Free Online Content Forces Publishers to Adjust

By Sean Cavanagh — July 03, 2013 9 min read
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Commercial publishers are accustomed to battling with one another for control of state and local markets for textbooks and other academic materials. Now they face a more complicated task: how to cope with what’s being offered to schools for free.

The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of “open educational resources” developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.

While those materials come in many different forms, they are generally defined as free resources that can be revised and redistributed by teachers and other users to meet their specific needs.

The rise of open educational materials is creating major shifts in a landscape that is already being transformed by the movement away from traditional hardbound materials to instruction delivered through technology. The best-known open resources live online, adding to their value among states and districts looking for low-cost, flexible materials.

Such resources are also emerging at a time when states have an incentive to share educational materials and borrow ideas from one another. All but a handful of states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a uniform set of academic expectations in English/language arts and math that were designed to replace the often-divergent standards used by individual states, which in turn led to the production of different sets of textbooks and other materials in different markets.

Scanning the Open Educational Resources Landscape

California, Utah, and Washington, among others, have taken steps meant to allow open educational resources to flourish.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are among the philanthropies to back OER.

Governments and other entities in Brazil, Poland, and South Africa have backed efforts focused on OER.

Other Groups
Organizations and institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, the CK-12 Foundation, Khan Academy, and Curriki have promoted or developed OER in various forms.

SOURCE: Software and Information Industry Association

But supporters of open educational resources and members of the commercial publishing industry say they expect the two sectors to coexist and produce classroom materials for years to come—in part, because of the wide range of needs among educators for content and for services that can help them organize that content.

Some commercial publishers, in fact, have launched their own open resources or have bought and incorporated those materials from their original creators.

The advantage in doing so is that “if you release things openly, you have a much better chance of getting a wide take-up—you can get extremely rapid growth,” said Victor Vuchic, a program officer in education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in Menlo Park, Calif., which has put some $140 million toward the development of open educational resources over the past 12 years. (The foundation also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of deeper learning.)

The market over the next few years “will be a blend” of commercial and open materials, Mr. Vuchic predicted. “We want healthy markets, but we also want an open sector, and open resources should be a significant factor.”

From Product to Process?

Many providers of commercial academic materials see the rise of open resources as a reflection of both technology’s growing place in schools and educators’ demands for personalized products that can be modified to meet the demands of individual classrooms and students.

That point was driven home in a report released this year by the Software and Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade organization representing providers of digital content among other products. There is less demand for publishers to provide a “complete and finished work,” the authors said, and curriculum is less likely to be regarded as a “product” and more likely to be seen as a “process,” one that “educators continue to develop and refine on an ongoing and iterative basis.”

Many representatives of publishing companies say they expect commercial providers of academic materials to adjust to open educational resources by competing with them in some circumstances, and offering for-cost products and services that are connected to those materials in other situations.

Open educational resources “are forcing publishers to take their game up a level—and that’s not a bad thing,” said Lee Wilson, the past board president of the Association of Educational Publishers, a Haddon Heights, N.J.-based group that is merging with the school division of the Association of American Publishers. “It’s a more vibrant market.”

But Mr. Wilson echoed a view held by many commercial providers in taking issue with the notion that open educational resources are free. The costs of producing those materials do not go away; they’re simply transferred from publishers to other entities, such as foundations, universities, or states, he said.

The academic materials provided by commercial providers are often of superior quality to open materials because companies invest time and money to get them right and tailor them to educators’ needs, added Mr. Wilson, who is the CEO of Filament Games, a Madison, Wisc.-based developer of learning games. “We save teachers time,” he said. While some open resources can generate finished products that clear that bar, he said many would not.

Commercial providers are likely to either join forces with open educational providers, or focus on creating for-cost products or services that developers of free materials cannot offer easily, said Barbara Kurshan, a former director of Curriki, a developer of open resources.

Those products and services could include distribution or curation of free materials, or the integration of them across technology platforms, said Ms. Kurshan, who is now the executive director of academic innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education and trying to help entrepreneurs understand the needs of K-12 schools.

“Publishers shouldn’t be seeing this as a threat,” Ms. Kurshan said, but rather as “an opportunity to engage the community in creating and shaping curriculum.”

Some publishers have already begun weaving open resources into their work. One such company is Pearson, which supports between five and 10 open educational resources, including libraries it curates, repositories of information it indexes, and resources that provide access to open and other materials, said Michael Chai, the chief digital officer for Pearson Education.

One such effort is Project Blue Sky, a platform that allows users to search through open postsecondary materials, such as textbooks, videos, and lesson plans, and integrate them with Pearson’s proprietary materials. The platform, which uses a search engine provided by the Silicon Valley company Gooru, allows visitors to select a mix of free and for-cost resources.

As open educational resources have taken hold, Pearson officials believe their company can serve as a primary resource for teachers who crave help navigating that world, Mr. Chai said.

“We definitely hear customer demand from teachers for us to help them make sense of open educational resources,” he said. While some educators can do that on their own, he said, “from what we’ve seen, they will be a minority.”

Some commercial providers’ pairings with open resources have been surprising. Last year, Blackboard Inc., which had sued companies for allegedly infringing its technology patents, bought two companies built on Moodle, a free learning-management system that had served as an alternative to products from Washington-based Blackboard. (“Blackboard Makes Unlikely Move Into the Open-Source World,” April 4, 2012.)

Open educational resources are licensed through a variety of sources, though one of the most widely used is Creative Commons, a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit that says it has issued some 400 million licenses.

Many open materials are licensed through agreements that allow them to be repurposed. Some licenses prohibit them from being used for commercial purposes, while some set other conditions on commercial or other uses, said David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, who has helped develop open materials for K-12 schools.

State Movement

Major philanthropies also have invested heavily in the development of free, open-access materials. In addition to the Hewlett Foundation’s efforts, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided millions in funding to grantees that have created a range of open academic resources. (The Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)

And in recent years, at least five states—California, New York, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington—have taken steps to encourage or support open educational resources, according to the software association, either by backing fledgling projects to design those materials or sponsoring full-blown development of resources across subjects and grades.

Utah has begun one of the nation’s most ambitious efforts to make open resources available in its schools. Its experiences, while still evolving, may offer a preview of how such resources will be integrated into classrooms in other parts of the country.

The state has developed open resources at various grade levels in science, math, and English/language arts, efforts supported with state funding and money from the Hewlett Foundation. Print textbooks continue to be widely used, and they are likely to coexist with open materials for years to come, said Tiffany Hall, the K-12 literacy coordinator for the Utah education department, who is helping oversee the administration of those materials in districts.

But state officials also believe change is coming. Within five years, Ms. Hall said, department officials hope 80 percent of Utah districts will be using open materials as the primary source for at least one subject.

Mix of Uses

The average secondary science textbook, which is typically used for about seven years in Utah, costs $123. Schools can arrange to have the state’s open educational materials in that subject printed out at a cost of no more than $7, estimates Ms. Hall.

Yet for many schools, the benefits of open resources are not financial, Ms. Hall said. Students can take those materials, or sections of them, home easily. They can take notes and write questions on them without getting into trouble.

Travis Lemon’s classroom offers an example of how Utah educators are blending both kinds of resources.

Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”

Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.

“It’s going to require an investment in teachers, rather than textbooks, on the part of our policymakers,” Mr. Lemon said.

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Free Content Challenges Publishers


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