About That Cengage OER Survey

Last month Cengage Learning released a white paper titled “Open Educational Resources (OER) and the Evolving Higher Education Landscape” where the headline called out expected increases in OER adoption:

Open Educational Resources (OER) in higher education have the potential to triple in use as primary courseware over the next five years, from 4 percent to 12 percent, according to a survey of more than 500 faculty by Cengage Learning. In addition, the use of OER for supplemental learning materials may nearly quadruple in size, from 5 percent to 19 percent.

The 4 percent adoption of OER as primary courseware aligns with the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) finding of 5.3% using open textbooks (yes, we’re assuming the terms are interchangeable at least for the survey results). But the expectation that OER adoption may triple for primary usage and quadruple for supplemental is new. The BSRG did not estimate market growth – they just identified perceptions and barriers.

There were enough causes for skepticism, however, that prevented me from taking the report at face value. A traditional textbook publisher touting OER growth while offering little data or methodology to back up their claims. The tendency for  some OER advocates to run with half-baked numbers. The question of open-washing and associated risk of redefining OER.

I contacted Cengage and spoke to Cheryl Costantini, VP of Content Strategy to learn more about the study. Unfortunately, the deeper I dug the more credence I give to the results (unfortunate in terms of attention-grabbing blog post headlines). Long and short – the report seems like solid information despite a few flaws and need for broader sample size.

According to Costantini, the reason Cengage did this study is that in their view OER is another type of content, and there are high-level conversations at schools about adoption. Costantini described Cengage as making a move for a while to not be as proprietary, with the MindTap platform as an example where multiple content types – proprietary and OER – can be combined or used individually. Cengage views themselves as excellent curators, and OER content fits into this view. They want to accelerate this shift, and internally they need to better understand the dynamics of OER usage.

The study itself is a combination of primary survey of 650 educators, 92% of whom are instructors at US colleges and universities, and secondary research analysis on the Outsell, BSRG, Hewlett Foundation, state and federal government data sources, and web sites for OER providers. This is typical for internal publisher market models – what is somewhat unusual is the sharing of these results in a publicly-accessible white paper.

Given this analysis, Cengage broke down the market size for OER based on academic discipline, with some pretty big variations.



As for the headline – that OER primary usage is likely to triple in the next 5 years and quadruple for supplemental  – this finding comes from the primary survey. I am sharing the specific wording of the survey questions to provide context on how to interpret the results.

1. Please select the Open Education Resources (OER) provider you are aware of. For the purpose of this survey, please consider the following definition for OER:

Open Education Resources – OERs are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free (or at a minimum cost) use or re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge. For this definition, YouTube, Coursera, and Khan Academy are not considered OER due to their restriction in re-purposing and distribution of their material.

  • OpenStax College
  • WebWork
  • Creative Commons
  • OpenLearn
  • Lumen Learning
  • OER Commons
  • panOpen
  • MIT Open Courseware
  • Other open education resources (OER) (Please Specify)
  • I am new to OER and not aware of any provider – [Non-User]

We then asked them about their usage for each provider they were aware of:

2. What has been your usage of the following course material providers you are aware off?

Primary course material is the primary course content source, required material for students; supplemental course material is any secondary and supportive course content that can support student learning along with the primary course material, can be required or optional for students.

  • I am only aware of this provider but have never used their course material
  • I have used course material from this provider in the past, but not currently using their material
  • I currently use course material from this provider as supplemental course material
  • I currently use course material from this provider as the primary course material

Future usage:

You mentioned earlier that you make course material decision for [Pipe in selected enrollment range] enrollments annually. What percent is using OER course material as primary and/or supplemental material today? What percent do you anticipate to be using OER course material in 3 and 5 years?

  • OER as Primary Course Material
  • OER as Supplemental Course Material

There are some questionable definitions in terms of providers, such as listing Creative Commons as an OER provider and discounting YouTube completely, when you can filter YouTube results to select openly-licensed content. In addition, the distribution of survey respondents skewed away from community colleges (only 22% of responses vs. 37% of undergrad enrollments in US) and towards for-profits (16% vs. 7%). With a relatively small sample size of 650, there are some significant errors in making these corrections. In other words, there is room for improvement for the next time Cengage does a similar study.

Nevertheless, this is a valuable report and an interesting headline. I would hope that others, such as BSRG, follow up and add to these estimate of future OER adoption. Is OER at a tipping point and about to move beyond the high-potential but low adoption status quo? What happens to proprietary textbook models if OER truly increases in usage by 3x?

Kudos to Cengage Learning for exploring this top and releasing the white paper publicly.

Download (PDF, 817KB)

Download the report here.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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