Open Educational Resources in the Philosophy Classroom

by Richard Zach

Just as journal subscription costs have skyrocketed over the last couple of decades, the cost of college textbooks has gone up significantly as well.  And just as funding agencies and libraries have reacted to the rising costs of accessing research by championing open access, educational institutions, charitable foundations, and public interest groups are reacting with their own movement towards lowering textbook costs by championing “open educational resources” (OERs), especially open textbooks. Making learning materials available for free does not just save students money.  If they are not just free, but “open,” they also give instructors important kinds of freedom in the way they use these resources, e.g., to adapt them to suit their specific purposes, or to improve them.  This benefits not just the students, but also instructors.  Who hasn’t found issue with the organization of a textbook, or with the way it presents a particular issue, or wish it would cover some additional topic?  An open textbook allows instructors to change and add to it as they see fit.

Open educational resources are learning materials, such as textbooks, that are made available under an open license. These licenses allow users (instructors and students) not just to access these materials for free, but give them additional rights they would not otherwise have.  You may retain the material, in perpetuity. (Commercial publishers increasingly provide access to electronic textbooks and other resources only temporarily upon payment of a license fee. This is one way they try to undercut the market for used textbooks, for instance.) You may reuse the material for different purposes, e.g., in different classes. You are allowed to revise the material to make it suit your purposes better. You are allowed to remix, i.e., to combine the material with your own or other openly licensed materials to create new works. And you are allowed to redistribute the material, or revised and remixed versions of it, in any way you see fit, e.g., on a course website or by handing out hard copies.  These five rights: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute, are collectively known as the “five R’s.” An open license grants everyone these rights, subject to certain conditions.  The most popular open licenses, those developed by Creative Commons (CC), require that you acknowledge and link to the source of the material.  The CC “share alike” licenses also require you to license any derivative works under the same license, and the CC “non-commercial” licenses prohibit use of the material for any purpose that generates a profit.

For many disciplines, there are now substantial quantities of OERs available, including some very high quality college textbooks. The OpenStax initiative, for instance, publishes textbooks for introductory classes for many STEM fields as well as psychology, sociology, and history. These are professionally prepared, peer-reviewed textbooks produced to satisfy disciplinary standards, available for free online or for a nominal print-on-demand fee, and openly licensed. Many other initiatives to produce or distribute open textbooks and other OERs have been launched recently, including the BCcampus OpenEd resources in British Columbia, Open SUNY Textbooks, Open Oregon State, and MIT’s OpenCourseWare. To find OERs, visit the OER Commons or the Open Textbook Library.

Philosophy is not well represented in these initiatives, or in the OER movement as a whole. I suspect this is primarily due to the fact that—at least as compared with other disciplines—philosophers do not typically teach from textbooks per se.  We like to teach from primary sources, we assign articles and books in our courses. These articles and books are often under copyright. To make them available to students we require that they buy them (including in the form of anthologies or course readers).  Unfortunately, for the most part, we have to require it, since commercial publishers hold the rights to them. Philosophy textbooks do exist, and they are used.  Many individual philosophers are very good at sharing their own teaching materials (lecture notes, handouts, syllabi).  Often, however, they do not explicitly allow these resources to be used in the most efficient way possible, namely by expressly allowing the five Rs mentioned above.

There is one exception to the copyright issue that prevents philosophy instructors from making primary sources available. Works published before roughly 1920 are all in the public domain, that is, they are no longer protected by copyright.  This includes most works of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy and older translations thereof.  You may find them, e.g., on Project Gutenberg. In fact, one of the few polished open philosophy textbooks out there is a reader/workbook in Modern Philosophy. It was originally compiled and edited by Walter Ott, then converted to Markdown format by Alex Dunn, and is now available online here. On the BCcampus OpenEd site, you can download it directly in various formats or order a hard copy (also see the reviews there).  It’s an example of what’s possible simply by collating freely available texts. An enterprising teacher of ancient philosophy could likewise compile a reader of texts by Plato and Aristotle without running into copyright issues.  If you find the Modern Philosophy reader useful but would like to include other texts, you may also do so, thanks to the CC license. The material on the Early Modern Texts website of Jonathan Bennett, Peter Millican, and Amyas Merivale, is offered under much the same conditions as the CC BY-SA-NC license of the Ott/Dunn reader, and perhaps they can be persuaded to apply this license to their texts as well. And if you’d like to follow the lead of Project Vox and include early modern women authors, you could include readings, say, from Margaret Cavendish.

There is also an obvious exception to my suspicion that philosophers tend to not use textbooks: we almost always use them in logic courses. While we are fortunate that many philosophical texts are available in inexpensive editions (e.g., Hackett), the cost of logic textbooks can approach the exorbitant levels of textbooks in other disciplines. However, a number of open textbooks are already available for formal and informal logic. The most notable is P.D. Magnus’ introduction to formal logic forall x.  It, too, can be bought in hard copy (or ordered through your campus bookstore) from either or OpenEd (where you can also consult a couple of reviews). Forall x also provides an example of the usefulness of distributing a textbook under an open license, which allows revising and remixing. J. Robert Loftis has combined forall x with material from Cathal WoodsIntroduction to Reasoning (also open) to produce a more comprehensive Open Introduction to Logic (aka forall x: The Lorain County Remix), which also covers categorical logic. Tim Button has produced a revised forall x: Cambridge version, which ties in with his own open textbook on Metalogic. Anthony Eagle also has an open logic text, Elements of Deductive Logic, and SUNY OpenTexts just published A Concise Introduction to Logic, by Craig Delancey. All of these are published under Creative Commons licenses. There are a number of other logic texts that are distributed online for free, even some that were formerly commercially published such as Marans & Pospesel’s Arguments and Paul Teller’s Logic Primer. (See the list here; it includes my own Open Logic Project.)  These open alternatives do not yet come with the mountains of ancillary materials that commercial publishers (and instructors) use to justify the price of commercial texts, but of course anyone can contribute problems, solutions, and exam questions to open textbooks as well.

These are not the only philosophy OERs out there. You can find, e.g., lecture notes to several MIT philosophy courses on MIT OpenCourseWare. Individual faculty often make their lecture notes or course readers available online, and more and more of them allow free reuse, revision, and redistribution through CC licenses. For instance, Michigan’s Brian Weatherson has CC-licensed his lecture notes on decision theory and epistemology, and provides them in both in PDF and LaTeX format so they can be more easily revised or adapted. OERs also include resources that aren’t texts. At Open Yale you’ll find videos (and transcripts of lectures) by Shelly Kagan and Tamar Gendler, provided under a CC license. And Oxford University Podcasts has CC-licensed podcasts of philosophy lectures.

How can you help? Consider using more OERs in your own courses, and help improve them. The Rebus Foundation just announced a project to create an open Introduction to Philosophy textbook, and is looking for volunteers. If you already have lecture notes, syllabi, writing assignments, exam questions, or other resources you’re sharing or are willing to share: consider sharing them under a Creative Commons license, and provide them not just in PDF but also in a format that is editable. That way, others will be able to not just read or link to them, but to build on them and produce new, free, better teaching materials for philosophers.

Richard Zach is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary, Canada. He works on logic and the history of analytic philosophy, and edits the Open Logic Project. He is @RrrichardZach on Twitter.

One thought on “Open Educational Resources in the Philosophy Classroom

  1. Well, yes, Victorian translations of ancient phil are public domain, but they’re awful. All the good translations are still under copyright. I’m not about to use Jowett just because it’s free.

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