Profiting from OER: A New EdTech Model

Profiting from OER: A New EdTech Model

Here at Cal State Fullerton, we’ve been hard at work lowering the cost of education for students by promoting the adoption of OER and A(ffordable)ER instructional materials.

That means we’ve been persuading instructors to give up their cherished traditional textbooks in favor of an open textbook or an eBook available through the library, or a mix and match of OER and AER from across the web.

We’ve been pretty successful so far! (In fact, our entire Master of Instructional Design and Technology program has gone entirely AER – no textbook purchase required! [I’ve had a hand in this, naturally!])

We’ve saved students thousands of dollars! But oh –

What’s a traditional textbook publisher to do?

Good ole traditional publishers realize that they have to evolve or die. Start-up edtech companies that have pitched their “disruptive” OER/AER products for a few years now, and traditional publishers have tried presenting ebooks or rental ebooks as “affordable.” Just offering cheaper textbooks isn’t enough. Students know that e-textbooks are a scam, and as a librarian, I can plainly see that this model is not sustainable.

But the model is changing, slowly and surely – both start-up companies and traditional textbook publishers are now trying out newer and more innovative business models to try to profit from AER. Some good, some not so good!

This article from EdSurge on the growth of “enabler” companies put a name on the trend I’ve been seeing in the parade of vendor demos that come through Cal State Fullerton. Whereas we’ve been calling EdTech and OER efforts “disruptive” to the traditional model of higher ed, there are now more companies that facilitate or “enable” shifts in higher ed. They’re not offering products in the traditional sense. They’re offering services or discovery layers, which librarians have a LOT of experience with.

For-profit OER, aka, LMS Plug-ins Everywhere

First, Boundless came for a visit. They pitched us a service where they develop OER for courses that students access through a mandatory plug-in to our LMS. Students are charged in this model – I can’t remember the exact number, but it was between $20 to 40 to access the course content. No up-front fee for this one, as long as Boundless could recoup the cost of OER development later through student fees.

Their mandatory LMS plug-in and student fee was as bad as traditional publishers pushing ebooks! Yes, the Boundless model is cheaper, but students are still beholden to paying a mandatory fee for access to digital content. The LMS plug-in functioned as a sort of piggy-backed parasitic LMS – students accessed content and completed quizzes in the Boundless LMS, which communicated with our Moodle gradebooks. What happens to these courses when Boundless goes out of business? And I hear that it is going out of business!

An OER Spin on Discovery Layers

Next, there was Intellus. Intellus’ model is FASCINATING to me! And probably the most useful model I’ve seen so far. Intellus is basically just a custom discovery layer that integrates into the LMS. Intellus’ bots will scan your academic library’s resources to create its own index, and then will combine this index with their existing OER index to create a new discovery layer for faculty to more easily locate OER and AER for their courses.

The beauty of this model is that faculty can search and add content to their courses without leaving the LMS, and Intellus has a neat web app that allows faculty to organize content by module and learning objective as well.

This model focuses on libraries – they want to charge us several thousand a year to launch and maintain this service. (Because academic libraries have so much money, hah!)

While completely redundant since any self-respecting academic library ALREADY indexes all of its content in a local discovery layer, I thought that this could be a useful service that would enable greater OER and AER adoption among faculty because it makes the process easier, and makes it available at the point of need in the LMS. (But! This will only exacerbate the problems that arise when a library eBook goes away because it’s part of a subscription package, because the faculty didn’t tell us they were using it).

I do worry that the Intellus reps couldn’t pronounce EBSCO to save their lives, though. They kept saying “eh-bes-co,” and other librarians reported that the the reps didn’t know the difference between OER and AER. (Unfortunately many faculty fail to make that distinction also).

Interestingly, our new discovery layer we’re implementing at our library, Primo, actually offers its own LMS plug-in. So does MERLOT, a prominent OER repository. Their plug-ins are probably not as slick as Intellus, though.

OER-Centric Databases

Cengage is in the process of offering a somewhat similar model to Intellus, minus the indexing of local library content. Cengage is offering a series of subject-specific OER databases, and they’ll charge libraries by the database when it launches sometime this year. Their databases will have Cengage content also, videos and such. They, of course, have an LMS plug-in as well.

They’re also offering cheaper textbooks in a format that’s half traditional publisher/half Boundless – students will be charged $40 for access to an online textbook, but they’ll have perpetual access at least (if they download it). Cheap is great, but since they’re focused on targeting gen-ed classes, I can’t help but think OpenStax has already done it better and for free.

More Usable OER

Another interesting development – the Cal State OER repository MERLOT is partnering with content-delivery platform Vital Source. Details are forthcoming, but the gist is that Vital Source will use their fancy erReader platform to format Open Textbooks that are indexed by MERLOT.

A lot of OER have usability issues, so this is a nice solution for that (even if the usability issue is just that Word and PDF documents are often ugly). Really the appeal I see in this is that Vital Source is going to package open textbooks more like traditional publisher textbooks – which faculty will really like! The Bookshelf platform is also fully accessible, so faculty won’t have to worry about it.

Vital Source’s Bookshelf platform is already being used by Pearson to deliver etextbooks. The Bookshelf app is pretty nifty – you can annotate your textbooks and the annotations sync across your various devices (there’s a device limit of course).

The Appeal of Packaging and Findability

Overall, one of the biggest issues with getting faculty to adopt OER is that faculty tend rely on the textbook package – they rely on a monograph to guide their teaching, and on the supplemental materials that come along with it.

It’s published by a major company, and faculty also take that as a mark of quality. It’s easy to find because big publishers market to faculty.

If we are able to overcome these twin hurdles, packaging and findability, we will increase faculty adoption of OER/AER.

The more Open Textbooks that are available, and the easier they are to use, the more faculty will use them.

The more findable OER are, and the easier to integrate into their courses, the more likely faculty will be to explore what’s available and put them into their courses.

While I hate that Intellus is duplicating an existing library discovery layer, I do like that their product will enable faculty to find and use OER and library resources more easily in their courses.

And while I hate the model of requiring students to pay a set fee to access a digital textbook in a monopolistic textbook model, I do like that traditional textbook companies are trying to find new ways to lower prices, and I think they’re headed in the right direction with OER databases.

Final Word

There’s a fundamental uncoupling between content and service among textbook publishers – between holding fast to copyright (ahem, textbook DRM) and facilitating OER/AER adoption. The value of content is decreasing. There is less money to be made from monopolistic textbook practices (that once-solid foundation is eroding quickly!) but publishers are seeing that there is money to be made from a subscription-based model with OER databases and fancy discovery layers.

The shift is happening quickly toward OER enabling.

Long-term, OER will only continue to grow in scope and quality and usability, but there will always be a market to make this adoption process as easy as possible for faculty and students.