Tuesday, April 10, 2012

OERs and Free Learning Content as Part of the Strategic Services Roadmap for Major Textbook Publishers


We have already seen a good bit of buzz related to the complaint filed by 3 major textbook publishers against the startup Boundless Learning, and I have provided my own perspectives on possible implications here and here. As David Wiley points out, the heart of the case is really around whether or not someone can essentially "reverse engineer" existing textbooks and create shadow copies of those products without infringing on author or publisher copyright. The folks at Boundless Learning will take the position that the content contained in General Education textbooks is, in itself, not copyrightable because the information it contains is common knowledge/public information. The publishers will argue that their authors and editorial processes do indeed add uniqueness and originality to the collection of this public data, namely the stylistic writing of the authors and the scope, depth and sequence of content coverage.

Unlike Wiley, I do not see this lawsuit as a strategic or subversive attack against OER. I think this, in part, because my conversations with people at major publishing companies do not lead me to believe that they see OER per se as the actual enemy. Yes, I have had executives tell me in recent months that free and open learning content is here to stay and that it represents potential risks to their revenue in coming years if not managed properly. The people telling me this, however, were not talking about this content as something that needed to be fought or opposed, however. Rather, they were including it in statements about how their industry needs to continue shifting toward a services focus (as opposed to business model that is strictly product based).

For major textbook publishers, the threat of the many free content startups that will come along in the next few years is that these new companies could torpedo the publishers' chances of staking a major claim to the content services business in education (as major trade publishers have learned, owning all the content at a certain point in time will not prevent others from taking over the services/distribution part of the business). In order to thwart this threat, the publishers will want to set up as many protective barriers as possible to prevent third parties from using existing commercial textbook content in ways that might lead to content mapping or creating correlated content packages of free content that might serve as a substitutes for their products.

Ultimately, I don't see that there is any way they will be able to succeed with such a strategy because their General Education and foundational textbook content is based on and intertwined too deeply with pre-existing course syllabi and institutional curricula. In other words, the cat is already out of the bag. Major for-profit institutions are already replacing publisher textbooks with their own commercial course/textbook content that, to no one's surprise, covers the same topics and sub-topics. Instructors and foundations have already been active in creating popular open textbooks that mirror common course objectives and, subsequently, map quite nicely to publisher TOCs and content coverage. And, equally important, individual instructors continue to generate millions of free resources that are titled and tagged to course objectives and that, because of that tagging, are already aligned to textbook structures.

No, protecting the sanctity of TOCs and textbook outlines that deliberately mirror course structures and common institutional objectives is probably not something in which companies want to invest an inordinate amount of time. On the other hand, there are good content services strategies out there, and we don't have to look to far to find them.
  • Content lending programs -- If two thirds of U.S. public libraries already offer e-book lending, it makes sense that textbook publishers should move proactively to partner more creatively with institutions, libraries, and other organizations on lending programs.
  • Content subscription programs -- Whether its a Netflix model for learning content or something like the Sourcebooks solution for Romance novels, subscription programs are one of the most obvious business paths for traditional textbook publishers with regards to General Education. The content may not be unique but every institutions needs it and is already paying for it.
  • Mobile learning content strategies -- One-fifth of third-graders already own cell phones, so I think it is a good move to start investing heavily in mobile content services and adaptive learning strategies for learning on-the-go.
The bottom line, as Clay Shirky points out, is that publishing is no longer a job -- "it's a button." What Shirky means by this is that publishers need to find new ways to add value. This is particularly true for textbook publishers, whose biggest selling products are based on content that is not original. At least a part of that added value for major textbook publishers must come in the way of new service offerings and my feeling is that at least one part of those services will necessarily incorporate OERs and other free learning content.

Suggested Reading

3 Major Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up | The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Big Publishers’ Strategy on Boundless | iterating toward openness
Over 2/3 of U.S. libraries offer e-books; 28% lend e-readers — paidContent

A Netflix for magazines and the atomization of attention — Tech News and Analysis
Sourcebooks Launches Romance eBook Store - eBookNewser
One-fifth of third-graders own cell phones | Digital Media - CNET News
Publishing is no longer a job or an industry — it’s a button — Tech News and Analysis

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