About OER (and not-so-O-ER) in organic chemistry

I did a DuckDuckGo search this morning about the big news in my universe, the coming availability of the McMurry Organic Chemistry textbook as an open educational resource.

It’s really telling what the hits were.

Obviously the first hit is going to be an ad. The internet in 2022, even when you use a privacy-first search engine.

But look at the hits that follow.

The very first hit isn’t from Cengage, the current publisher of McMurry, or from OpenStax, the open educational resource (OER) powerhouse that’s negotiated the right to publish the text. It’s not a news article from a journalist about what is a ground-breaking agreement to provide OER in a traditionally cost-heavy discipline.

The link from an ed-tech company, Aktiv.

This company – formerly 101edu – has tools it swears by for the generation of organic structure and mechanism, the types of tools that are potential killer apps for automated homework submission in the discipline. In the context of the publication of any old new edition of a quality textbook, this really makes perfect sense.

But trumpeting the release of a resource that eliminates one cost for students by appealing for professors to have their students to pay a different cost – what that cost exactly is, the website doesn’t say, but one campus bookstore lists it at $61.25 – well, that’s certainly a choice.

And Aktiv’s trumpeting of their new relationship with McMurry’s OER goes beyond their own release. The third link on the page is from Marketwatch, the fourth is from PRNewsWire. Scroll down the page, and the sixth is from Business Insider. It’s an all-out PR blitz, using the name of this groundbreaking OER effort, from…an ed-tech company.

So I’m not sitting in this chair looking at the release of this new OER as an unambiguous good.

We do have to look at the situation with clear eyes. The cost situation surrounding the teaching of organic chemistry has been disastrous, and it’s been disastrous for some time. The costs for an organic chemistry course can be overwhelming.

A generation ago, you could count on dumping $300 for all the materials in the course. Now you can count on dumping $300 for just the textbook. The lab manual, study guides, and associated are extra.

McMurry Organic Chemistry going to OpenStax changes all that. That core cost – and the cost of several student ancillaries, including the all-helpful solutions manual – are going to be OER by Fall 2023. Openly licensed. Free of cost for electronic versions. A vastly reduced cost for print versions. That part of the news is an unambiguous good. So much of that initial cost of the organic course is going away, and not a moment too soon.

McMurry’s own motivations for the transition are laudable – he recognizes the burden of textbook cost, and he wants to help with that burden, in memory of a son. McMurry’s donating his licensing fee from the textbook to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, out of gratitude for the life of his son Peter, who suffered from the disease. “If I can take the most popular organic book and publish it for free, then there will be no competition, and even more people will read the book…And I like the thought that everyone who reads it will see Peter.

So McMurry approaching OpenStax to make the textbook available freely seems like a win-win. McMurry gets to do something large to make an impact for a host of students, and OpenStax claims what is a top-flight textbook author to gain new impact for the OER movement broadly. And the hole that what becomes OpenStax Organic Chemistry fills was glaring – OpenStax had OER available in so many biology disciplines, and in introductory chemistry and physics disciplines, but nothing for that pivotal course on the pre-medical path. There were other organic chemistry efforts (LibreTexts is always reliable for OER on the gamut of chemistry disciplines) but none that were organized and comprehensive, and that could gain the trust of a wide variety of faculty. McMurry has that trust immediately.

But in order for OpenStax to get access to McMurry Organic Chemistry, it had to negotiate with Cengage – the for-profit competition. And that’s where I start to have my moments of pause.

The quote from Cengage’s, ahem, Senior Vice President for Academic Product is laughable on its face. “We are fully committed to providing affordable, high-quality learning solutions for students…We are excited to think openly and collaboratively with key partners like OpenStax to ensure that we, and our authors, are able to reach as many students as possible in new and highly accessible ways.” I can’t imagine for a second that one of the core companies responsible for the textbook affordability disaster that OpenStax is providing a corrective to is “fully committed” to textbook affordability. Oh, just for fun, here’s my DuckDuckGo search for “cengage webassign per semester cost”:

Fairness where fairness is demanded: $124.99 per four months is the cost for Cengage Unlimited, the inclusive access program that gets students access to Cengage texts and homework systems like WebAssign. But the student doesn’t need access to Cengage texts if faculty are savvy about their choices and utilize open and affordable resources. Why advertise the full cost if textbook affordability is the goal?

(If you haven’t done so before, browsing SPARC‘s website about the real costs of inclusive access programs is must-view stuff. You should ask real questions about what costs your university has handed over to textbook publishers – and passed on to students.)

My feelings are very mixed as I recognize the game that’s afoot. OpenStax and Cengage need to come to agreements if OpenStax is going to get the massive OER win that its acquisition of McMurry Organic Chemistry is. OpenStax needs to deal with Cengage.

But Cengage is not a fair player in this market. McMurry Organic Chemistry will still be provided by Cengage, in its inclusive access program – despite the fact that it’s an open textbook and charging for access to that textbook won’t be necessary. It’s not in Cengage’s interest to trumpet McMurry’s OER status to students – only in press releases when it can claim it’s interested in “affordable, high-quality learning solutions for students” that they’d prefer to charge $125 per semester for.

It is really down to faculty to call things as they are, and to make sure they’re making the best solutions for their courses available at the best possible prices – and when possible, making those prices zero.

Much of my summer has been spent writing chemistry problems within Moodle.

I’m trying to code an online homework system for general chemistry, for my own students, in my own way, to take the final step towards driving their textbook costs to zero. We’ve already got OpenStax Chemistry: Atoms First. We’ve got the laboratories I’ve written for our own interactive lab manual in Moodle. Putting the homework on Moodle as well cuts out packages like Aktiv and WebAssign and – while it’s not quite of the quality that the for-profit providers can bring – it’s still something appropriate for my classroom, at no cost.

It’s not necessary for me to do this work if I want free homework systems for students. LibreTexts is actively developing their ADAPT homework system, and their next step is getting the tools in place for organic structure and mechanism. There is an organic chemistry homework system in place and available for professors right now free of charge – OpenOChem, a project primarily out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with collaboration from St. Louis College of Pharmacy and Centre College.

And, of course, there are old-school solutions, like pencil and paper homework, with the professor writing novel problem sets and grading them in novel ways.

If we’re really serious about learning resource costs for our students, we need to be aggressive in our attack. We don’t just need to keep ownership of a new OER for organic chemistry in the hands of the major publisher who will just find new ways to extract costs from students, or hand over the OER to an ed-tech firm who PR-blitzes their way to sales of a new product on the back of the OER. We need to make sure we free students from costs any way we can, and make knowledge accessible to as many students as possible.

You may have the money to put down on the online homework and lab resources. But I’m in the central Appalachians. I will have those conversations with students one-on-one after the class is gone about how they’re going to be able to afford the $40 for the one online homework system I’m asking them to purchase – not even the $500-$600 that comes from purchasing everything new. You may not think $40, or $80, or $125 is an undue burden if you’re serious about learning STEM. You don’t know my students. I’m telling you it is mammoth, and if we can clear those costs, we retain those students better.

That’s why I see the open organic chemistry textbook being advertised by an ed-tech company and I stop to wonder if we’re really looking out for students here, or just PR wins.

Again: the big story is good. Thanks to John McMurry for putting his textbook into the open. Bully to OpenStax for negotiating the availability of the text for us all.

But we can’t think for a second that one major textbook becoming openly licensed is the end of the learning affordability battle.