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,
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.
- 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. [↩]