will be no acquisition.

  2. David Parker

    Hi Steven, I sense a refinement of your “affordability spectrum” in the works here. “Truly OER to totally not OER”

  3. steven bell

    Thanks for your comment David. I appreciate it and yes, perhaps this is a new way to think about that spectrum. I will continue to refine the ideas in this blog post.


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