About a year ago, I attended a meeting at the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) focused on reducing the cost of learning materials for college students in our region. I have been pleased since then to work with colleagues across the New England states on NEBHE’s Open Education Advisory Committee that is looking into how best to support institutions and faculty as they replace high-cost commercial textbooks with free, openly licensed resources that can make college more accessible for learners and improve student engagement and success. This work is well underway, but the world seems vastly different than it did last year, and I have been thinking about how our current reality impacts and benefits from our ongoing work in open education.
When COVID-19 shut down the college campus where I work, faculty and staff knew that many of our students would be challenged by the quick transition to emergency remote learning. Learning online can feel alien to some students, and many of our faculty had only days to transition their courses into the new modality. What may have surprised many faculty, though, was the impact that COVID-19 had on our students’ basic needs and how that impact so thoroughly halted their ability to continue their learning.
While pre-COVID surveys tell us, for example, that almost half of American college students experienced food insecurity in the month prior to being surveyed, COVID thrust many of these students from chronic precarity to immediate emergency. As work-study jobs closed, and local businesses that employed students shut down, meager incomes shriveled and affording food, housing, car payments, internet and phone service and healthcare became impossible for many.
Faculty might have worried about how students would fare with complicated content delivered over Zoom, but students were worried that they would starve, become homeless or have to witness their families fall into even more dire poverty. Students became frontline workers, increasing hours at grocery stores and gas stations even though they couldn’t afford that time away from their studies, the personal protective equipment they needed to stay safe, nor the healthcare costs they’d face if they got sick. As I worked with more and more students who were trying to survive through COVID, I wondered if “open education” was really enough of an answer to this scale of crisis.
On its surface, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers may seem to have little to do with COVID-19. But BLM and related movements to “defund the police” are deeply entwined with critiques that highlight how systemic racism pitches the playing field against Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
BLM doesn’t just call out specific cases of police brutality; it asks us to look at how policing, surveillance and the justice system ironically and brutally create unfair and unsafe living conditions for some Americans. “Defunding the police” isn’t just about taking military weapons and excess funding away from departments poisoned by bad apples; it’s about reinvesting in underresourced neighborhoods and redistributing funding for social supports in underserved areas to create healthier communities from the inside out. It’s easy to see the effects that decades of redlining and a centuries-long history of American racism have had on our students. There are thousands of data points we could examine, but stick with with food insecurity for a moment (with more stats from a recent Hope Center report): the overall rate of food insecurity among students identifying as African American or Black is 58%, which is 19 percentage points higher than the overall rate for students identifying as white or Caucasian. When COVID ravaged our precarious students, Black students were hit especially hard. Another demographic that deals most frequently with food insecurity is students who have formerly been convicted of a crime. Think about that today, more than three months after the murder of Breonna Taylor; only her boyfriend,who was defending his home against the surprise police invasion, has been arrested in that incident.
For some students (and even contingent faculty and staff in our universities) COVID has augmented inequities that were already baked into their lives. Our continuing institutional failures to ameliorate or address these inequities can no longer be tolerated, both because the vulnerable in our colleges are at a breaking point from a global pandemic and because we have been called out by a national social justice movement that is demanding that we make real change at last. Is open education a way to answer this call?
I want to cautiously explain why I think the answer is yes. The high cost of commercial textbooks has a much larger impact on student success than most people imagine, and the benefits of switching to OER are well-documented, especially for poor students and students of color. When we imagine the reasons for these improvements in “student success,” we generally chalk it up to cost savings; after all, students can’t learn from a book they can’t afford. I don’t mean to minimize the absolutely crucial impact of cost savings on learning, but what might be even more helpful about OER is the way it asks us to rethink the kind of architecture we want to shape our education system.
Many of us are familiar with the idea of the “College Earnings Premium,” which calculates that people with college degrees on average earn much more (recently estimated at 114% more) than those who don’t have degrees. Philip Trostel, a University of Maine economist who tracks the value of public higher education, takes the story of the earnings premium much further, explaining that many market benefits extend past individuals who go to college into the community at large (for example, if more people in a region go to college, tax revenues in the region also increase and the need for public assistance goes down). Even beyond this, public benefits extend past individuals and past economics, positively affecting health, disability rates, crime rates, longevity, marital stability, happiness and more. These benefits can be passed to children (whether or not they go to college) and in some cases even to whole regions. Similarly, as OER shows such benefit to individual students, we may overlook the more public benefits of making broader policy and practical changes that would expand OER (or college access) to all students.
I don’t just want to eliminate the profit motive in the “production” and “distribution” of learning and learning materials. I also want to embed learning in a structure that is fully aware of the social, public and communal value of higher education. When a global pandemic hits, I want colleges to open their gyms as overflow hospitals, work with local food pantries to ensure access to meals for everyone in the area and develop and openly share research to aid in finding treatments and cures. This is open education. When activists raise the alarm on systemic racism in policing, I want colleges to reject plagiarism software, disarm their campus police departments, increase the number of faculty of color in their ranks, and commit resources to antiracist research and initiatives. This is open education. When we work to shift from commercial textbooks to OER, we are not just saving students money; we are centering equity in education, and we shouldn’t undersell our vision. In fact, we shouldn’t sell this vision at all.
College is not only a way to make individual students richer. OER is not only a way to save individual students money. We have a chance to rebuild a post-COVID university that sees basic needs as integral to any learner’s academic success and actively develops ways to integrate basic needs with the missions of our institutions. We have a chance to redistribute our resources away from surveillant educational technology and corporations that mine student data for profit and think more about the value of education in terms of how healthy and safe and sustainable it can make the publics outside the walls of the academy. And how the academy can be more symbiotic with those publics.
When I work on OER initiatives, especially in larger collaborations across systems and states like our NEBHE team does, I am working on a vision for the future of higher education that is deeply responsive to the inequities that are threatening the heart of our country and threatening the lives of so many Americans who are fighting for survival at the very moment I am writing this. Our colleges and universities need to step up, and open education is a framework—perhaps one of many—that can help us center equity as we go forward at a pivotal moment in time.
Robin DeRosa is the director of the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
“Envisioning Equity: OER and a Call to Change” by Robin DeRosa, written for The New England Journal of Higher Education, is released under a CC-BY-SA license.