The Business of Fettering OER

fOER & Lumen Learning's Identity Crisis

Posted by Billy Meinke-Lau on May 28, 2019   •   5 min read

An advisor of mine recently reminded me that “things move before they are articulable,” which is a bit of wisdom that has found a home in the front of my mind. Describing what we see as it happens means building a richer history for the open education community, and allows us to plot more desirable vectors for the future. It also helps us avoid futures that are undesirable. A problem I’m seeing right now is that the future is being colonized in a variety of ways, and existing epistemologies (ways of knowing and being) and phenomenologies (ways of experiencing the world) are being concretized and amplified through technology. Now that of course is a broad statement which needs fleshing out, but in the context of the open education community we should pay close attention to the ways technology is being thoughtfully used to seek equity and social justice. And we need to pay attention to the rhetoric and movements of those in power.

The term fetter is both a noun and a verb in English. I first heard it used by David Wiley in a blog post where he offered an operational definition of OER that includes two criteria: (1) free and unfettered access to the resource, and (2) whatever copyright permissions are necessary for users to engage in the [5]R activities. The “free” part seems simple enough when we think only in terms of cost, but “unfettered access” is arguably less clear and remains open to interpretation. What happens when a company takes cost-free and openly licensed OER content made by others and puts it on their platform, requiring users to log in and never allowing content to leave? This is fettering. What about OER that can’t be easily edited because of the file format it’s shared in, or the proprietary nature of the tools you’d need to change it in any meaningful way? This is fettering, too. In a Western dialect, to fetter is to shackle, to restrain from motion, from action, from progress.

To make sure we are all on the same page, the 5R framework is a popular way to gauge the legal openness of an OER in terms of what you can do with it – engagement activities. An OER comes with the legal permissions (often granted through a license) to reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and retain OER. The copyright license (or public domain status) of content gives us permission to engage in the 5R activities, and its counterpart called the ALMS framework provides a way of recognizing the technical decisions that are made to facilitate engagement in the 5 R’s. Poor decisions made in terms of requiring Access to editing tools, or certain a Level of expertise to make the edits will limit 5R engagement by users. The same goes when Meaningfully editing files aren’t shared, or when Source files are withheld. Decisions about your sharing of OER that either meets or misses the guiding ideas within the ALMS framework demonstrate either a lack of technical awareness or an intentionality in line with retaining control over your content. With few exceptions, the traditional publishers dabbling in OER fail pretty hard when it comes to technical openness, because controlling the flow of content has always been a major part of their business model.

What strikes me as wildly hypocritical is that the author of the 5 Rs and ALMS and his company are themselves shying away from best technically-open practices to maximize the impact of OER they’ve published. They’re limiting the movement and reuse of their OER through reduced interoperability, and casting a shadow that can only be described as taking similar form to the traditional publishers. So, it is paramount that Lumen Learning answer questions about what it would take to meaningfully share their OER, and distinguish themselves from the other publishers. I mean, they are trying to do that anyway.

Last week on Twitter, David’s counterpart and Lumen CEO Kim Thanos posted a gif showing some of the technology they are working on to improve student outcomes.

I think that’s awesome, but she did it in the context of distinguishing their for-profit OER publishing company from, the publishers. Cengage and McGraw Hill are merging, yes, and others are finding it difficult to bend their business models to make OER work for them. But one of the big issues with traditional publishers is that they are fettering their OER as a result of their openwrapping. By requiring users to use flashy e-reading platforms to consume content and by making it difficult or impossible to edit (or export) content, even OER content, most practitioners who care at all about being able to exercise the 5 R’s aren’t doing business with them.

If you take a gander at the catalog of Lumen Learning courses, you will see some impressive remixes of OpenStax content or other existing OER, and a good deal of other OER published through Lumen Learning’s service-based business. Their delivery (and likely, editing) platform is based on Pressbooks which is a super powerful free software tool for OER creation and adaptation in part for its ability to ingest and export content in a variety of formats. Your content isn’t stuck on the platform like it so often is when the traditional publishers dip their toes in the OER waters. But a closer look shows that Lumen courses don’t export either. If you want to engage in the 5 Rs with Lumen content, you’re going to encounter technical challenges that makes little sense given the platform they are using and that the Chief Academic Officer (Wiley) literally wrote the definitions and frameworks that call for it.

To get Lumen content out of their website, you’ll have to scrape (copy+paste) it or find another more technically challenging workaround. It’s unclear what styles and functionality will be lost or broken when the content is taken by force as opposed to kindly offered to the community. In other words, Lumen Learning has made decisions to limit user engagement in the 5 Rs with their content. Their work stands in the face of the ALMS framework, and it has left many of us wondering why.

How different is Lumen, really, when they fetter the content they share in ways that we criticize the publishers for? David himself took a critical eye to Cengage’s MindTap ACE which wrapped OER on a restrictive platform:

“We will have to wait and see if MindTap ACE provides faculty or students with the technical capability to meaningfully exercise any of the 5R permissions that are literally the defining characteristic of OER. If the ability to change the order of chapters shown in the video is meant to check the revise box, my hopes aren’t high for retain, reuse, remix, or redistribute.”

At OER19, Nicole Allen suggested that the OER movement may be the dog that caught the car when it comes to shifting power away from the publishers. Now that we are here, which ideas are coming from which people and how will they guide us into the future? It is at moments like this that the open education community needs to be honest about what makes a commercial publisher, and how to hold those in positions of power accountable to the values we share. The CARE framework is a wonderful starting point, though I must note that David himself pushed back against CARE from the outset. He called for acceptance of peripheral participation from the publishers and how the open education community should make room for companies who are not willing to fully align themselves as OER stewards. He wrote about under-use of OER being a major problem, and yet is fettering Lumen content intentionally. This needs to be taken in as we watch the history of the community emerge.

But perhaps the fettering of content is exactly what makes Lumen Learning a commercial publisher. We have frameworks for the legal and technical openness of OER, yet here is a blatant limitation being placed on the movement of content that would arguably make an enormous impact on the OER community. It might even turn the dial in a way that allows us to better build more equitable futures through open education. That’s why most of us are here, isn’t it?

I’ll close here by saying that these are movements we must describe as we see them, because while the future might be multiple, protectionist approaches to open education will limit the futures we can realize. And if these protectionist practices do not change, the reasons they don’t change should be interrogated. Perhaps it’s the $5M in start up capital that Lumen took on in December? Or the fact that Lumen has partnered with Follett and given them an equity stake in the company. Lumen is a commercial publisher and any attempts to limit the sharing of their OER content or distance themselves from “the publishers” should be rejected. We should be looking more closely at what is happening here. Maybe its time to refer to OER shared by Lumen and the other publishers as fOER, fettered OER. A more nuanced language might help us engage more deeply with the what and how of OER, right up there with terms like openwashing and faux-pen. This community deserves it.

Image used in header by Martin Olsen on, darkened and cropped for effect.