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.