Nicole Allen is the Director of Open Education at SPARC where she leads the organization’s efforts in advancing openness in education. Throughout her thirteen-year career, she has worked to promote universal access to knowledge and is internationally recognized as a leading voice in the open education movement. During our conversation, Nicole discussed her advocacy work and perspective on the issue of textbook affordability. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

As a student, you were involved in grassroots efforts to make textbooks more affordable. What inspired you to champion this cause? 

When I entered college in 2003, I experienced sticker shock upon seeing that my freshman math textbook cost $120. I didn’t understand why it cost so much money and that experience has stayed with me. During my senior year, Congress proposed cutting $12 billion from the federal student financial aid programs, and I began mobilizing students to lobby our local representatives to vote against the proposal. While our campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, the process taught me that the voices of students can be powerful, and after graduation I embarked on a career in student organizing. The overall cost of college is a huge systemic problem that requires complex societal change to solve. In our country, those big decisions can be hard to tackle head-on, but textbook affordability is somewhere we can have an impact on a local level. 

What is SPARC?

SPARC is a global coalition working to make open the default in research and education. We promote the adoption of policies and practices that advance open education, open access, and open data. SPARC’s membership is primarily academic and research libraries, and our mission is to be a catalyst for action.

Describe your current role at the organization.

I’ve spent my career developing open educational resources (OER), and when I landed at SPARC six years ago I transitioned to a leadership role. In my current position, I liaise with other organizations in the space on a policy agenda. I lobby on Capitol Hill and perform advocacy work at the state level to promote strong legislation for OER, while also combating efforts by the publishing industry to undo some of our positive progress. I’m also involved with grassroots organizing of libraries. I travel a lot and especially enjoy events where I get to immerse myself in the local campus culture or engage in workshops where there can be a two-way exchange – I learn so much that way. I also get to travel internationally which is an amazing opportunity. The open education movement is global and has the potential to solve problems in countless global societies. For example, the use of classroom materials published largely for Western students is an issue in South Africa, but OER provides a solution by allowing materials to be local, relevant, and reflective of the world that students see around them. 

Tell me more about the global implications of OER.

One thing I have observed is that smaller countries or those with fewer resources may end up using educational materials developed elsewhere. That’s a limitation of the traditional model – publishing companies build materials for the largest markets or the lowest common denominator, which may not fit local context or needs. Using South Africa as an example, an astronomy textbook published for North American students would have less relevance there because the night sky students see is different in the southern hemisphere. Likewise, students in Portugal might not benefit as much learning from materials developed in Brazil, or vice versa. OER creates opportunities to empower educators to adapt materials to local contexts. This is especially true when we think globally, but it’s also true for our own diverse country, which has different habitats, landmarks, cultures, names, and languages. Localization of OER can be a benefit here as well. 

How has the open education movement changed over the last decade?

It has changed tremendously. We spent the early stages just trying to convince professors that the idea of open textbooks was possible. I remember launching our first OER campaign in 2007, and we literally had only five examples to use as demonstrations. Now there’s hundreds of high-quality examples that are widely available, and studies are measuring awareness of OER in double-digit percentages. It’s not just about awareness anymore. We’re helping professors identify and adopt materials that they can bring into the classroom. 

In just the six years since SPARC launched our open education program, academic libraries have become leaders in driving the movement. One effort I’m particularly proud of is SPARC’s Open Education Leadership Program, which offers professional development to meet the growing need for training OER librarians. It’s a 2-semester program that empowers librarians to lead an OER initiative on their campus, as they have become essential to local OER success. 

Outside of OER what other initiatives does SPARC support?

SPARC works to advance openness across the education and research landscape. We’ve made a large impact at the federal level advocating for public access to publicly funded research, including policies at federal agencies. At the end of last year, we played a role in passing the Open Government Data Act, which made open and machine-readable the default for government data. We also work with our member libraries to pass open access policies on campus and support implementation of funder requirements to make research results more open. One of our big priorities this year is working to promote community-owned infrastructure in response to the academic publishing industry’s move into data and data analytics. 

Explain how student data fits into the conversation of textbook affordability. 

Students are a captive market because they are required to purchase the textbooks and materials their professors assign, leading to the exponential cost of textbooks. But monetary costs are not the only way consumers pay for things in today’s world, we also pay with the currency of data – think Google and Facebook. Data wasn’t as much of an issue when textbooks were print, but now that they are digital, it’s a whole new world.

When a professor assigns a digital textbook they are forcing the student to accept the terms of use. These digital applications can possibly collect student’s personal information, where and when they log-on, analyze their vocabulary and notes, even track their performance across data sets. Data mining can do things we can’t even begin to imagine. Institutions must ensure ethical terms of use and protect student data so that the goals of education remain focused on serving the needs of students and society, not as a captive market for publishers. 

What does the future hold for the textbook affordability issue?

We’re at a time of transition. We’ve spent the last decade advocating for affordable, day-one access to course materials. It’s funny, because in some ways we’ve won: publishers are now offering subscription-based models that claim to do just that. But education isn’t like Netflix; knowledge isn’t something you subscribe to, but rather something you should be able to hold onto forever. OER enable true ownership of materials, both by students and faculty, and also make education more equitable. The future is going to be about ensuring we keep pointing true north toward OER, and don’t simply trade one broken model for another.  

What’s your final message to audiences? 

Changing one classroom can change the lives of a number of students. The exciting thing about OER is that it’s something everyone can be a part of.