Fighting Black PR around OER
I have already written about the black PR campaign waged by the traditional publishers’ lobby against the Polish open textbooks government programme, and I have given a talk on 29C3 on this topic. Time for a write-up of the arguments used by the lobby – and how to counter them.
As I have written before, it is crucial to understand that what the anti-OER lobby actually cannot swallow is the “open” part – the libre licenses the textbooks are supposed to be published under, as they uproot traditional publishers’ business models.
However, because openness in education is such a good idea, the lobby knows full well they cannot attack it directly. Instead, they argue against the whole programme on other grounds.
I shall present the arguments I have encountered during the last year, and ideas how to counter them.
The most-often used argument against the programme: creating the textbooks will cost a lot of public money, which could be arguably better spent.
The fact of the matter is, however, that traditional textbooks are not cheap at all. In Poland a set of textbooks for a single child for a given year costs around €150. Taking into account that average pay in Poland is around €1000, and net minimal wage is €280, this is not a small sum of money. The whole Polish school textbooks market is currently worth around €250mln.
What’s more, the Polish government subsidizes poorer families for them to be able to buy textbooks, to the tune of €32mln annually. The cost of the whole e-textbooks pilot programme (creation of 18 textbooks for grades 4-6 of the public schools) is to cost €11mln.
Once created, open textbooks can be reused, updated, remixed and improved by anybody. This means that the cost (from the general public’s point of view) of creating them will be to a large extent a one-time investment – which cannot be said about traditional textbooks, which are restrictively copyrighted by the publishers’.
The argument is hence moot.
It is very unfortunate that the open textbooks programme in Poland is called “e-textbooks”, as that creates ambiguity as to the role electronic equipment (laptops, tablets, e-book readers) will play in it. Ambiguity that is being exploited by textbook publishers’ lobby by scaring the general public with costs of equipment purchase (supposedly covered by the parents), upkeep, and with related problems (charging, theft, malfunctions, etc).
The crux here is that the programme is not about equipment, and that equipment has a completely secondary role in it. The main reason for the programme is the openness. It’s true that electronic versions of the materials will be prepared, but all materials will have print-ready versions, and all materials will be available in open formats, precluding requiring any particular make of equipment.
Open textbooks will be available to students (and other interested parties) via the Internet, and it will be possible to print them out in schools and libraries. This also has the added benefit that students will not have to carry heavy books every day with them – an argument that might seem superficial, but is raised time and again by parents, teachers and medical practitioners.
The most absurd take on the equipment argument is that “tablets do not create a second-hand market, as traditional textbooks do”. This is something that actually was present in one of the articles by publishers’ lobby, and is wrong on both accounts. Tablets do enjoy a thriving second-hand market, while traditional textbooks in Poland – in no small part due to deliberate actions by the publishers, like bundling exercise booklets within textbooks – have a hard time in supporting it.
Traditional textbook publishers claim that only their expertise in textbook creation can guarantee their proper quality, and that no “crowdsourced” textbook effort can match it.
First of all, the open textbook programme in Poland is not simply crowdsourcing the creation of textbooks. The programme mandates 4 higher education institutions as subject matter partners and one highly-regarded technological institution as a technological partner. The textbooks are to be prepared by experts in their subjects in cooperation with education theorists and practitioners.
Secondly, openness of the process and the resources can only help their quality, as the more people are watching and able to engage with the process, the sooner errors get fixed. This is the model the whole free/libre/open source software community works in, and the adoption of FLOSS (especially in science and technical communities) seems to confirm its quality. This is also the model Wikipedia works in, with good results.
Finally, open educational resources projects around the world prove that the crowdsourcing model works and delivers high quality educational materials.
Had the publishers been genuinely concerned with textbook quality, they would release their textbooks under open licenses, allowing for their fast improvement by a large community. They have not, hence it is safe to assume that – unsurprisingly – quality is not their main concern.
Unfair business practices¶
Textbook publishers claim that the government programme constitutes unfair business practice, and they even sent a letter, threatening legal action against any higher education institutions that would consider taking part in the programme.
Legal analysis of said letter clearly shows that that claim is not at all supported. It is preposterous to claim that a government programme can be an act of unfair business practice; besides, the publishers were invited to partake in the programme – they declined.
Regardless, however, of government involvement in this project, if indeed offering free and open materials would constitute an unfair business practice, we would have to shut down Wikipedia and make FLOSS illegal – they, too, offer free and open materials and solutions; they, too, endanger certain business models.
Finally, the real reason for this letter was to stifle and halt the open textbooks programme – had all the higher education institutions taken it at face value and declined to take part in the programme due to fear of litigation, the programme couldn’t have continued. This was a scare tactic, and indeed treading the line of unfair business practices itself.
This programme, it is claimed, will destroy the market worth €250mln, and cause thousands of people to lose their jobs.
The fact that a given product or service puts a given business model in jeopardy is not an argument against this product or service. It is a clear sign it’s time to seek a new business model. And open textbooks allow for new business models – textbook publishers could, if they only wanted, build new business models on them. For example, they could offer high quality printing services, or adapt open textbooks to particular needs of particular profiled schools.
It is additionally claimed that the destruction of this market will harm the whole economy. This is a broken window fallacy – the fact that parents will now spend less money on school textbooks doesn’t mean that this money will not get spent at all.
IT industry will reap the profits¶
Somebody has to create the infrastructure in schools, somebody has to get equipment support contracts… j’accuse! The whole programme is just a money grab by the IT industry, say the textbook publishers.
In the light in the previous “market destruction” argument, it is odd when the lobby uses this argument. After all, had this been true, their fighting against the IT industry market would itself constitute an attempt at “market destruction”.
This argument is all the more peculiar when we remind ourselves of the fact that this programme is not about equipment, and that money goes not to IT companies, but to open textbook authors. Once we realise that not a single IT industry lobbyist was present on any of public consultation meetings regarding the programme, the argument falls squarely into the realm of absurdity.
Centralized education system¶
This argument is calculated to play on emotions of people still remembering the socialist state in Poland, by claiming that this is a way of introducing a centralised education system.
This is nothing new, however – during the last 25 years all textbooks had to be vetted by the Ministry of Education. Open textbooks can only loosen the grip of the central government on the educational resources, as anybody will now be able to build upon a vetted textbook.
Death of books (and death of culture)¶
And the final argument: children are already spending too much time in front of computer screens, and it is ever harder to get them to read a book. Making the textbooks so that they are to be read on a computer screen or electronic device will only make things worse and will spell the end of books as we know it.
Believe it or not, this was also claimed: our culture is a culture of the book, and if the books die, our whole culture will die with them.
And of course yet again we have to remind ourselves that the “electronic” part of the programme is not the relevant part, and that all materials will be available in print-ready versions.
Then again, there is a question of means and of the end. Access to information, to education, to knowledge is the end, and the paper book is just the means. Whether or not it dies is yet to be seen, but we already have many other – some arguably better – means of accessing the written word. It seems safe to assume that our culture is not threatened.