The Attack on Open Educational Resources

by Reihan Salam

Amy Laitinen raises an issue that should be of particular interest to conservatives and libertarians. Under the leadership of Hal Plotkin, the Departments of Labor and Education have been collaborating to make all taxpayer-funded online educational resources freely available to all comers. The idea is that if Uncle Sam pays for these resources, everyone should be able to use them, from the unemployed to for-profit businesses that want to improve on them to homeschoolers. Kevin Carey described the possibilities back in May: 

The $2-billion Labor-Education project could transport the open-resource movement to a new level of prominence. Because the materials will be developed under the auspices of a federal-government competition, they will carry an assumed mark of quality absent from random lectures posted on YouTube. The departments also plan to organize the materials so that educators can search and shape them into rational sequences of learning. Private companies will be able to repackage, improve upon, and sell the materials they like, as long as they acknowledge the original developers.

Now, however, there has been a counterattack in a proposed House FY12 Labor, Health, and Human Services appropriations bill, as Laitinen explains:

SEC. 124. None of the funds made available by this Act for the Department of Labor may be used to develop new courses, modules, learning materials, or projects in carrying out education or career job training grant programs unless the Secretary of Labor certifies, after a comprehensive market-based analysis, that such courses, modules, learning materials, or projects are not otherwise available for purchase or licensing in the marketplace or under development for students who require them to participate in such education or career job training grant programs.

As a believer in the potential of for-profit education, I’m not averse to the argument that the public sector shouldn’t simply duplicate what is already available in the private sector. That is reasonable. But that’s a bit like saying that Linux duplicates Windows 7 or Mac OS X. Open, free platforms are meaningfully different because they are far more accessible.

The idea here isn’t to rip off the textbook publishers that want to kill open educational resources. Rather, it is to provide people around the country, and around the world, with the basic building blocks they need to help themselves. The major textbook publishers, in contrast, would go out of business if it weren’t for large, subsidized public educational institutions that will pay almost any price for low-quality instructional materials because they’re not paying for them with their own money. By making a small investment in open educational resources, we can comfortably reduce the amount of money that flows into government purchases of other instructional materials by much more. That is the ultimate promise of the open-resource movement: it can save taxpayers money while delivering a higher quality of service. 

To repeat: the textbook publishers might be “private,” but they depend on lucrative public sector contracts. That is why they pour money into lobbying public officials, many of whom they later hire to lobby their former colleagues. We’d be much better off supporting for-profit entrepreneurs who make money by improving the quality of instructional materials rather than by improving their ability to chisel more money out of taxpayers. They are not the same. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.