Will capitalism ruin open practices?

There’s no debating that education is a good thing. Education can lift people from poverty, move society forward, and open up new opportunities and possibilities. In this light, open practices seem like a great idea. They make education accessible to all, move knowledge into the common domain, and remove cost barriers.

But in a world governed by capitalism, can open practices survive?

What are ‘open practices’?

Engaging in conversations about open education can be a little confusing, at least at the beginning. It seems that either different people have different definitions of open, or the term ‘open’ is often misused (or both). It probably doesn’t help that within the different forms of open practices (open access, open online courses, open scholarship, open data, open educational resources, etc.), open can look a little bit different. I was several weeks in to my current graduate course, Theory and Discourse on Distributed and Open Learning, and several extra readings in, until I was satisfied I knew exactly what we were talking about- or at least, what I wanted us to be talking about.

Really, it wasn’t until I read David Wiley’s definition of open content that I felt like I had a framework for participating in conversations about open practices. He defines open content as “any copyrightable work that is either (1) in the public domain or (2) licensed in a manner that provides everyone with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities:” retain, revise, remix, reuse, redistribute. 

Open isn’t just about being free of charge. Open doesn’t equal “I found it on the web”. Open is, in short, free-of-charge and free of control by others.

This definition allowed my brain to think about open practices vs. capitalism.

A history of open practices vs. capitalism

Whether or not capitalism will ruin open isn’t exactly a new question. As detailed in On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction, open practices have been succumbing to capitalism for centuries. Here are two examples:

  • In the late middle ages, increased demand for “expert knowledge” led to the creation of schools run by secular clergy, and students themselves started to invite scholars to come and lecture them in private homes they rented out. This was a period of openness in education, but over time, the pope and king began conferring privileges to these secular institutions, and scholars began collecting fees from students and the community. Power shifted away from students, first to be shared equally between students and professors, and then away from students altogether.
  • In the 17th century, coffee-houses became a prominent part of society. Anyone could come in to read the latest news, pamphlets and books, and participate in discussions about science, religion, business, literature, and the latest gossip. As time passed, the culture of these coffeehouses was adopted by private member clubs and exclusive societies, excluding many, and the coffee-houses disappeared.

Both of these situations are examples of the ultimate goals of open: learner-centred and learner-driven education that is accessible to all, regardless of background. Both are also examples of capitalism ruining open practices, with the need for money and control shifting the practice away from open and toward something more gated.

Present day open practices vs. capitalism

It’s a common saying that “history repeats itself.” When I look at the open practices that are emerging and/or prevalent today, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), open educational resources, and open access publishing, I can’t help but wonder if they are going to last in our capitalistic society. In our class discussions about open practices, the most common question that comes up is some variation of “but… where’s the money?” Open practices are working against our capitalistic system, so who will win?


About 10 years ago, MOOCs were heralded as the next great innovation in education. They show up on just about any list of educational technology trends. But they’ve failed to meet their promised potential- and I would argue, in many ways, they’ve fallen victim to capitalism.

MOOCs were supposed to bring education to the masses, for free, and at the beginning, they did (although “the masses” largely turned out to be educated, employed folks). But over the years, “free” has evolved into, well, not-so-free. It started with offering “verified certificates.” For a fee, you could get a certificate of completion when finishing the MOOC, a form of proof you could put on a resume or show an employer. The course was the same whether or not you paid the fee; you just didn’t get a certificate. More recently, however, even that has changed. With a recent MOOC I completed through Coursera, unless I paid, I didn’t have access to many parts of the course. While I could still watch and read all the lecture content, I was unable to submit quizzes for feedback, and I didn’t have access to any of the written assignments. Essentially, the course was unwilling to engage with me unless I paid.

How is that open? (Hint: it’s not).

In many ways, the potential of MOOCs as an open practice was doomed from the beginning. Many MOOC platforms, such as Coursera and Udacity, are for-profit companies, and a for-profit company needs to have a way of, well, making a profit. From the beginning, many MOOCs have never been truly open; all materials are protected by copyright, and aren’t allowed to be retained, revised, remixed, reused, or redistributed. According to most platforms’ terms and conditions, they even own all user-generated content within the course. We tried to build a model of open within capitalistic structures, so it’s perhaps not overly surprising that the need for money and control is winning here.

Open educational resources (OER)

Every time we talk about open educational resources in class, I can’t help but wonder how the academic publishing industry has created an image of itself that is so inaccurate, but so self-serving.

It seems that most people have this image of publishing: Professor writes book + Book is published by academic publisher = Professor makes lots of money.

Meanwhile, most people seem to have this image of open educational resources (particularly when it comes to textbooks): Professor writes book + Book is published as an OER = Professor is poor.

Let’s be real: Neither of those images is quite correct, and those images only serve to prop up the publishing industry and tear down OER.

The publishing industry

Let’s start with the image of the publishing industry. While textbooks are widely known to be expensive, textbook authors as a group tend to not make very much money off their books. In reality, unless you wrote Campbell Biology, or Calculus: Early Transcendentals, there’s a pretty good chance that your book will only ever sell a few thousand copies (if that), and even then, the royalties that you receive for each book sold likely only amount to a few dollars (if that). According to an online thread discussing how much revenue academic authors make on their published books, one author received about $300 in royalties over several years for a research monograph they co-authored in a specialized area of applied mathematics. Another author earns about $800 per year in royalties for a graduate-level textbook they describe as “moderately successful.” Hadley Wickham, author of the popular R for Data Sciences only makes $1.86 for each copy sold (and it sells on Amazon for $33.37). Authors of chapters in an edited book typically don’t get paid at all (unless you count receiving a free copy of the book as “getting paid”, but I sure don’t).

So really, the equation for publishing looks more like this: Professor writes book + Book is published by academic publisher = Professor might make some spare change.

The OER ‘industry’

When it comes to OER, there are probably several different possible versions of the equation. It’s often not talked about, but academics often receive via grants to create OER. Many institutions have, or are in the process of creating, OER grants (e.g. UPEI, Dalhousie). At the University of Victoria, you can receive up to $5000 in grant funding. Provincial organizations, such as BCcampus and ecampus Ontario, also offer grants for open textbooks and open modules, with many projects receiving over $90,000 in funding. While this funding doesn’t go directly to an academic’s pocket, it can be used to defray costs, hire others to help with content, and in some cases, can be used to pay for a teaching release.

A new equation for OER: Professor receives grant + Professor writes book = Book is published as an OER.

What I find most interesting about all of this? Professors are ALREADY being paid to write textbooks and resources. That is quite literally their job as an academic: teaching, research, and writing. In many ways, the existing system, where they get paid for books they wrote while being paid, doesn’t make any sense… and isn’t even feasible for people in other professions. I’m certainly not allowed to profit off the work I do every day, and I work just down the hall from those academics. How does that make any sense?

Moral of the story? Academics are already getting paid to write, and publishing a book isn’t typically about the money anyway. So why do we make money such a large part of the conversation about OER? The only way capitalism can ruin OER is through our own individual selfishness. So let’s decide not to let that happen.

It’s not just about money; it’s also about control

Money isn’t the only thing we need to consider when asking whether capitalism will ruin open practices. There’s also the issue of control. Capitalism is all about control: controlling your property, owning things, making a profit. Open is the exact opposite; it’s about releasing control, relinquishing ownership over things we’ve created. Are we ready for that?

This is a question I ask myself regularly: Am *I* ready for that?

As part of my job, I’ve designed and created an online orientation program for new UVic students. The program consists of dozens of activities about academic expectations, academic integrity, mental health, finances, navigating campus, sexualized violence, and more. On a somewhat regular basis, I chat with folks from other institutions, fielding questions about our program. They almost always want to see some of the activities, a request I’m generally unable to fulfill since the program lives within our learning management system, and therefore behind a university log-in. One institution has even recently asked about the possibility of acquiring some of our content, so that they don’t have to start from scratch.

In short, we’ve had conversations at work about publishing some, if not all, of our content and activities as open educational resources.

I love talking to other people about our program. I have no problem sending them screenshots, videos, scripts and overviews. It’s my goal to help other people create better online orientation programs for their students. And yet, I have such a resistance to publishing our content as OER.

Even after thinking about this for months, I’m still not quite able to articulate why this resistance exists. Undoubtedly, I like control. When sharing screenshots, videos, scripts and overviews, I retain control. The idea of giving this up makes me super uncomfortable. It’s not the idea of other people revising and remixing the content; I actually think it would be fun to see how other people change and improve the activities (I could then adopt the improved versions for myself!). For me, I think it’s mostly the idea of not knowing where my content lives, how it’s changed and grown, the impact it’s having. I don’t want to give up control, because I don’t want to give up that connection.

If it sounds like I have an unhealthy attachment to my work… well, I just might. But I suspect I’m not the only person out there who is hesitant to give up control (in fact, I know I’m not). And I suspect my reasons for this hesitation aren’t the only reasons that exist.


Our Western society is dominated by capitalism, a system based on ownership and profit. Open practices are the opposite of capitalism in so many ways, being based on free access, and the ability to revise, remix, and redistribute. So, can open practices exist and have longevity in a capitalistic world? I, perhaps optimistically, think the answer is yes. But, for that to happen, we need to build systems outside and alongside our current capitalistic systems and push back against our own individual feelings of control and self-worth.

Long live open practices!


Cheverie, J. (2013, April 8). MOOCs and intellectual property: Ownership and use rights. EDUCAUSE Review. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2013/4/moocs-and-intellectual-property-ownership-and-use-rights

Demoncourt, F. [Franck Demoncourt]. (2016, February 18). How much revenue do academic authors make on their published books? [Online forum post]. Academia Stack Exchange. https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/63619/how-much-revenue-do-academic-authors-make-on-their-published-books

ecampus Ontario. (n.d). Open content initiative. ecampus Ontario. https://www.ecampusontario.ca/open-initiatives-funding/

Peter, S., & Deimann, M. (2013). On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis, 5(1), 7–14. https://doi.org/10.5944/openpraxis.5.1.23

University of Victoria. (n.d). Learning and teaching grants and scholarships. University of Victoria. https://www.uvic.ca/learningandteaching/faculty/grants/learning/index.php

Weller, M. (2018). Twenty years of edtech. EDUCAUSE Review, 53(4), 34–48. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/7/twenty-years-of-edtech

Wickham, H. [@hadleywickham]. (2018, August 22). I just crunched the numbers and determined I make (on average) $1.86 on each copy of R$DS [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/hadleywickham/status/1032413255313055745

Wiley, D. (n.d). Defining the “Open” in Open Content and Open Educational Resources. Open Content. https://opencontent.org/definition/

Featured image by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

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