Hal Plotkin is a writer, journalist and activist. He served as the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration. Previously, Plotkin served on the Board of Trustees at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, based in California’s Silicon Valley, where in 2003, he initiated the first official college governance policy in the United States requiring administrative support for the use of public domain learning materials, which later became known as open educational resources. From 2014 to 2017, Plotkin served as the Senior Open Policy Fellow at Creative Commons USA. He is currently a consultant to the national College Promise Campaign, based in Washington, D.C., and a consulting scholar at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’homme, based in Paris, where he helps design and implement efforts to expand access to post-secondary education.
This interview was conducted by Michelson 20MM Program Officer Ryan Erickson-Kulas. It has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Your own educational path seems non-traditional. How did the issue of affordability personally impact you as a student?
It’s a deeply personal issue for me. My younger sister and I were both forced to leave high school to work full-time because of our financial situation. We were raised in a single-parent family headed by our mom and were often on welfare and food stamps. My sister never returned to high school, but she eventually earned her GED. One day during those years, I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper protesting their use of the word “dropout.” In my letter, I pointed out that people like my sister and me were pushed out the system for financial reasons. I asked the newspaper to stop describing people like us as “dropouts” because it gave readers the impression we had left voluntarily.
Our local rabbi intervened after reading my letter and managed to help me get back into high school during my senior year. The school administrators were generous in giving me academic credit for a variety of my work activities so that I could graduate with my class. For example, they gave me P.E. credit for having walked back and forth to work. Then, while working full-time, I started attending community college, mostly in the early mornings or at night. At that time tuition costs were relatively modest but the costs of textbooks was often prohibitive. Each semester, I would go through the bookstore and calculate which courses I could afford to take based on the cost of the required books. That’s a big reason it took me eight years to earn my associate’s degree. Those books were so expensive for someone earning something close to the minimum wage. I never forgot that experience. It made me very sensitive to the issue of textbook affordability.
And how did you get involved in the open educational resources movement?
Fast-forward a few decades. By then I had enjoyed some success as a writer, journalist, and broadcaster. I had my own program on local radio, helped start Marketplace on public radio, and was writing for a number of national and international publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, SFGate.com at the dawn of the internet era. One of the things I often wrote about was the idea of using these then-new digital and networking technologies to make things easier for economically disadvantaged students. It seemed so obvious to me in the late 1990’s that these technologies could make it dramatically easier for our colleges to do what their leaders always claimed was their primary concern, which was to make it easier and more affordable for students of limited means to get a high-quality college education. It struck me that many of the cost barriers I and so many other students had faced could now easily be removed. All we needed was for the leaders of colleges to get involved to make it happen. The tools to remove many of those costs, and particularly the high costs of textbooks, were readily available. At the time, I often wrote about how surprised I was that it had not already happened. We could pay academics to create public domain learning materials that would be freely accessible to everyone. It seemed like a complete no-brainer.
Was the idea focused solely on affordability or were there other benefits that you imagined?
When I started writing about these ideas I was focused exclusively on how using these new digital technologies to bring educational materials into the public domain could reduce costs imposed on students without imposing a burden on taxpayers. But it rapidly became apparent that OER offers many other benefits, most notably the opportunities to dramatically increase the quality of teaching, learning and collaboration.
Talk to me more about your work at the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District and the initiative that you started around OER.
Leaders of the faculty at Foothill College, where I had earned my degree decades before, read my columns about public domain learning materials and several of them recruited me to run for our Community College Board of Trustees. Initially, these faculty members put up their own money to get my campaign off the ground and, with their help I became the first graduate of Foothill College ever elected to the District’s governing board. My first act as a trustee was to propose a formal policy that would instruct school administrators to provide support for faculty members interested in using digital technologies to create freely accessible learning materials, including as substitutes for traditional textbooks.
Martha Kanter, who had recently become chancellor of our district, worked closely with me to guide the proposal through the academic senates at Foothill College and De Anza College. By late 2003, we had become the first community college district in the country to enact such a policy.
What was your first OER effort under the policy?
Chancellor Kanter and I learned that De Anza College statistics professor Barbara Illowsky had co-authored a textbook and had expressed an interest in turning it into a public domain resource. And so the chancellor secured backing from a foundation to pay for the costs of transitioning her proprietary textbook into an OER. From there we connected with Richard Baraniuk at Rice University, who would go on to found OpenStax, and his team took on the task of disseminating the textbook more widely, both nationally and internationally. That first textbook has all by itself saved local students more than $4 million dollars since it first became a free open educational resource roughly 15 years ago. It is part of the more than $1 billion dollars college students in the U.S. have saved through the use of open educational resources since we started our program.
I’d love for you to talk about your work at the US Department of Education while you were there with the Obama Administration.
Shortly after he was elected, President Obama’s newly designated Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, invited Chancellor Kanter to serve as Under Secretary of Education and she invited me to join her in Washington as her Senior Policy Advisor. One of our objectives was to ensure that the educational materials being produced through federal grants were released with open licenses which required them to be freely available to all. So pretty quickly we went from producing a single open statistics textbook in 2003 to overseeing a new $2 billion federal program in 2009 which we used to create open educational resources that have since been freely used by millions of students in the United States and around the world.
That’s incredible. To follow up on that, I’m curious about what role the federal government should have in promoting textbook affordability and open educational resources?
Faculty across the country commonly express their frustration that, while they’re interested in OER, they’re not receiving the support they need from their own institutions to bring the materials into their classrooms. What’s more, these faculty leaders often get little credit or recognition when they do so even though those steps dramatically increase access to affordable higher education, particularly for groups most at risk of being locked out by the high costs. That’s why I’d like to see us take the next logical step, which is to insert a simple amendment into the Higher Education Opportunity Act to require colleges that receive Title IV federal funding to have a program in place that supports faculty members who wish to use, create, or improve open education resources. That one sentence of new law would save taxpayers billions of dollars in financial aid payments that are currently diverted to commercial textbook publishers and also increase the quality and transparency of teaching and learning.
Students could then use more of their financial aid for necessary expenses such as housing, childcare, and transportation. This simple reform, one sentence of new law, would attract wide-spread bipartisan support as it’s not an issue that divides Democrats and Republicans. It’s about taxpayers getting more bang for our bucks.
Do you see anything at the state level that legislators could be doing to move the ball forward?
I’d like to see the same requirements imposed on state institutions, particularly here in California. I’d also like to see us start supporting open assessments. Imagine free, open assessments online that are like flight simulators, except for math and science, that lead to college transcript credits. These free, open assessments would provide opportunities for students from a range of backgrounds to demonstrate their skills in domain-specific disciplines and earn college credits. We could make it possible for anyone anywhere to rise academically. Open assessments would also encourage competition in the education sector as institutions compete to help students pass these open assessments, further driving down costs and improving the efficacy of education and job-training. Once again, just as I was 15 years ago, I am astonished this has not already happened.
Is there anything else you’d like to leave readers with?
Our global OER team of collaborators is now an incredibly diverse and capable group. There are thousands of us now. I hope all participants in our network will continue to bring others into the fold, expand our network, and recognize the opportunity we have to change the world for the better.
Maybe you remember me. Back in 2005, I wrote a few articles on how Higher Ed could organize a large coalition (of around 1,000) schools that would buy out the British Open University and put their content in the public domain. From my work with IMS (as the UC Berkeley representative), I had visited the OU and saw how they organized the development and maintenance of content. I also had cost data on how much they spent. A high end estimate of their expenses showed that they were spending up to $75 million a year (probably a lot less) to develop and maintain content for 200 year long courses (or 400 semester long courses). Their most expensive course cost around $3 million dollars, which included maintenance for eight years. So, 200 time $3 million divided by eight gives you $75 million dollars a year. Divided by 1,000 this would come to $75,000 per campus in the coalition. Berkeley had around 23,000 undergraduates, so that would come to around $3.26 per year per undergraduate. At the time, the General Accounting Office estimated that students were spending around $900 per year on commercial textbooks. So, I made several presentations on this idea, including one in 2007 to a House committee on education looking into the cost of textbooks, which was chaired by congressman Wu.
The push back I received didn’t question my arithmetic nor the cost data from the OU. However, my idea was criticized for these reasons:
1) How do you get 1,000 schools to join such an organization. This is the “free rider” problem.
BTW: Ira Fuchs was, at the time, proposing a similar organization he called Educore that would collect annual dues of $25,000 to fund the development and maintenance of software (e.g. LMS systems). Of course, Ira would face the same problem. How do you persuade schools to chip in if they can get the software (or textbook content) for free anyway.
2) If you produce the content, then how do you get faculty to select the content you’ve produced, especially if they are academically free to select commercial textbooks. So, you may build a field of dreams, but there’s no guarantee that they will come. BTW: The OU doesn’t face this problem because the teaching faculty who work out of their 300 or so teaching centers are beholden to the senior faculty content developers who work at Milton Keynes HQ. So, the OU’s content gets used by OU teaching faculty. They are not academically free to select the content they want. Of course, the teams that develop the content at Milton Keynes have teaching faculty representatives. The content doesn’t get tossed over the wall.
Anyway, now that the Federal government may get into the business of supporting higher education by covering the cost of tuition (e.g. the Sanders and Warren plans), perhaps I should dust off my slides and start making presentations at Democratic fund raising events. To hold down the cost of textbook and online courses, the US could start its own Open University (patterned after the British OU). But, the US could go one step further and put the content developed by the US OU in the public domain. It would be costly to duplicate all the campuses we now have, but there may be a way to give community colleges and other state schools incentives to use the content developed by the US OU (e.g. if you don’t, then we are not going to cover the cost of tuition for your students).
Just a thought.
BTW: here’s a reprint of the article I wrote on this idea back in 2005 for the Berkeley Computing and Communications news letter.
The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks