Textbook Publishers and OERs

Not too long ago, The Chronicle ran an piece called “Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources.” The meat of the article was some quotes of textbook company executives on a panel at an SIIA conference speaking out against a provision in a United States Department of Labor grants program that requires course materials being produced for grant-supported courses to be released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Here’s a taste of their comments:

“I think it’s very dangerous for them to be in the product business,” said Bill Hughes, vice president of business development and innovation at Pearson Education.

“There’s no free lunch,” said James Kourmadas, vice president of strategic marketing at McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

“I fear when big bucks from government is put into certain places, it actually stops pushing people to innovate,” said Kevin Wiggen, chief technology officer of Blackboard Xythos….

“I think what the industry says is that we don’t see the point in the government collecting up taxpayer money and trying to rebuild an industry from scratch,” said Mr. Kourmadas of McGraw-Hill.

To my esteemed fellow textbook industry professionals, I reply,

Dudes. Seriously?

This is the appropriate moment in the post for me to make the obligatory disclaimer. Although I am an employee of Cengage Learning, this is my personal blog. The views I express here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. I don’t know what my Cengage colleagues think about the grant program. The subject has never come up. But I can tell you what I think about it personally. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to require that educational materials developed with taxpayer dollars be freely available to all taxpayers. I think the amount of money going specifically toward the creation of educational materials as part of a larger grants program to encourage the development of job training courses is tiny relative to the total educational materials market. I think the fact that the Federal government specifically chose a commercial-friendly license (the Creative Commons equivalent of the Apache license) indicates that they precisely are not trying rebuild an industry or pick winners and losers. And I think it’s unseemly for education companies to be expressing consternation that the Federal government is making investments in education.

I’m now going to make some more general comments about the textbook industry and OERs that are similar to those I have made in my official capacity as a Cengage employee, in the presence of and with the support of Cengage executives, during a press interview about OERs. I’m setting these comments off in block quotes to be clear about where they begin and end.

Back in the early days of open source software in general and linux in particular, predictions about the future tend to fall into one of two categories. There were those who claimed it would never gain enough momentum to go mainstream and those who claimed it would eventually destroy the private source market. What actually happened was far more complex. Linux dominates some market categories, thrives in others, and is barely a presence in still others. IBM, Oracle, and HP all still offer private source UNIX operating systems, but they all do a lot of linux-related business too. Microsoft’s desktop business has not been impacted at all but their server business has been impacted significantly. Pure open source companies like RedHat have grown large and gone public. More generally, some open source projects have survived and thrived while others have perished. Many different open source-related business models have been tried with varying degrees of success. Some open source projects have become sustainable as pure volunteer efforts while others have needed commercial support.

I see no reason to believe that open educational resources will be any different. Right now, we’re in the early days. It’s very hard to predict which sustainability models will work or who the winners and losers will be. But I think it’s reasonable to predict that, five years from now (a) there will still be for-profit textbook publishers (though their all-digital products probably won’t be called textbooks by then) and (b) most or all for-profit textbook publishers will be involved with the production, support, and/or distribution of OERs in some way or other. There will likely be some OER projects that will have achieved long-term sustainability without commercial support and others that will have achieved long-term sustainability because of commercial support.

In the end, there are only two things that matter: Cheaper and better. Right now, a lot of the OER movement’s focus seems to be on making education cheaper. That’s a good thing. But we also need to make education better. David Wiley’s formulation of standard deviations per dollar is the right idea. OERs offer up a whole new set of sustainability models, including but not limited to business models, for trying to get more bang for the buck. From a textbook publisher’s perspective, they provide additional ways to work with the educational community in order to provide students with effective and affordable educational materials, regardless of the license under which they happen to be distributed. That’s a good thing too.

There’s a bit of kabuki theater going on in the industry right now. I can virtually guarantee that most or all of the companies represented by the textbook executives on that panel has some sort of OER-related initiative going on or at least in the planning stage, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn some of the panelists are aware of those efforts inside their respective companies. But because these companies aren’t yet confident that they have figured out how to turn OERs into more of an opportunity than a threat, the safe strategy seems to be to minimize and delay.1 This is what software company executives did in the early days of open source. It didn’t have much of an impact then and it won’t now either. Right now, OERs are not really moving the needle for textbook publishers. They are not yet a significant force on their businesses. Nobody knows when or how that will change, but there is little question of whether it will change. I don’t think it does the textbook industry any good to take the rhetorical stance displayed by these panelists.

Let’s just be open about where we are. OERs are coming. We don’t know much about what’s going to work and what isn’t yet. Government and the public sector have a role. Individuals and informal networked communities have a role. Textbook companies and the private sector have a role too. We’re all trying to improve students’ opportunities to make their lives better. Many of us, including those of us working in the government and in universities as well as those of us working in the textbook industry, are trying to earn a living in the process. Sometimes there will be conflicts of interest, and we won’t always agree on the right way forward. But let’s not fixate on that. Instead, let’s fixate on standard deviations per dollar. My personal sense is that, in any given discipline, there will be a different mix of learning assets that can be effectively produced as OERs by individuals, universities, or networked academic communities, and assets that are much easier to do well when you have the kinds of resources and centralized coordination that a publisher can offer. If the goal is effective and cost-effective student learning, then I think we are usually going to be looking at an empirically determined mix of OERs and copyrighted content, preferably delivered with some sort of mechanism that enables us to better understand the learning contexts and the effectiveness of the content over time as we gather and share more usage data.

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  1. As an aside, I have spent time with Bill Hughes at a number of educational conferences, and he has always struck me as a smart and decent guy. I’m not trying to question the honesty or character of the individual speakers. I am questioning the corporate P.R. strategies that their comments suggest. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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7 Responses to Textbook Publishers and OERs

  1. Rob Reynolds says:


    This is a good, insightful post on the PR position folks in the industry seem to be taking. As OERs and Open Textbooks snag a portion of market revenues it is suicide to take any position other than “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Of course major textbook publishers have OER initiatives going on, at the corporate and imprint levels, if for no other reason than to hedge their bets effectively. I agree with your point, but from a publisher perspective I think there is a strong desire to avoid any public appearance of weakness or vulnerability. This is the same strategy publishers have utilized when addressing other emerging technologies or when asked about competitor products.

  2. 1.- You cannot stop the world.
    New innovations, technologies, you like it or not , will do whatever they are
    supposed to do.
    2.- OER and Open textbooks and open books ( ebooks) will kill the publishing
    industry today or tomorrow. But it will.

    3.- Most recently Kodak film industry adapted itself into digital world .

    TREND is free education, free knowledge for the world . And digital technology is capable of doing it. When shared by millions cost is nill per person. Do not forget that . Even if you charge $ 2 per piece you can recover all cost of investment .

  3. Kevin Wiggen says:

    As I did on the website where the original quote was posted, I would like to clarify the comment from me, which was taken from a panel discussion I was participating in. I’m actually very supportive of the OER movement, and find the Khan Academy a great OER innovator. My comments during the panel, in context, were about the ways that federal funding can be used to foster greater attention to and investment in innovation and interoperability. A great example is the open education standards movement, which can help to support the OER movement by making it easier for educators and institutions to share and exchange content. That’s an area that Blackboard is investing heavily in, and that’s what my comments on the panel were focused on. So I wanted to make it clear here to avoid the interpretation that we’re not fully supportive of the OER effort.

  4. Jacky Hood says:

    There is a BIG difference between OER and open textbooks purchased with tax money and OER produced through private grants, work-for-hire at universities/colleges, or using innovative business models like those of Project Management Open Resources, Eleven Learning, Textbook Equity, and Flat World Knowledge. Why jump to the conclusion that opposing government OER is the same as opposing ALL OER? Personally I think the $2B should be given back to the taxpayers who earned it.

    Jacky Hood
    Director, College Open Textbooks
    Coordinator, Open Doors Group

  5. Jacky, I don’t assume they are equivalent positions. I just don’t think that either position is terribly defensible.

  6. James Pepper says:

    If you want innovation, it is not going to be coming out of this, it is individuals with good ideas that make the change. I developed a means of making PDF files and forms accessible to the blind and illiterate in 43 languages worldwide because I was blind for 11 years with tunnel vision and I got most of my eyesight back, so I went through the code and figured out the problems and fixed them! I have created a fully accessible full color ebook format that when encrypted remains accessible to screen readers and so content only needs to be made once for everyone and publishers can maintain their copyrights by doing all of this inhouse, once for everyone! The content does not interfere with the GUI of a computer so a computer does not have to be dedicated to accessibility, it can be used for other purposes and I automated the process of making this content so that ordinary people who do not know anything about accessibility can consistenly make the content accessible.

    The CIO of Social Security wrote that they want to issue a grant to see my process. They told me about this after Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security put me in contact with the CIO.

    The problem here is that I am not a programmer, I fall through the cracks of the corporate world so you would not see this process created by any of the big companies. I came at the problem from the point of view of a blind man and solved the problem of accessibility because I have the experience of being blind, for isntance carrying around a backpack with a giant tape recorder from the American Foundation for the Blind to record my classes all through college. I am highly motivated to solve this problem of accessibility because I don’t want anyone else to have to mess with what I had to deal with on a day to day basis.

    In 2008, using conventional means, I made the US National Voter Registration form to be accessible to the blind and the Vice President of the American Association of People with Disabilities personally presented those forms to the federal government. I made it so the blind could fill it out without assistance using free screen readers and this was before I found out about NVDA.

    So where is the motivation to innovate if you are not in the safety of the corporate world? I still have to pay the bills.

    I have this ready for 99 languages covering 6.6 billion people. Once I realized this worked in Hindi I went for every language I could find. Only 43 languages have existing screen readers that work with this system, but to lay out more languages is only a matter of laying out the phonetics in existing software.

    My goal is to emancipate the blind and bring literacy to the entire world. Know anyone who can help me do this?

  7. Mike Junior says:


    I am not representing McGraw-Hill with any of the following. The bill wasn’t clear about whether creative commons license would have to be applied to both newly developed content and existing copyright content. Whether federal funds should be used to develop OER content is a separate issue and taxpayers can help decide that issue.

    I am a proponent of open educational resource availability. I see a future where OER and other educational resources sit side by side and share various services and to serve schools, instructors and students more fully.

    The greatest need for positively impacting teaching and learning – whether filled by publishers, instructors, etc. – is to curate the vast amount of information and content piling up in this age of increasing information overload. Simplifying access and personalizing the student experience is an amazing opportunity afforded us by technological advancements and we need to stay focused on delivering greater affordability while improving outcomes and preserving instructor choice.