Leaders in Professional, Continuing and Online Education

Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

Information (Learning Materials) Wants to be Free

The long-standing tension between “free and open” and for-profit business models is now playing out with textbooks and open educational resources.

Over the decades, there has been considerable debate over just who first uttered the phrase “information wants to be free.” It is widely reported that this arose in a discussion between Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. These pioneers in the digital age recognized the coming struggle between “free and open” materials and “for-profit” publishing and dissemination.

This came up in an era of the pre-web internet, and relatively early on in the personal computer revolution. The early programmers and inventors recognized that information would soon be very easy to uncover, but there still was value in compensating the work of acquiring and assembling the information. Brand raised the tension between the value of information and the dropping cost of accessing that information, to which Wozniak is quoted as saying “information should be free but your time should not.”

Decades later, the tension continues. We have seen the meteoric rise in the cost of textbooks at a rate of more than four times inflation in the past decade and the advent of access codes for associated online materials that expire at the end of the term. The expiring codes undermine the rental and used-book marketplace that helped some students afford their texts.

A study by the National Association of College Stores shows the beginning of a possible trend toward the decline in the cost of purchase of required class materials, with an increase in the number of students reporting that they downloaded free online materials. Unreported are the numbers of students who simply skip buying books and other required materials. Librarians at colleges and universities have stepped in across the country to offer text materials in open reserves prompted by their concern for those students who do not have affordable access to texts. For example, at Alverno College in Milwaukee, more than half of the students reported that they had not purchased a textbook because of the cost. The Alverno library put texts on open reserve and tracked their use.

Open educational resource initiatives have sprung up nationally. These generally have taken the form of stipends and release time for faculty members to develop and assemble resources to replace their required texts. In 2015, the University of Maryland University College made a commitment to providing open resources across the undergraduate and later the graduate curriculum. Some larger initiatives have crossed college lines to provide resources to groups of colleges and universities. SPARC maintains a list of initiatives and resources.

One of the most successful initiatives is OpenStax, hosted at Rice University. OpenStax reports that in 2018 students saved more than $175 million in textbook costs using their open products. Now 20 years in evolution (the program began as the Connexions Project at Rice in 1999), the initiative continues to gain momentum and extends to more and more faculty authors and collaborators.

As recounted by University of Idaho president Chuck Staben in Inside Higher Ed, the university is testing a new incentive model for faculty to acquire or develop open resources to replace traditional, expensive textbooks. “Our plan is to give some of the estimated yearly savings from OER use to the department, our teaching and learning center, and our library (5 percent/2.5 percent/2.5 percent, respectively),” Staben said.

The Idaho president adds, “Providing even 5 percent of the projected savings from OER adoption directly to the department as flexible money would be highly motivating to many departments; the teaching center and library are incentivized to support adoption and access.”

Information wants to be free — even more so in 2019 than 35 years ago. Students are on board. Recent studies have begun uncovering the link between OER and engagement, learning outcomes and student success.

In sum, reasons to consider moving to open educational resources:

  • Success in student recruitment and marketing because of lower costs
  • Improved student retention due to more students accessing the required materials
  • Improved student learning outcomes as indicated in recent studies
  • Implicitly finer faculty control and familiarity with resources they produce

Do you have data showing how many students have not purchased required materials each semester?

Have you investigated learning outcomes or final grades of students who did not purchase the text? Such research does involve careful crafting to protect student privacy, but it is important to determine if learning is at risk.

What OER initiatives are underway at your university?

Who should lead the initiative at your college to customize and reduce the costs of learning materials for your students?


This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed’s Inside Digital Learning on April 3, 2019.

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

Fake Meat and an Informed Generation on Higher Education

I went out of my way to go to Burger King to try their Incredible Whopper.  It wasn’t bad, but it got me reflecting on “where did this come from and why?” After one of my presentations on Generation Z a few years ago, a higher education administrator said to me, “You can’t compare education…

Read More

The Cybercrime Urgency in Professional Learning Spaces

By SmartBrief Editors This post is produced in partnership with UPCEA It’s no secret that hackers are getting more sophisticated and that no businesses or organizations are immune. A reported 60% of large businesses and more than 50% of high-income charities have experienced cyber security breaches in the last year and a small business is…

Read More

Marketers Matter More in the Dynamic World of Professional, Continuing and Online Education

Advertising and marketing should never be confused. There are many types of marketers in the workplace and hiring the wrong one or not retaining the right one impacts enrollment success. Tomorrow’s marketer needs to understand strategy, competition, metrics, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, and digital and social media and positioning. They also need to manage…

Read More

Policy Matters | California-based Distance Ed Students from Out-Of-State Schools Ineligible for Financial Aid

Major Updates State Authorization Rule Goes into Effect, Causing Thousands of California-based Distance Ed Students from Out-Of-State Schools to be Ineligible for Financial Aid. The US Dept. of Ed released a formal response regarding a recent court ruling which blocked their ability to change an Obama-era rule on state authorization, thus making that rule effective May…

Read More

UPCEA Supports Closing the College Hunger Gap Act in Letter to Congress

UPCEA, along with Higher Learning Advocates, and 17 other organizations, signed a letter supporting the ​Closing the College Hunger Gap Act of 2019​. This legislation would provide college students who may be eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with eligibility and application information and would require the Department of Education to collect data on…

Read More

Bipartisan Coalition Will Give Voice To A New Generation of College Students

Today’s Students Coalition pairs unconventional allies in support of policy changes that reflect the shifting demographics of higher education WASHINGTON, July 23, 2019 — Ten of the nation’s leading education advocacy groups today announced the formation of the Today’s Students Coalition, which will advocate for policies responsive to the needs of the most diverse generation of college…

Read More

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.


The National Council for Online Education is dedicated to advancing quality online learning at the institutional level. The National Council is uniquely focused on excellence at the highest levels – leadership, administration, strategy – applying a macro lens to the online teaching and learning enterprise. Its engaged members include the stewards of online learning at most of the leading universities in the nation.

The National Council for Online Education offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.


Click here to learn more.

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.