Several months ago I wrote a post looking at the Top Hat's push into digital curricular materials through their Textbook product and Marketplace for digital course content. Leading up to that post, I had been planning to cover the Open Educational Resources (OER) angle, as the Marketplace included a number of openly-licensed material, much of it from OpenStax, and Top Hat had already begun marketing itself as an OER provider. At the time, the OER strategy seemed a work in progress. In fact, I found that some of my questions for company staff about OER basics - the role of Creative Commons licenses, community dynamics exhibited at the OpenEd conference, etc - led to a lack of answers, and at the time there was no export capability to get OER out of the platform.
To Fee or Not to Fee
The situation has changed since January, and with last month's announcement of Top Hat's Open Content Initiative the company is taking a stand on whether it is appropriate to charge for platform access. The idea of hosting and modifying OER on a fee-based platform became a big topic last year. Lumen Learning pioneered the Red Hat type model in 2014, and last year there was a big movement with Cengage, Knewton, OpenStax, Macmillan, and Top Hat all offering OER within their platforms. In many cases, the OER content itself has been redesigned from traditional textbook-in-PDF format to learning objective-driven content with aligned assessments.1
Top Hat has now removed the student platform fees and added an export-to-epub feature. As evidenced in a company blog post by CEO Mike Silagadze, they are not shy about it either.
At Top Hat, we’ve been working on making education more effective and affordable since 2009. Now, we’re happy to make a move that delivers on both fronts. Beginning April 12, with the launch of our Open Content Initiative, we’re offering completely free access to thousands of textbooks and other Open Educational Resources (OER)—freely accessible and openly licensed learning materials—on the Top Hat Marketplace.
It’s about time. Students have been forced to weigh the pros and cons of emptying their wallets and draining their financial aid to buy textbooks for far too long. [snip] Just as bad, digital publishing platforms and e-readers have been charging a toll to students—disguised as a platform fee—to access free, openly licensed OER.
Enough is enough.
I asked Silagadze about a point I noted when describing Cengage's OpenNow product:
For each course [VP of Content Strategy] 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.
Silagadze brushed off this description and stated that the modifications made by other providers were far smaller and easier to make than is being claimed. We now have a third variation in the OER market, with the provision of wrap-around platform and a clear argument that these platforms not only will be free on Top Hat, but that they should be free as a matter of principle.
- Free content, not dependent on specific platform
- Free and modified content, available on a paid platform, content available for export
- Free and lightly modified content, available on a free platform, content available for export
While this is a marketing position by one of the competitors in a new field, this move by Top Hat is a further sign of the OER movement breaking into different branches. From our perspective, the fractures in the OER community have been widening for the past several years, but to a degree this is a sign of success. Openly-licensed content usage is becoming more and more common in education, and even traditional publishers mostly accept the value of OER.
Perhaps more significantly, at least in terms of understanding Top Hat as a company, is that the OER initiative doubles down on their bet on faculty engagement. A well-known issue with OER (and even with non-open content) is that few faculty end up taking advantage when given the ability to modify the course materials in any significant manner. In theory many people talk about open pedagogy in terms of faculty modification and collaboration on content, but in practice this rarely happens. Top Hat's view is that the barrier has been flat content and cumbersome platforms, as best described in an eLearning Inside interview.
“We think the promise of OER has fallen down,” said Nina Bilimoria Angelo, VP of product and customer marketing at Top Hat. The Toronto-based company has created a platform to house, customize, and share OER and other educational resources. It has been used by over 2.8 million students to date.
“The promise was there’s a community that continues to build on open materials,” Angelo said. “But when those materials are trapped behind static PDFs, and then people are making changes to it on their own without a mechanism to share it back, that’s where things fall flat. We really wanted to create a system where things can be improved in real time, not over a 3 or 4 year cycle like with traditional publishers.”
“Discoverability is a challenge with OER,” Angelo said. “Quality can be perceived as uneven which is probably why OER adoption has stalled at the 5-10% level for instructors. There’s a lot of skepticism amongst higher educators. We’re trying to make sure all the high quality material is available in the Marketplace. Once it’s adopted, it’s really customizable. But then those customizations – this is the magic – those customizations can be shared back with the author and the team so that they can improve upon what they’ve created.”
This is the best way to interpret Top Hat's OER move, in my opinion, and you can see more details in my January post about the Marketplace to better understand the customization and sharing capabilities of the platform.
According to an internal Top Hat survey of users, 89% of adopters make changes to digital textbooks that they adopt, with 22% reporting "lots of customization". If this internal data is representative, there may be some indicators that faculty can be more involved in modifying and sharing content. Top Hat is betting on faculty engaging with content, modifying it, sharing it, updating it. And they are betting that this model will drive faculty adoption decisions.
There are a lot of unknowns about faculty adoption and modification of OER content through the Top Hat Open Content Initiative, but it is clear that the company is positioning itself differently than other providers. The transformation of digital curricular materials continues.
By Phil Hill
- Disclosure: Lumen is a client of MindWires, and I recently gave a paid keynote at a Top Hat user's conference. [↩]