The Troubled Trail from CC-BY to CC-BY-NC #OpenEdMOOC

image of a jeep and a rough road ahead

This week in Introduction to Open Education I was introduced to the course materials on the 5R’s, Creative Commons, and Open Licensing. This is territory that I’m comfortably familiar with, but there’s always something new to learn. One of the ideas that emerged for me, and admittedly it’s been brewing, is the need for a change in how I choose to license and share my work. I have wrestled of late with the ever-growing phenomenon of “open washing” particularly among panicked for-profit publishing companies. I have a less-than-generous view of what publishers are playing at regarding OER.

My example for this post is Cengage’s new OER website (probably an unthinkable concept for them not long ago).  I downloaded the Cengage paper called Open Educational Resources (OER) and the Evolving Higher Education Landscape. I had to trade my name, email, and institution for the privilege of downloading it, so already not open.

The following paragraph from the paper is an example of what alarms me about for-profit positions on OER, Cengage states,

In the 2014 Babson survey, participants judged the quality of OER to be roughly equivalent to that of traditional educational resources. OERs were deemed to be more current than traditional publishers’ resources, while traditional resources were deemed superior in the areas of range of subjects, range of materials for each subject, resources mapped to learning outcomes, and trusted quality. Overall, 31% of those who had an opinion on OER rated their quality as excellent or good, versus 56% who rated traditional resources as excellent or good (Cengage, n.d.a.).

Cengage seems to be deliberately misstating what the 2014 Babson survey reported. Either that, or they’re misreading the graphs (neither option instills confidence). What Babson actually reported was that among faculty members that had used OER, – and that’s the only subset that matters for purposes of the comparison of OER to traditional resources – the majority of faculty members found OER either the same or better than traditional resources in every category. See Figure 1 below. And Cengage’s additional statement that “Overall, 31% of those who had an opinion on OER rated their quality as excellent or good,” was actually 76% excellent or good if you remove the 59.2% of faculty members that “did not know,” e.g., did not have an opinion, see Figure 2 below. It’s possible I’m missing something, or that I’m wrong, so I have included the graphs for you to read. Please let me know.

Why would Cengage want to mislead educators about peer perceptions comparing traditional and OER resources? Here’s my hunch. Where Cengage claims to be adding value to OER as part of its sales pitch is in curation (trusted quality), range of materials for each subject, and resources mapped to learning outcomes. Convincing educators that OER somehow fail in these categories makes a business case for Cengage to curate and supplement OER for $25 USD per student, per course (Cengage, n.d.b.).

graph demonstrating findings related to use of OER
Figure 1. Open Educational Resources Compared to Traditional Resources (Allen & Seaman, 2014, p. 23).
graph showing faculty member opinions regarding OER
Figure 2. Quality of Open Educational Resources (Allen & Seaman, 2014, p. 25).

The kind of OER repackaging that Cengage is engaging in requires the foundational resource to have a CC-BY license. I’m not convinced that CC-BY-SA would pass muster for repackaging, but there’s probably an argument publishers will try to make. If the resource were CC-BY-NC, however, for-profit publishers would not be able to include it in their firmly closed commercial products.  While I want to be generous with the work I create, I most certainly do not want it to land in a publisher resell (or a for-profit journal either). Going forward, I’m using CC-BY-NC for my work. Non-commercial is not a complicated license to figure out. Others cannot sell my work, period. Outside of commercial sale, folks can go ahead and use it, if it’s of interest.

This may not seem like a big deal, $25 per student is way better than $115 to $160 (Cengage’s premium Biology textbook pricing), but Cengage’s low-cost solution is only on the table because the highly questionable for-profit publishing practices of the past few decades have contributed to the problem-solving that OER represents. Cengage’s open washing reaction is clear evidence that there is a rising tide of high quality, no-cost, adaptable open resources emerging that learners and educators are ready and willing to use. I want resources to be easy and well-curated as a contribution to educator workload, but it probably doesn’t need to cost $25 USD per learner, per course, probably.


Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2014). Opening the curriculum: Open educational resources in U.S. higher education. Retrieved from

Cengage (n.d.a.) Open for Learning [webpage]. Retrieved from

Cengage (n.d.b). Opennow [webpage]. Retrieved from

This post is by Jenni Hayman licensed under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


  1. Hi Jenni, I appreciate your concerns. I really wish publishers would leave this alone. OER and Open Textbooks belong in the open public sphere, not in the closed private business. All of the critiques of the NC license always sound like “your work is not really open if it isn’t open for me to use it to make a profit.” I am happy to be guilty of that. These companies start out (probably) with some bit of altruism but there will always be that board meeting where someone starts talking about “sustainability” and then watch your wallet!

    1. Yes, as a community I believe we have a some capacity to create the kind of added value surrounding OER and open textbooks that is needed. I don’t dispute that educator and staff workload gets in the way of course redesign and the creation of extra resources and activities that are useful for teaching. That’s one of the factors that publishers are betting on to combat the fully open movement. Certainly, when we look to scale up use of OER, we can look to learners as partners to co-create and contextualize resources for themselves and peers. They are, after all, shared beneficiaries of open practices. Where there is only one educator, there are often large numbers of learners. I can’t remember how many millions of hours of learner homework labour David Wiley indicates in the higher education spectrum (40 million I think, per semester, per year?), but there must be great ways to use some of that time partnering with learners to explore open resources and imagine how they might be curated, adapted, and shared to raise the boat for the public good of all.

    1. I like the visual of openwrapping, but it still sounds a bit pleasant, like publishers are creating a gift of some kind. What publishers seem to have in mind is more like 50 layers of shrink wrap with a 15 digit encryption code, a trip wire, and 14 armed marines preventing unpaid access to something that its creator mostly likely intended to be a gift. Enclosure, as we heard from the “How to Destroy the Open Movement” folks.

      1. Ha! That is funny! But all that wrapping is “value-added” goodness, right! 😉
        Maybe more as sheep wrapped in wolves’ clothing? It isn’t just spinning a message or approach like openwashing, it’s the way they are *actually* selling wrapped, openly licensed content. #notagift

  2. Thanks for this Jenni – I wanted to add some information about cost. I had a chance to discuss details with a Cengage rep this week. $25 is the starting point for the “course in a box” materials that are available in 11 disciplines: American Government; College Algebra, Microeconomics etc. If you’re working outside of these 11 subject areas the price will go up. And, nothing will happen unless there is a market gain to be made by investing in that area.

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