Betwixt fairy tales and dystopian futures: Writing the next chapter in open education (OER24 opening keynote)

On March 27, 2024 I had the great privilege of giving the opening keynote address at the OER24 Conference, held at Munster Technological University in beautiful Cork, Ireland. The talk was captured by video (available online) as well as through this gorgeous sketchnote by the gifted Bryan Mathers:

A sketchnote of a talk by Visual Thinkery, with the title and author in a cloud in the centre. The title is Betwixt fairy tales & dystopian futures and the author is Rajiv Jhangiani.

As a result of several requests, I am sharing excerpts from the text of my talk here, in 3 parts.

Part 1: The Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, there was a kind hearted junior faculty member who was happy to have secured a tenure track position at a well-regarded public university in their home town shortly after they earned their doctorate. They were equally passionate about both research and teaching and so were delighted to be assigned to teach one of their favourite courses the following year. The course was at the Introductory level and so served as a gateway to their discipline. It was an opportunity to ignite the same passion that they felt in curious young minds. 

Over the next few months the faculty member began to reflect on potential learning activities. They began by browsing through the teaching materials that their more experienced colleagues had readily shared with them. Given their own familiarity with scholarship on teaching and learning from their training in graduate school, they knew they wanted their learning activities to be active and engaging, so they attended workshops offered by their university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning and began to pick up ideas. 

When it came to assessments they generally shunned high stakes examinations and objected in principle to the use of remote exam proctoring software and so they took pains to design formative assessments that scaffolded learning and skill development, all while crafting summative assessments that would be authentic and meaningful. They drafted course policies to be inclusive and to reflect their trust of students. In slowly designing their course they embraced principles of universal design for learning, antiracist pedagogies, and trauma-informed practices.

A few months before the course was scheduled to begin they attended a teaching conference organized by their discipline’s professional association, drawing on their ample professional development funds and gratified by the knowledge that engaging in educational development activities would be recognized during their tenure and promotion process at their university.

The conference opened with an acknowledgement of the event’s major sponsors, which included a major commercial textbook publisher, a representative of which presented to participants on their latest courseware options during the sponsored lunch hour. Later, during the conference’s evening reception and awards gala, a lifetime achievement award was presented to a well-known senior academic. Among the achievements the honouree was recognized for was authoring a popular commercial textbook for the discipline’s introductory course.

The next day, the faculty member stopped by the sponsoring publishing company’s booth. They picked up some free swag and learned more about the courseware options. They left the teaching conference excited about the learning resources they had discovered, including the automated adaptive quizzing and interactive simulations associated with the textbook that would also integrate within their university’s learning management system. 

By the time they returned to their campus they were impressed to see an email from the textbook publisher’s local representative already waiting in their inbox, including all of the information they would need to pass on to their campus bookstore to formally adopt the textbook and associated courseware. The representative’s email also included an offer to explore the potential sponsorship of the annual departmental symposium series if the department as a whole elected to adopt the textbook across all sections of this high-enrolment introductory course. The faculty member forwarded the email to their Department Chair, asking if the offer from the publishing company was something they might discuss at an upcoming department meeting.

However, when the first week of March came around they were intrigued to learn that their campus Library was coordinating a series of events to celebrate something called “Open Education Week.” The promotional materials spoke directly to many of their values concerning access, equity, and social justice. Some of the sessions were being offered in partnership with their university’ Centre for Teaching and Learning and were focused on an approach to assessment known as “open pedagogy” and which appeared to have a lot in common with the authentic assessments they had been reflecting on. Other sessions focused on course materials and ways in which these could be made more affordable, accessible, and equitable for students. They were intrigued and so signed up.

And it was at the first session that they met a librarian who was also a member of their university’s open education working group. The librarian introduced the faculty member to the concept of OER. They showed the faculty member a guide they had prepared that linked to a number of OER repositories. They walked them through the process of discovering OER and even helped identify a few potential open textbooks that had glowing reviews from faculty members at other institutions.

The librarian explained that the faculty member was eligible to apply for an OER Adoption Grant, a stipend funded by the undergraduate student association. Finally, the librarian promised to follow up with information about the OER Grant program, a summary of research on the efficacy and impact of OER, and an offer to visit the faculty member’s department to share these resources and opportunities.

The faculty member was quite surprised that they had never heard of OER until then, including at any of the disciplinary teaching conferences they had attended. They were alarmed to learn about the limitations imposed by digital rights management in commercial e-textbooks. They were surprised to learn that students do not actually purchase digital textbooks but instead lease them, and so lose access after the term. And they were especially dismayed to learn how many students were unable to afford the cost of required course materials. And so they began to wonder whether the extra bells and whistles that they learned about at the teaching conference were really worth widening inequity in their classroom.

Admittedly, they weren’t yet certain about whether the available OER would be of a comparable quality to the flashy courseware produced by the commercial textbook company, but given the numerous positive reviews from faculty members–some of whose names they recognized–they were at least willing to take a look. Their explorations were emboldened by the knowledge that many of their colleagues in different departments at the university were already taking advantage of the OER Grant program and so they weren’t alone. And they were especially encouraged by the new knowledge that their university’s recently revised guidelines for tenure, promotion, and merit specifically included a reference to the creation of OER.

Eventually they decided to informally survey their current students to better understand whether the financial challenges they were facing were as really severe as the research had suggested, and how the students would perceive a course in which the instructor assigned OER. 

What they learned changed them forever, because they were horrified to learn about the extent of food and housing insecurity among their students–that a majority did not purchase required course materials due to their high cost; that many actually chose or dropped courses due to the high cost of assigned course materials. And that these choices were far more likely to be made by students who are marginalized in various ways–whether first generation students, student of colour, or those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In their mind the decision had been made. It was a decision supported by the information and guidance provided by the librarian, the availability of relevant OER, the positive reviews from other faculty members, the incentive from the OER Adoption Grant program, and the recognition of this work within university’s tenure and promotion guidelines, but it was a decision driven by the eye-opening responses of their current students.

With their own decision made, the faculty member decided they had a responsibility to at least place the same information in front of their colleagues, and so they emailed their Department Chair to request a revision of the agenda item from the question about a common commercial textbook to a broader question about course materials, including open educational resources, and for the librarian to be invited to attend as a guest presenter. The Department Chair agreed. And at the meeting the faculty member not only shared their decision to adopt OER for the coming year but also promised to bring back a report concerning their experience.

As the new academic year approached, the faculty member was glad to be able to respond to student emails inquiring about whether the textbook was required or whether they might use an older edition with a clarification that the assigned textbook was in fact an open textbook without any cost. And when the term began, the faculty member received overwhelmingly positive feedback about their use of OER from the students enrolled in the introductory course. And although they began to identify several ways in which the OER they had selected might be improved or modified to better reflect their pedagogical goals, they were already thinking about applying for the university’s OER Adaptation Grant the following summer, which provided expertise and technical support in additional to a larger stipend.

Eventually, the faculty member grew from an OER experimenter to a consistent OER adopter and even an OER advocate. They were recognized by the undergraduate student association as being a “Campus OER Champion” and were later also invited to join the university’s open education working group, which worked to design supports for educators seeking to embrace open educational practices. 

Eventually they did adapt the open textbook, localizing it while also updating it. And at the following year’s disciplinary teaching conference, they presented on their use of OER in an effort to help change normative practice within their discipline.

Now at least some of you may be wondering whether I have been telling you my own story. I have not. In truth this story is more of a composite, inspired by many true events and experiences, including some of my own.

But more than a story, this is a tale that I believe we love to tell ourselves in the OER space: A hero’s journey involving a noble educator overcoming numerous obstacles, including a villainous commercial enterprise, with the assistance of a trusted companion from the library and guided by a strong moral compass. The faculty hero denies themselves comfort and conventional reward in pursuit of justice, for which they are ultimately admired and rewarded.

But this is less of an accurate portrayal and more of an oversimplification, a Hollywood adaptation.

But what this comforting narrative does is gloss over the fissures and cracks in the foundation, the many tears in the fabric of the reality of higher education.

Part 2: The Reality

Years ago, during the 2017 open education conference in Anaheim, California a group of 10 of us planned and facilitated a hybrid session titled “how can we destroy the open education movement?” It was intended to catalyze a conversation about ethics and to our delight ended up being among the most well-attended sessions of the conference. Of course, despite the title of the session, no one present was actually wishing to derail open education. Rather, the session harnessed a group facilitation technique called TRIZ, one of a set collectively known as liberating structures, to allow us to step outside of our usual frame of mind.

We began by putting on our Dr. Evil hats to imagine exactly what we would do if we did actually wish to destroy the open education movement. With a lot of laughter and creativity the group quickly generated more than 150 ideas including everything from “Defund and privatize education” and “Put OER behind paywalls and don’t allow platforms to talk to each other” to “Have a missionary zeal and take a missionary approach (with all implications of colonialism).” In the second phase we began to ask ourselves whether we were currently doing anything that even remotely resembled the ideas from the first list. This included everything from “Creating a caste system of open licenses” and “Not attending sufficiently to meta-data” to “Not doing enough to support those experiencing precarity (including adjunct faculty).” Finally, we finished by identifying first steps towards stopping engaging in some of those destructive practices.

TRIZ is an effective technique when you wish to interrogate something without immediately triggering a defensive response. And that is the kind of openness I think we need when critically contemplating the limitations and unintended consequences of our work with OER and especially the larger systems within which we operate.

For example, it is true that there are many faculty members who are passionate about teaching the introductory courses in their discipline, but it is also true that this is the course that is most likely to be offloaded to junior faculty members so that tenured and full professors can teach the boutique courses that reflect their niche areas of scholarship. These are also the courses for which precarious, adjunct faculty members are most likely to be hired at short notice, teaching the largest course sections that bring in the most revenue for the institution while, at some institutions, being paid poverty wages with no benefits. I’ve been there. I remember vividly my experience of working 3 adjunct positions, sometimes even teaching at these three institutions on the same day, in an attempt to cobble together a full-time job. This is why it is easy to elicit a laugh when you talk about a newly-minted PhD quickly securing a tenure-track position and that too without having to move far away from home. This scenario is far removed from the landscape of higher education today.

It is true that the professional associations for many disciplines host teaching conferences. In my case one of them is the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology, held during the first week of January each year at a resort on the beach in Florida. But like many others, the cost of attending this conference is prohibitive for many, and that is even after the customary sponsorships from major commercial textbook publishers.

It is true that many educators find great value in the courseware marketed by commercial textbook publishers. It is also true that this marketing is aggressive and unsolicited. As a faculty member I continually received packages in my mailbox with the latest editions of various commercial textbooks. Commercial textbook publisher representatives constantly visited our offices on campus leaving little goody bags on our doors. And I recall one experience in particular, when the department negotiated with a vendor so that all sections of the introductory course would assign their textbook as required, in exchange for a kick back to the department for every copy of the textbook that was purchased by a student at our university, a fund that was used to provide a scholarship to a couple of students each year.

It is true that Centres for Teaching and Learning provide incredible supports for educators, including workshops and one-on-one consultations related to UDL, and anti-racist and trauma-informed pedagogies. But it is also true that it is often the same subset of educators who engage in these professional development opportunities and that Centres for Teaching and Learning often operate within a culture in higher education that devalues teaching and that usually doesn’t require any pedagogical training in order to practice in the classroom, and usually doesn’t provide this training to graduate students.

It is true that many educators are happy to freely share their pedagogical strategies and course syllabi, but in many other cases these are jealously guarded amid a rather competitive environment.

It is true that Librarians often offer wonderful supports for educators to learn about affordable course materials and are happy to curate their collections to support the institution’s teaching and learning mission. But it is also true that many librarians are treated as second class citizens by their fellow educators, even when they are formally included as members of the faculty association. They often have to be careful not to push too hard or they will run the risk of their expertise being perceived as an encroachment on a faculty members’ academic freedom. This is also why faculty champions are such an important element when advancing OER.

It is true that many faculty members who adopt OER become peer advocates, but it is also true that many adopt OER in stealth, aware that they risk being penalized by colleagues, including more senior colleagues who may be commercial textbook authors. It is true that many faculty members who adopt OER go on to adapting and even creating OER. In some cases this work is supported through OER grant programs, some even jointly funded by the student association as at my home institution, but this isn’t always the case. And even when it is, the support provided represents a token recognition of the effort involved.

It is true that in some cases, like at my alma mater the University of British Columbia or my current institutional home Brock University, the publication of OER is recognized in the tenure and promotion process, but it is also true that this is still very much the exception to the rule, and that tenure and promotion processes often constrain efforts widen equitable access, whether it concerns prioritizing publishing scholarship in paywalled legacy journals associated with prestige and that benefit from flawed metrics like impact factor, or authoring textbooks for which one receives remuneration. And it is those same departmental tenure and promotion committees that misalign incentives and reinforce cultural traditions concerning exclusion and elitism.

It is true that many educators are attracted to the practice of open pedagogy, whether as a way to better engage learners, encourage public scholarship, or to move away from what Freire described as the banking model of education. But it is also true that open pedagogy can be approached in a way that has a negative impact, whether by insufficiently supporting student digital literacy, disregarding learner agency, or failing to recognize the uneven distribution of risks of open scholarship, especially for marginalized learners. And it is also true that educators who embrace approaches to teaching and learning like this that are still outside of the norm run the risk of being penalized in student evaluations of teaching, biased as these are well known to be.

And it isn’t just negative feedback from students that is the risk with open pedagogy, but the perception from fellow faculty members that one’s instructional approach is insufficiently rigorous or does not sufficiently uphold “academic integrity.” I use scare quotes when I refer to academic integrity because I find it perverse that the concept of integrity can be used to underpin and justify practices that include the eager use of remote exam proctoring when these tools are known to use algorithms that disproportionately flag students with darker skin tones as cheating. Where is the integrity in breaching student privacy by recording their bedrooms while they write online examinations? The same now also applies to the employment of tools that purport to detect the use of generative artificial intelligence in student coursework, when these tools not only trample over the intellectual property rights of students but are also known to be biased against second language learners. Where is the integrity in widening inequities?

But it is also true that many educators feel abandoned by their institutions, left to fend for themselves amid a changing tide with generative artificial intelligence. Unable to do what they recognize may help because it takes time and labour to teach in a way that respects and cares for the souls of our students, to quote bell hooks. Time and labour that isn’t always well supported by institutions that are grappling with their own financial constraints amid declining government funding for higher education.

For example, my home institution is located in the Province of Ontario in Canada where provincial operating grant per full-time equivalent student has been frozen and not adjusted for inflation since 2006, which represents a decline in funding of about 31%. This is also the lowest per-student grant of any Province in Canada. Adding to this, when a populist, conservative government was elected in 2019, student tuition fees were reduced by 10% and then frozen. These two policies have combined to produce many consecutive years of austerity budgets at universities in Ontario, despite us also having to navigate enrolment drop offs during the pandemic and record inflation.

All of this means that many of the talented and driven individuals who support faculty and students in ways that are sometimes invisible–from academic advisors and student services to teaching and learning staff–have repeatedly been asked to do more with less, with their areas’ budgets and staffing levels slashed.

From an academic administrator’s perspective, I can tell you that despite the common reference to “moving to the dark side,” I work with a remarkable number of Jedi knights who wrestle with extraordinarily difficult budgetary decisions while working hard to develop or reshape structures, policies, and practices to make the university a more just and a more humane place.

But as I said earlier, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. And this certainly isn’t a story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is a story that is playing out in many jurisdictions where without sustainable government funding, higher education is starved and weakened. 

In some cases an increasing proportion of costs is borne by students, resulting in widened inequities and food and housing insecurity. 

And so as Tressie McMillan-Cottom explains, education is deliberately repositioned from being a public good to being an individual privilege. At the same time there is a significantly hampered ability to support knowledge creation, innovation, and societal transformation, less social and economic mobility, all of which play into populist rhetoric that questions the value and specifically the return-on-investment of the now-growing costs of a university education.

There are egregious examples everywhere. I remember vividly a visit to Youngstown State University in Ohio some years ago, when I was facilitating workshops for faculty about OER on behalf of the Open Education Network. The evening before the workshop I was reading an article in Inside Higher Education about a party that the adjunct faculty members at the institution had organized, complete with cake, all in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the last time they had received a salary increase. Along with an article about students at the university struggling with food insecurity it was evident to me that the precariat were teaching the precarious. And amid it all we were going to talk about textbook costs.

In many ways that was an extreme case, but even at my home institution, where we are actually in the process of reducing our proportion of adjunct faculty (or what we call limited term instructional faculty appointments) from 7% of full-time faculty members to no more than 5%, I am very aware that there is a reason why even our tenure-track faculty fall prey to the promise of greater convenience from commercial publishers, just as students fall prey to the promise of convenience from companies like Chegg and Course Hero.

Ontario is among many Canadian Provinces and US States that has been investing in supports for open educational resources. But even in such contexts I am admittedly wary of good work with OER being used as a bandaid over a gaping wound of inequitable access to defunded education. I am wary of OER being the equivalent of the Gofundme campaigns that I sometimes see in the United States to fund someone’s cancer treatment. It rallies the community, provides support, and even makes people feel good, while distracting from the reality of living in a country without universal healthcare. 

I promise you that I am not looking to provoke a state of existential angst through this talk. And despite all of the challenges that I have described, I am not at all pessimistic or cynical about this work. I see the tangible impact of what we do every day, on students, on educators, on institutional culture, and even on society. This is much of my life’s work and I believe in it. But I do prefer to approach it with my eyes open fully aware of the hazards strewn across the landscape.

I am also aware that many of the challenges I have described are systemic and that with a need for systemic change the individual efforts of open educators can feel like a mismatch. The challenges sometimes seem insurmountable.

And yet, as Kevin Gannon wrote in his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto:

“The real work of change in higher education is done students by students, classroom by classroom, course by course, and it’s done by educators who have committed to teaching because it and their students matter.”

Part 3: Avoiding a Dystopian Future

Over the 15 years I worked at Kwantlen Polytechnic University I had the privilege of working with many individuals who committed to this real work of change.

I think of Terry Berg, an inspiring faculty member who, as he neared retirement authored two open textbooks. Terry was dedicated to serving students and derived great joy from knowing that he was planting trees under whose shade he would never sit.

I think of Arley Cruthers, a disability rights activist and a faculty member whose deep commitment to care and inclusion was humbling. It shone through her authorship of open textbooks and her brilliant and creative approaches to open pedagogy.

I think of Melissa Ashman, who–like Terry and Arley–authored open textbooks and has gone on to do important research on the experiences of both faculty and students with open pedagogy, now also with the support and mentorship of the GO-GN.

And I think of Andrea Niosi, who also authored an open textbook and also served as a mentor in the Open Education for a Better World project.

All four of these incredible educators were deservedly recognized with the BCcampus Award for Excellence in Open Education and I can tell you first hand that the way in which each of them approached their work inspired real change in others, whether departmental colleagues, institutional staff, or mentees or admirers further afield. They each set off ripples of positive change that continue to grow.

My work as an academic administrator was focused on trying to help ensure that they and other like-minded educators were not swimming upstream. So I worked on assembling coalitions of allies such as cross-functional open education working groups. On embedding support for open educational practices within institutional strategic plans so they are not prioritized or deprioritized based on changing whims or the departure of key personnel. On lobbying for and then allocating resources that allow for the building supports for educators, whether in the form of publishing supports for OER, grant programs, or professional development opportunities. On developing ways to recognize the labour that underpins OER, whether in the form of teaching awards or criteria for tenure, promotion, and merit. On cultivating partnerships, whether with the student association or the campus bookstore. And so on and so on.

Our team at KPU developed Canada’s first zero textbook cost programs, centred on the creation, adaptation, and adoption of OER. In the six years since this initiative was launched students at KPU have saved over $10 million in textbook costs. Students enrolled in courses that are free from textbook costs consistently show higher enrolment, higher persistence, and better performance. And at last count (December 2023), zero textbook cost courses now represent 28% of courses offered at the university. But none of this would have happened without educators like Terry, Arley, Melissa, and Andrea.

The point I am trying to make is that educators cannot be left to do it alone or even the brightest of flames will begin to burn out. They need support and change at least at the institutional level. Ideally we need broader system change.

But system change is tricky, especially when the need for change is easily co-opted to preserve the status quo, such as with open access scholarship, eye watering article processing charges, and journals that double dip into the pot of public funding.

Take the example of the textbook. This is a pedagogical prop that is still a seemingly permanent fixture on the set, at least in North America. And the commercial textbook industry itself is a peculiar parasitic industry that trades on academic prestige, relies on inertia, and preys on powerlessness to siphon off an extraordinary amount of shrinking public funding, including the millions of dollars in student loans and grants that are used to pay for required course materials.

But it is the very greed that underpins the commercial textbook model that threatened to kill that industry’s cash cow. For after 4 decades of unrelenting increases in the price of commercial textbooks (consistently between 3-4 times the rate of inflation, as per data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics), the data showed that students were unable or unwilling to further increase their spending on course materials.

Take for example, the Florida textbook survey, which was conducted in 2016, 2018, and again in 2022. As you can see, and based on nearly 14,000 responses from students at 30 of Florida’s public post-secondary institutions, more than half of respondents are simply not purchasing required textbooks due to their high cost. My partner and co-author Surita and I saw the same trend in British Columbia back in 2017.

The result was a precipitous drop in revenue and share price which only accelerated the pivot of commercial publishers towards a digital delivery model, something that was hastened further by the pandemic and the shift to emergency remote teaching. This digital delivery model for textbooks is most commonly referred to as inclusive access, although sometimes also day one access, unlimited access, digital direct, immediate access, exclusive access, or, hilariously, equitable access. It is a pitch that many university administrators will find attractive because on the face of it seems to address the problem of high textbook costs. But in reality this is a problem simply masquerading as a solution.

In case you haven’t yet encountered this, “inclusive access” is a model that is more honestly described as automatic textbook billing because every student is billed a mandatory course materials fee that represents an alleged discount off the high-water mark of the price of a new hardcover textbook. This fee is still often higher than the average student currently spends, because of the spectrum of options that traditionally has included the purchase of used copies, the use of reserve copies, group purchases by teams of students, the use of older editions, or even the many students who elect to go without required course materials due to their high cost.

In exchange for this fee, the students don’t purchase but instead lease digital-only access to their required textbooks within the publisher’s platform. This is access that expires after a set number of days. And these platforms include digital rights management, which imposes restrictions that affect accessibility (such as the ability to copy and paste or print), as well as raise data privacy concerns.

For example, The Chronicle of Higher Education identified instances of student data-sharing that conflicted with, or raised questions about, the practices relayed in publishers’ privacy notices. In a review of Pearson popular MyLab platform, personally identifiable information, such as a student’s name and email, were sent to Google Analytics, along with notifications of what the student was reading and highlighting in their eBook. 

In some (but not all) cases, students are given the option to opt-out of this program, usually under restrictive terms that are not always obvious to them, such as by locating, completing, and submitting a form within 10 days. Of course, for students who prefer to work with a print copy (and possibly resell it later to recover some of its cost), the ability to opt out is especially important. Yet, as you might surmise, the publishers have a vested interest in keeping the number of students who may opt-out to a minimum. This is why at some institutions the opt-out terms range from restrictive to punitive.

Interestingly, the US federal government is now pushing back against the opt-out inclusive access model in favour of an opt-in model instead. 

As Nicole Allen from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition notes, “If inclusive access is [the] great deal that many people claim it is, there’s no reason to believe that students won’t continue to do that voluntarily.”

In addition to a reduction in student agency, inclusive access also brings an accompanying reduction in faculty agency, as with these institution-wide deals one is compelled to assign textbooks from a single publisher’s platform. 

According to a survey run in consecutive years by Insider Higher Education, 67% of faculty members believe that inclusive access programs potentially limit faculty members’ ability to choose course materials they prefer.

The benefits of this model to commercial publishers are very clear. For one there are no longer any printing or distribution costs. 

Second, they are able to permanently extinguish the used book market (where a single copy may be resold six times during the lifecycle of each edition). 

And third, this model brings the ability to guarantee high and predictable revenue via institutional licensing contracts. So it is really little wonder (although rather amusing) that the large commercial publishers have sought to repaint themselves as the saviours of those suffering at the hands of their own business model. As I have said before, this is like leasing a faulty fire extinguisher from a serial arsonist.

But the publishers are not done yet. Not satisfied by hawking a model that trades on academic prestige and markets false scarcity to a captive audience, the industry is now eagerly sifting through even more silicon valley excrement by, for example, turning their titles into non-fungible tokens so that they may track the ownership of a book even when it changes hands and “participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life.”

I don’t doubt that commercial textbook authors will face a similar fate as recording artists have with the shift to streaming services. Or that commercial textbook companies will be among the biggest proponents of generative AI to replace contracts with faculty experts, looking past the exploitative labour practices and negative environmental impact, as they look to integrate this further into courseware.

After all, what is more convenient than generative artificial intelligence, with which publishers can create instructional videos featuring AI-generated instructors that narrate content created using GPT4 augmented with images from Midjourney. 

Those in turn may be summarised for learners by one of countless AI video summary tools.

We can have AI-powered learning management systems that auto-grade course assignments. And those in turn can process student coursework that may well also be generated by AI.

Leave it to venture capitalists to describe something as “personalized learning” when the one thing that is absent is an actual person, a human educator.

I can see them going much further still. At the risk of sounding like a Cory Doctorow novel or an episode of Black Mirror, I envision learning management systems wherein students enrolled at the John Deere School of Engineering can purchase different tiers of access, with higher tiers permitting the revision of coursework after receiving AI-generated feedback, and students having to jailbreak their devices in order to avoid being penalized because the surveillance baked into the digital textbook platform notices when they do not pause within the optimal range for learning while scrolling through the text of the assigned readings.

I only wish this was all impossible. But as Ann-Marie Scott and Brenna-Clarke Gray write in their incredible chapter “Who Cares about Procurement?” in Catherine and Laura’s monumental volume Higher Education for Good: “We spend more time thinking about the ethics of buying teabags in universities than we do the ethics of technology.”

This is precisely why Ann-Marie and I are currently part of a group developing guidelines for ethical ed tech for post-secondary institutions in the Province of British Columbia, and why Brock University’s recently-approved academic plan includes a pledge to develop and adopt an ethical framework for educational technologies that ensures the procurement of digital tools do not perpetuate and reinforce systemic inequalities and racial biases.

As we write the next chapter in the story of open education, let us ensure that we do not lose sight of the plot. Otherwise our diligent efforts will undoubtedly be co-opted, ghostwritten in service of a different narrative, one that harkens a more dystopian future. This is why we need not only individual changemakers but change within the system as well.

Without system change education will continue to be commodified, with everything measured and controlled and everyone mistrusted and surveilled. And along this path to dehumanization we will absolutely lose our soul.

Already, we complain that students care about their grades more than about learning. But they are only responding to systems in higher education that lead them there, that laud and reify instrumentalist goals.

If we tell students that their education is only meaningful in terms of their career outcomes we have no right to criticize them if they only care about their grades.

If we design course policies that are predicated on mistrust of students we have no right to criticize them for being disengaged in the classroom.

Even when I hear people advocating for equity, diversity, and inclusion, it is often with instrumentalist arguments. More diverse teams are more creative. They are more productive. Listening to someone make a business case for a sense of belonging makes me want to throw up in my mouth. I don’t need a reason beyond human dignity.

As Lorde famously reminded us:

“Those of use who have been forged in the crucibles of difference . . . know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

In the battle for the soul of higher education it may be comforting to indulge in fairy tales, but it is essential that we engage in this work with hope, in solidarity, and fully grounded in reality.