This question of preferring Open Education Resources (OER) is one for everyone in education to ask.  Free is great, but is it really free? 

I recently asked this of the new CEO of ISTE, Richard Culatta, who was in the Federal Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, where he advanced an agenda called #GoOpen. That initiative prefers OER above paid resources in a nationally active and concentrated campaign that signs up schools, districts, and whole States to agree to lean more heavily on free or “open license” digital resources over paid professional materials (PPR). 

While free is great, the net effect of pushing it hard is a new sort of divide in the digital object materials universe, a divide along lines of digital versus mere digitized quality, and a loss of $2.28 Billion in revenue from the professional publishing community.  $2.28 Billion is the equivalent of tens of thousands of jobs across multiple companies2-15, removed from the private sector and repositioned into an additional burden on schools and teachers. This might be great for teacher job security, but for many it is overwhelming. 

The symbiotic service relationship of professional publishers for the last hundred years has been suppressed by this major federal government campaign, taking with it a lot of the digital innovation opportunity of industry. Granted, some of the big publishers had been entirely inadequate in transitioning, sticking to proprietary and un-mixable versions for a time, but those days are largely over.  Meanwhile, over the last six years, thousands of new small publishers have been brilliantly innovative, only to not quite get off the ground due to a very inefficient and hamstrung market landscape.

While on the surface the #GoOpen idea is rather nice and helps everyone in education believe they are saving money while being able to mix-and-match digital pieces indiscriminately, the issue is far more complex. It’s actually not about money or freedom as its most central issue. 

The central issue is the future

Will the future be mostly home-made digital bits or will it be something far grander? Will we perpetually worry about cost over quality and create a new inequity at the software level? Will poor kids get grainy video and scanned-in scraps of black-and-white text while the rich kids get animated and interactive math-on-steroids that talks back to them in encouraging tones? Will they give up future privacy because they are unwittingly giving away droves of information about themselves that will be used commercially as soon as they are fair game and of age? Will free resources at least be encapsulated within some sort of lesson plan digital system that has scope and sequence that logically helps cause real learning? 

It’s already a truth that consumers spend billions more on direct purchase of quality digital learning sites, Apps and objects than the entire education sector spends1. Granted they are not orchestrated into a whole, yet, but the industry has already started to end-run institutions to serve up the very best in design.  They have to, in order to survive. This central issue of the future, then, is how sophisticated the digital things your students and your teachers will use versus what will show up in app stores and subscription websites.  

Are you going to continue pushing OER?

At ISTE at the end of June I asked a bold question about this to Mr. Culatta to see where he stands now since he was the first-ever Open Resources Advisor in the Federal DOE15 and, of course, ISTE’s sponsorship revenues will depend on industry support, not only the paid attendance and dues of educators. The question was simple, “Are you going to continue pushing OER?”


Mr. Culatta said: “There are a couple of pieces to that. One of them is; our language and the focus was really less about pushing OER as much as it is to say; ‘Are we doing a fair review?’ and right now, in most schools, K-12 side, Higher Ed as well, it’s not balanced.

“There’s a way-over-representation… if you ask faculty; ‘Did you even look at open licensed textbooks when you were deciding what to require your students to buy?’ Most of them, the answer is ‘No.’

“So, we’re not saying, ‘We have to go…’, we’re saying ‘Let’s pick the best materials.’  But, in order to keep the best materials, you have to look at everything.  So that’s really the key message.

“Now there’s two reasons why the idea of Open Licensing is important and I like that term better than OER because it’s ‘Open’, is it, like, online, does that mean it’s ‘open’, I can ‘open’ it?  I don’t know.

“But it’s the open license part that’s important and the reason I care about that is ‘Yes. Are there some classifications? Sure.’  Certainly, if there are ways to be able to use funding that would have gone to an outdated textbook to something that’s a little more relevant, great.

“On the Higher Ed side, again, I’m incredibly concerned about the cost burden we’re putting on students.

“When I was in Rhode Island, before coming here, we met with students and they said ‘You know, we’re making it work. We’re working a couple of jobs, we got some loan-support, we’re going to school, we got to college, as we get in here, we walk in and then we find we have a thousand-dollar textbook bill, and we’re out, that’s it, that’s the point where we’re out.’

“And that’s per semester, just to be clear!

“That’s a really dumb reason for you to have to stop going to school.  So that’s why we were very focused on this in the Higher Ed space.

“But the other point, and this is the one that I want to make sure we don’t lose in the conversation about Open Licensed Resources, is; It’s bigger than cost.  It’s about the fact that, as a teacher… I’ll give this as a personal example. When I was teaching, I was working with students and there were some activities that we had in our book and they were just… it wasn’t what they needed. I know it wasn’t what they needed, they were my kids and it wasn’t fitting in with what they needed and so I did what any good professional would do.  I modified the content a little bit, I swapped-out some examples and I redistributed it, and I was told ‘Don’t ever do that again because you just broke International Copyright Law.’

“That is not a message that we want to be sending to our teachers.

“And so, I’m actually more interested in the idea of open licensing, not to save money, but for this idea of customizing the learning experience for the use of students.

“We hire professionals to teach our students and to tell them that they can’t adapt and adjust the content just is kinda crazy to me.”

To summarize his comments, teachers and professors should be out looking for alternatives that are free --no cost.  Check, that’s a good idea when you have the time. Second, students should have lower cost. Check, everyone agrees with that, but the issue is deeper than that due to professors profiting from their own textbooks, more later. Third, resources should be customizable, check. Non-copyrightable, not check, since the two are not mutually exclusive. You can have digital systems that allow alteration without voiding copyright entirely.  It depends on the system. Adding examples to existing lessons in digital form is par for the course in most publisher offerings today. 

The OER Misunderstanding

In response to a direct request to clarify, Mr. Culatta’s press agent forwarded this quote:

“Thank you for your interest in my past work with the U.S. Department of Education and my new position with ISTE. Our goal has always been to make sure the best resources are in the hands of students and teachers. Many schools aren’t aware that openly-licensed resources are available to them and we believe they should be aware of all options in order to make informed decisions. I believe that teachers, as learning professionals, should have the ability to adapt learning materials to meet the unique needs of their students. Openly-licensed resources allow teachers to modify and share learning content without the fear of violating copyright law,” Richard Culatta, CEO, ISTE. Check, people should know when there are free options, absolutely. 

Based on what Mr. Culatta said in the live interview and his quoted comment, let’s frame the question of OER into current context with what is happening in software and in schools because it’s so easy to get this all wonky and become close-minded to paid professional resources or vice-versa, OER. There is a misunderstanding nationwide about what materials to use as schools transition because it is not just an availability and open-licensing issue, or the cost-of-resources that is impacted.

How deep does the issue go now? Deep into the bowels of school organizational inefficiency nationwide.   

You see, it is short-sighted to consider the issue of OER versus Paid Professional Resources (PPR) in such extremely bracketed terms as just cost or non-copyrighted-so-free-and-open. To think so simplistically is clear evidence of very little understanding of the things software can now do.  OER is mostly a “chunked” view of content in a mix-and-matchable world. It’s limiting. Imagine growing all your own food, harvesting it, cooking all the meals yourself, and having to do all the clean-up. Every meal.  The “meals” in a classroom are constantly new menus, and you’re supposed to customize each student’s meal. 

On top of this, in the world of OER, no one is tending the posting or updating of each resource because it costs money and time to do that.  It is therefore also usually the lowest common denominator of software sophistication, mere documents and bits of text, and frequently the links to it break that teachers are using because the originator took their page down somewhere. 

No one is really marketing OER either, because Free usually has no marketing budget. 

Appealing to schools to please review free digitized textbooks as an alternative to paid is to admit the book form is going to play a large part of truly digital user experience.  It’s probably not anymore, except in language reading programs with large collections, and even those are now wrapped with experiential activities in the finer wrought software.  Higher Ed is way behind K12 in seriously great software in this respect.  As Higher Ed explores a disaggregated classroom-and-text model and delivering wholly digitally, it is certain this will change. 

The issue is also not about student cost, not when that has always been the result of an institution’s pedagogical strategy.  Universities don’t have to pick expensive books, but often do because their own professors helped write them and profit from them directly.  This is a decision by the institution, not a law of nature.  Use any search engine with these key words “professors assigning their own textbooks” and you can read all about the “ethical controversy.”  It is interesting that this glaring fact is so little spoken of by advocates of free resources.  It’s also interesting to wonder what happened with the K12 school textbook money.  Since a Chromebook is, say $200 per student, roughly equivalent to 1.5 textbooks, and any one student had multiple textbooks for multiple subjects plus a lot of other printed materials, hypothetically there should be well enough money left in old-line budgets for many of the $4 average-per-student courseware covering each of a whole grade’s worth of math, language, history or science. 

Schools in the K-12 side can always resort to build-their-own digital resources as they always have and will continue to do for non-core subjects, but in so doing they will incur costs. Personnel costs. Massive personnel costs if it’s build-all-the-core-subjects, as is readily apparent when you have an average of hundreds-plus standards to meet per subject, per grade.  The burden of curating and building and filing and sorting, especially to try to compete with things that use animation, custom coded intelligent learning engines, gaming structure, and pre-embedded formative and summative assessments, all wrapped in social function is a little much to put on teachers for every topic they must teach.   

To additionally expect them to keep those elements secure, up-to-date version-wise, and to build in such a way that the software personalizes an individual journey for every student is an over-estimation of the number of hours in the day.  Most teachers still believe that to personalize means to slightly tweak an existing lesson for all students in a class.  

It’s mind-boggling to consider that these efforts could go on across over 13,000 Districts and 97,000+ schools, in a giant reinvented-here by every one of them at costs in the millions of staff hoursThat is exactly what has been happening, too.  Imagine if the market mechanism of publishers were doing this function professionally while amortizing cost across thousands if not millions of teachers. Sure, they’ll make a buck, but at the same time, taxpayers would save potentially billions.  Schools could survive the overwhelming shift without exhausted teachers. 

If national leadership also compelled and negotiated price transparency, like much of the rest of government does in complex procurements for law enforcement and other acquisitions, much of cost could be entirely fair. 

OER is also never going to be a true digital transition because it ignores what machines can do with inference logic and cumulative machine learning to offer a “Big Data” helping hand that builds on previous generations of students and versions. OER largely leaves that development “on the table.”  

OER also has, as its biggest complaint that “not enough people know about it,” and as its second biggest complaint, “there is too much of it to sift through.”  Both are the result of market inefficiency from no paid driver.  A free market economy assumes money as a driver, unfortunately.  When the twin problems of “not enough know” and “too much to sift through,” become epidemic, as they have, business sees the opportunity of marketing campaigns to present value in time-saving products.

When publishers also add value in digital sophistication, it becomes hard to resist.  “Free” is no longer just free, it’s a compromise.

All of this, and more, is where OER as a total solution conceptually fails the visionary leadership test. 

It’s why I asked the question.



1.  2017 Mid-Year Education Market Briefing, Citing $2.28B has left the market,

2. “Pearson Posts a $3.3 Billion Loss as It Faces Down a Collapse in Its Biggest Market,” Fortune, Reuters Feb 24, 2017

3.   “Education publisher Pearson reports biggest loss in its history,”  Friday 24 February 2017 03.17 EST Last modified on Friday 23 June 2017 16.06 ED,   

4.  “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Announces Full Year 2016 Results,”

5. “Money In Education: Why McGraw-Hill Education's IPO Is A Risk With Potential,” Sep. 8.15 | McGraw-Hill Education (MHED)

6.  HMH Makes Another Round of Layoffs, By Jim Milliot, Apr 25, 2017

7.  Education Behemoth Pearson to Cut 4,000 Employees, 10 Percent of Workforce, Sean Cavanag, Senior Editor, Jan. 21, 2016

8.  Publisher's Bankruptcy Filing Comes as Market for Print Textbooks Shrinks, By Jennifer Howard July 03, 2013,

9.  Good News? Bad News? You Make the Call (Cengage Bankruptcy), Michael Weinstein's, August 15, 2013,

10.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers Files Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, Reuters, 5/21/2012 08:10 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2012,

11.  Sarasota textbook publisher files for bankruptcy protection (Medialynx Group Inc.), By Michael Braga , Herald-Tribune/ Tuesday, September 7, 2010,                   

12.  Chuck Jones of Murray Files $76M Bankruptcy, By West Kentucky Star Staff,

13.  “Why Is This Marketplace for Teachers to Sell Their Lesson Plans Thriving?”, Madeleine Cummings, June 3, 2015

14.  Open Education Resources: Bursting the $8 Billion Bubble, New America, By Lindsey Tepe, Nov. 20, 2014,

15. “OER critic: Obama administration may be going too far with #GoOpen support,” Tara García Mathewson, @TaraGarciaM, Nov. 1, 2016