In the week prior to the OpenEd conference, Cengage Learning made a fairly big announcement with OpenNow, a “suite of digital products for general education courses with open educational resources (OER) content”. In an article from Inside Higher Education, I noted that this news was not out of the blue.
Phil Hill, the co-publisher of the blog e-Literate and a partner at MindWires Consulting, said he was not surprised by Cengage’s OER announcement. “If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that Cengage has been saying for at least a year that they wanted to get into this space,” he said. Hill says he was surprised, however, at how aggressively Cengage seemed to be promoting OER with this announcement. “We’ve seen other publishers dipping their toes in, but this seems as if it is central to Cengage’s strategy.” He noted that the announcement could cause other publishers to accelerate their OER strategies. “The movement is not going away,” he said.
Rather than looking at this specific news in isolation, it would be helpful to put this in some historical context showing the interplay of the OER movement and changing strategies from the big textbook publishers. We advise a number of large and small publishers in our role as consultants, and they occasionally ask us to help them to better understand some of the points we’ve been making about OER in our posts over the years. Put another way, here comes a thread of historical e-Literate quotes.
In response to a 2011 article in the Chronicle titled “Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources”, Michael (then an employee of Cengage) chastised his fellow textbook industry professsionals, writing:
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.
It’s more than six years later, but (a) note the burgeoning category of courseware, and (b) see Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, and Cengage initiatives, among others. Put simply, it was apparent that publishers needed OER strategies at least as far back as 2011.
Fast forward to 2014 when Michael had departed Cengage to enter the joyous world of market analysis and consulting, he offered the observation that many publishers actually like OER:
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.
This point is crucial, as OER is not just an opportunity to co-opt a movement but a potential strategy for publishers to solve an existential problem.
In 2016 Cengage released a survey on OER adoption and attitudes, which to me signaled that they were getting quite serious about figuring out their strategy.
According to [VP of Content Strategy] 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.
By spring of 2017, Cengage put further meat on the OER bone with the release of a podcast series, where I noted:
And this new podcast fits in the same mold. Cengage does not fully understand OER, but they seem to like it and see it as a way to help them out of a hole, and while they learn more, the company is sharing their learnings through surveys, resource pages, and podcasts.
Given some mistakes in how the podcast was released, I suggested that Cengage learn and use David Wiley’s description of the 5 Rs of open (Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute) in their material.1 With this historical context in mind, let’s turn back to the OpenNow announcement and the next stage of Cengage’s move into OER strategy.
In an interview with Cheryl Constantini, she described how Cengage released MindTap ACE last year and learned some key lessons about OER. While many people want affordable solutions, the market feedback according to Cengage was that if you’re going to go OER, go all in with OER – mixing with proprietary doesn’t resonate. This led to OpenNow as a pure OER play, unlike MindTap ACE.
Constantini also described the market feedback on the need for simplicity and that MindTap ACE had too many features. This led to the choice of using Learning Objects, a platform Cengage acquired in 2016, to be the base for OpenNow. The approach is to take OER standard textbooks, realign them as outcomes-based design along with associated assessments and added videos, and release everything with an open license. Nine of the 12 initial courses are from OpenStax, and three are re-licensed courses from Cengage now with CC-BY licenses. The videos use YouTube open licenses.
For each course Constantini estimates that the modifications take $50k – $100k of internal work, including verifying of licenses for embedded elements. I would note a certain irony here in that OpenStax produces more-or-less traditional digital textbooks requiring publishers or OER services companies like Lumen to break apart and realign to competencies or outcomes.
Cengage charges $25 per student per course for OpenNow.
The assessments and instructor manuals raise a “burning issue” about whether they should be accessible by students or not. Initially Cengage is adopting the OpenStax pattern of licensing openly but controlling by passwords; however, this is a subject they need to think through and figure out over time.
At the OpenEd conference last month, there was significant interest in the OpenNow presentation with people spilling over into the hallway. The movement of publishers into the OER space is real, and this release from Cengage should be viewed as part of a long-term shift in strategy. And one that attempts to fully embrace OER as seen by this interesting description:
- High-quality, 100% OER narrative and assessment content from Cengage, OpenStax and other third-party sources.
- CC-BY-licensed (5Rs), so instructors and institutions can adapt and reuse all narrative and assessment content as needed.
Update: Added description of pricing model.
By Phil Hill
- Disclosure: David Wiley’s company Lumen Learning is a client of MindWires. [↩]