A Weird but True Fact about Textbook Publishers and OER

As I was perusing David Kernohan’s notes on Larry Lessig’s keynote at the OpenEd conference, one statement leapt out at me:

Could the department of labour require that new education content commissioned ($100m) be CC-BY? There was a clause (124) that suggested that the government should check that no commercial content should exist in these spaces. Was argued down. But we were “Not important” enough to be defeated.

It is absolutely true that textbook publishers do not currently see OER as a major threat. But here’s a weird thing that is also true:

These days, many textbook publishers like OER.

Let me start with the full disclosure. For 18 months, I was an employee of Cengage Learning, one of the Big Three textbook publishers in US higher education. Since then, I have consulted for textbook publishers on and off. Pearson is a current client, and there have been others. Make of that what you will in terms of my objectivity on this subject, but I have been in the belly of the beast. I have had many conversations with textbook publisher employees at all levels about OER, and many of them truly, honestly like it. They really, really like it. As a rule, they don’t understand it. But some of them actually see it as a way out of the hole that they’re in.

This is a relatively recent thing. Not so very long ago, you’d get one of two reactions from employees at these companies, depending on the role of the person you were talking to. Editors would tend to dismiss OER immediately because they had trouble imagining that content that didn’t go through their traditional editorial vetting process could be good (fairly similarly to the way academics would dismiss Wikipedia as something that couldn’t be trusted without traditional peer review). There were occasional exceptions to this, but always for very granular content. Videos, for example. Sometimes editors saw (or still see) OER as extra bits—or “ancillary materials,” in their vernacular—that could be bundled with their professionally edited product. That’s the most that editors typically thought about OER. At the executive level, every so often they would trot out OER on their competitive threat list, look at it for a bit, and decide that no, they don’t see evidence that they are losing significant sales to OER. Then they would forget about it for another six months or so. Publishers might occasionally fight OER at a local level, or even at a state level in places like Washington or California where there was legislation. But in those cases the fight was typically driven by the sales divisions that stood to lose commissions, and they were treated like any other local or regional competition (such as home-grown content development). It wasn’t viewed as anything more than that. For the most part, OER was just not something publishers thought a lot about.

That has changed in US higher education as it has become clear that textbook profits are collapsing as student find more ways to avoid buying the new books. The traditional textbook business is clearly not viable in the long term, at least in that market, at least at the scale and margins that the bigger publishers are used to making. So these companies want to get out of the textbook business. A few of them will say that publicly, but many of them say it among themselves. They don’t want to be out of business. They just want to be out of the textbook business. They want to sell software and services that are related to educational content, like homework platforms or course redesign consulting services. But they know that somebody has to make the core curricular content in order to for them to “add value” around that content. As David Wiley puts it, content is infrastructure. Increasingly, textbook publishers are starting to think that maybe OER can be their infrastructure. This is why, for example, it makes sense for Wiley (the publisher, not the dude) to strike a licensing deal with OpenStax. They’re OK about not making a lot of money on the books as long as they can sell their WileyPlus software. Which, in turn, is why I think that Wiley (the dude, not the publisher) is not crazy at all when he predicts that “80% of all US general education courses will be using OER instead of publisher materials by 2018.” I won’t be as bold as he is to pick a number, but I think he could very well be directionally correct. I think many of the larger publishers hope to be winding down their traditional textbook businesses by 2018.

How particular OER advocates view this development will depend on why they are OER advocates. If your goal is to decrease curricular materials costs and increase the amount of open, collaboratively authored content, then the news is relatively good. Many more faculty and students are likely to be exposed to OER over the next four or five years. The textbook companies will still be looking to make their money, but they will have to do so by selling something else, and they will have to justify the value of that something else. It will no longer be the case that students buy closed textbooks because it never occurs to faculty that there is another viable option. On the other hand, if you are an OER advocate because you want big corporations to stay away from education, then Larry Lessig is right. You don’t currently register as a significant threat to them.

Whatever your own position might be on OER, George Siemens is right to argue that the significance of this coming shift demands more research. There’s a ton that we don’t know yet, even about basic attitudes of faculty, which is why the recent Babson survey that everybody has been talking about is so important. And there’s a funny thing about that survey which few people seem to have noticed:

It was sponsored by Pearson.

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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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4 Responses to A Weird but True Fact about Textbook Publishers and OER

  1. Wayne Parkins says:

    Nice post—I have a couple of comments, from someone who has functioned in the belly of the beast as both a book peddler and seller of services. The elephant in the room around the transition to services is understanding that a product is not a service and attempting to “productize” a service is a recipe for disaster (and continuing revenue decline). The other portion of the elephant, is an ability to effectively execute on the fulfillment of the service offerings. Most publishers are outsourcing these services (no control of execution). If Wiley can elegantly deliver Wiley Plus across multiple platforms, SIS, and ancillary disparate technologies, in concert with OER then they will be WAY ahead of the competition.

  2. KarlD says:

    Red Hat seems to be doing this with Linux quite well. http://www.redhat.com

  3. Sanford Forte says:

    I said it 10 years ago; I’ll say it again: “content is not the problem”. There is plenty of content, both commercial and Open. We don’t need more content. Instead, we need to find more ways to leverage existing content within data-driven, educational-solutions-based service offerings.

    For the past 6-7 years, educational publishing companies (with whom I spent many years) have been migrating to integrated, solutions-based service plays that leverage their content. As well, there has been a “play nice” attitude among several publishers with the best Open content, because it has enabled publishers to say “we promote Open Textbooks/OER”. there is also a strong “meta” play being made by start ups that are taking a very different approach that leverages everything in the OER and commercial publishing spaces (see below).

    About David Wiley’s “content is infrastructure” meme: this meme has been in play by commercial publishers for several years (see above). the world is moving beyond “content”. Content is only part of infrastructure, with infrastructure as it relates to learning having a lot more to do with transparent semantic access to the full ecology of learning (i.e. everything necessary to achieve a directed learning outcome) – aided by social platforms; data-driven, predictive analytics; and, semantic search platforms that result in optimal, large-scale, positive learning outcomes. This is the future within which “content”, as we currently understand content, will play.

    Does this mean that publishers are really going to embrace Open content? Yes, and no. Yes, publishers may enthusiastically embrace the best Open Textbook content (e.g. the products coming from OpenStax), but that will happen only if OpenStax (and other OER textbook producers) find the resources and means to deploy products that are as 1) as convenient to use, with multiple supplements; 2) are kept current; 3) are made completely interoperable on digital devices; and, 4) are made as accessible as commercially available content. Will that happen?

    Another thing to keep in mind: Publishers could – if they chose – make private deals with the creators of Open content to make full all-rights-reserved commercial or CC-NC (Open, non-commercial) versions of textbook content. This might be a better option.

    Commercial publishers can convert their all-rights-reserved content (especially back list content) to Open content (either CC-BY, or CC-NC); this is a publisher’s right, because the publishers control licensing. The latter might not make some of their back list authors very happy at the outset, but authors of slow-moving back list books might change their minds if they can take percentage share royalties that are bundled with content arrays deployed within LMS/tutorial/data-driven outcome platforms. This is a work in progress; many publishers have considered the latter course, and will consider it more seriously as they look to leverage back list assets within fast-evolving educational service arrays. Where does that put the current stash of Open Textbooks? It’s a question worth considering.

    Regardless, textbook content is no longer the problem; optimal semantic access to people, tools (of which content is part),accompanied by appropriate data/analytics is where the action is.

    Semantic-driven educational service models are going to supplant our obsession with content; they will USE content, but not as we have traditionally boxed content (as textbooks).

    Learning is lifelong, and becoming a far more just-in-time activity than it has ever been. Combine that with a strong demand-side (employer) need for proven skill-sets accompanied by learning engines that deploy data-driven, predictive analytics, social platforms, and semantic search – and the textbook disappears. Content is not the problem.

  4. Pingback: A Weird but True Fact about Textbook Publishers and OER | Ida Brandão Space for MOOCs

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