I recently returned from the Knewton Education Symposium. Like last year’s Symposium, it was a blast for anyone involved with education — a 48-hour party for the mind. We had great participation from higher ed, K-12, and international markets. We had incredible discussions led by university presidents, teachers, and publishing company CEOs. And I had the opportunity to interview Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, our keynote speaker, which was a huge treat for me and all the other attendees. She was fantastic! Warm, fun, funny, super smart, and extremely candid. (More on the Symposium here.)
I opened the Symposium with a talk about disruptions I think are about to affect different parts of the education industry. One of those sectors is textbooks. Publishers have traditionally been low-margin businesses with huge infrastructure costs in content creation and distribution. I observed that quite soon Open Educational Resources (OER) will make free content possible at scale, and digital technologies will make free distribution possible. So how will publishers evolve?
We didn’t really explore these ideas again until our final panel, which was made up of leaders from the OER world. The session really got going when one panelist predicted that in the near future, 80% of textbooks would be replaced by OER content. Someone from the audience asked, “What should textbook publishers do?” The reply: “Prepare your investors.” It was a rare tense moment in an otherwise very convivial couple of days.
OER represents a tectonic shift in education materials. Try typing “mitosis” into Google. Almost every search result on the first few pages is for OER exploring the process of cell division. The same is true for nearly any other concept you type in: “subject-verb agreement,” “supply and demand,” “Pythagorean theorem” — you name it. And what you can find today on the Internet is probably less than one tenth of one percent of the OER out there. Most is trapped on teachers’ PCs.
Could free content at scale, distributed for free, break the textbook industry?
In a word: no. There are limitations to OER that offer the textbook industry ample room to add value in a post-OER world.
1) Low production values
Publishers have advantages in creating content with high-production values. For instance, Greg Mankiw’s economics textbooks are just really great books that professors love. Or take educational video. Little things that are common in OER video — like poor lighting, garbled sound, or inconsistent clothing/facial hair — distract and annoy students. Big companies also have an advantage over crowd-sourced content when it comes to making highly produced rich media, such as simulations for science class.
2) No instructional design
OER is unbundled and uncurated. It’s pieces of the puzzle. Someone needs to add all the bits together, make sure there are no content gaps, and determine scope and sequence. Someone has to turn the content into a course. Someone has to ensure that course complies with ever-shifting goals and standards, and add new research as it becomes available. And someone needs to create teacher editions.
3) Not enterprise grade
Most schools need a lot of support to use a particular product. It has to tie into the school’s grade book and information systems. It has to be rendered in multiple formats, so that visually and hearing impaired students can use a version of it. It has to be continually updated to current tech standards (e.g., Flash to HTML5). It can’t change URLs and break links. There has to be internet and telephone customer service for people who have questions. And the product can’t ever go down.
Given these limitations, I think publishers will have plenty of opportunity to adapt and innovate. If they do, OER won’t hurt their business. Instead, OER could help lower their costs and improve their product and user experience.
1) Focus on high-value content creation.
Publishers need to move up the value chain and focus on doing things that crowd-sourced content doesn’t do well. Anyone can make multiplication tables. But some material is hard to teach well, and publishers can find authors or lecturers who are great at explaining it. They can also create high-quality, bundled interactive experiences — learning apps, science lab simulations, professional-quality videos and games, etc. And, like everybody else, publishers get the benefits of OER — they could create sticky ecosystems of crowd-sourced content, recommending the best OER to pair with each product.
2) Inform instructional design with data.
Data-driven instructional design can help publishers continually improve their course materials. Up until now, instructional design was based on subject matter experts’ best guesses, happened only once as a new product was launched, and the efficacy of which was nearly impossible to measure. Soon, professional instructional designers will be able to continuously adjust their products based on real-time data, for instance to plug content gaps or identify and replace poor performing content. Instructional design will also soon be customizable (by difficulty level, standards, etc.) for each region or even school.
3) Emphasize services and technology.
Because it is a raw product, OER needs many more supporting services to make it usable than does traditional content. The pie chart of where publishers add value is already skewing increasingly towards implementation help, bespoke solutions, and institutional support. Schools need those services. Technology products, rich media, and OER will only make this side of publishers’ businesses more important.
OER will commoditize education content. Nothing can stop that. But it will only partially commoditize it. Learning materials can much more easily be commoditized than, say, movies. Anyone can pick up a video camera and start shooting (YouTube is crammed with the results), but we don’t see a whole lot of crowd-sourced content on TV or at the local multiplex. However, learning materials aren’t nearly as easy to commoditize as dictionaries or encyclopedias are. Learning materials are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. No one will know exactly where they fall for another 20 years, but there is plenty of space for publishers to add value on top of OER — if they are willing to focus on higher value-add content, instructional design, and services. Publishers who can’t beat OER deserve to go out of business. Those who have a strong vision of what OER will, and won’t, do will thrive in this new landscape.