Open Education Is Not a Luxury

Audre Lorde famously asserted that “for women . . . poetry is not a luxury.” Artistry and lived experience shared, while valued less than dominant notions of thought and process, is “a vital necessity of our existence,” she wrote (Lorde, Audre. Poetry is Not a Luxury. Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture, 1977, no. 3).

Open education is no less a luxury. Markets cannot administer equitable access to education or to cultural and scientific information any better than they can fairly manage access to health care. To invoke Lorde’s essay once again, it is vital to share “living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with,” to deepen understanding, to resist oppressions, and to improve lives.

American academics reeled earlier this month, once again, at the manifestations of information-gathering, critical analysis, and decision-making by an electorate we profess to serve and to champion. Scholars and our administrative leaders must learn to thoroughly engage with wider publics. Higher education must work for enrolled students and for non-paying and non-academic students alike. Higher education’s practices, and our products, must become more democratic to better serve democracy.

Back in 2013, the City University of New York’s JustPublics@365 project supported a participatory open online course (the POOC) that was entirely open to enrolled students, to guest lecturers, and to anyone who wanted to attend and participate. The POOC was free of charge and open to anyone with an internet connection, unlike the MOOCS (massive open online courses) being modeled by commercial education investors. My librarian colleagues and I struggled to make the POOC course readings – the book chapters and journal articles – as available as the course instructors were willing to make their lectures and discussions. But, because academic publishers charge big fees to academic libraries to provide online scholarly work to currently enrolled students and faculty only, we had to supplement traditional scholarly publishers’ distribution practices.

Instead, we worked with the authors to open public access to the course’s assigned works.  Thanks to open access advocates, it is entirely possible to ‘liberate’ scholarly texts from behind the paywalls publishers and their vendors erect. But it takes some know-how, determination and labor to liberate academic writing to make it available to global public audiences, to anyone who wants to give it a try. Most academic publishers allow journal articles to appear in non-commercial spaces, either immediately or after an embargo period (usually 6 to 24 months). The SHERPA/RoMEO database allows authors to find publishers’ standing policies for openly posting published journal articles on personal websites or institutional repositories, such as CUNY’s Academic Works repository, for which we have clear instructions for author posting. Book publishers too are frequently willing to allow authors to openly publish chapters with permission. Just ask, and you may find your publisher willing to amend your contract to allow greater global access to your work.


Student protests at the University of Vienna. Photo by Manfred Werner, used under a CC BY-SA license.

About the Author

Prof. Polly Thistlethwaite is Chief Librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center.