The Attack on Open Educational Resources

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. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More