Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obstacles to Faculty Adoption of OER and Open Textbooks

It's certainly interesting to note the effect that e-books and self-publishing have had on the trade fiction industry. The digital evolution has resulted in an overhaul of publishing processes, an upheaval of traditional supply chain roles, and a complete change in value and pricing.

For me, as both a serious traveler with some casual reading needs, one of the most interesting by-products of the e-book era is the resurgence of the "dime novel." I use this term to refer to self-published and backlist novels -- generally science fiction and crime fiction -- that cost between $0.99 and $2.99. These are generally fun reads, mostly forgettable, and hit just the right spot on flights from Boston back to St. Louis.

This lower-level pricing exists for several reasons. First, fiction and non-fiction has become easy to publish and distribute through the growing number of online services. Second, because the major channels of retail distribution are limited -- Amazon, B&N.com, iTunes, Google -- it is manageable for an individual author to promote his/her self-published title to a niche audience. Finally, one of the easiest ways for self-published fiction authors to differentiate themselves and attract new readers is through low pricing. It is a form of competition.

The results of self-publishing and lower pricing models in the trade e-book market have led many people to ask me why we haven't seen/aren't seeing the same type of changes in education related to OERs and open textbooks. It's a good question and one I want to address briefly in this post. I'll start by listing the differences between the two markets that are inhibiting the same sort of disruption, and then I will offer some suggestions about what it will take to facilitate faculty adoption of OERs and open textbooks on a broad scale.

Primary Differences between E-textbook and Trade E-book Models

Let's start out by defining key market differences that make it more difficult for self-published and/or open content in education to gain the same kind of recognition and adoption levels (and production enthusiasm) that we have seen in trade fiction.
  • The selection/purchase model is distinct-- If I write and publish a novel I can market it directly to my end users -- my readers -- and, assuming I have a decent product, and create sales through effective direct-to-consumer marketing. The education market, of course, is different. In this market, the adoption process is the determining factor, which means products must be effectively marketed to a limited number of gatekeepers who must give their stamp of approval to a product before it can be purchased byt he end user -- my students. This results in a pseudo or full-fledged direct-to-business marketing model that is difficult for an individual to navigate. The bottom line is that it is much harder in education to get a product -- even a free one -- to an consumer.

  • There are too many distribution channels in education -- Of course, the reality is that even when we do create great OER and open textbooks the multitude of distribution channels in education make it incredibly difficult to market or find content effectively. Who (among average working faculty) are even aware of the Open Stax textbooks or of any open textbooks that are not part of a commercial, for-profit initiative like Flat World Knowledge (which competes with traditional commercial marketing tools)? The reality is that, while PR announcement sand interviews in high profile news sources may raise awareness for open initiatives in some sectors, I would argue that they have little or no effect on whether faculty actually adopt OER or open textbooks.

  • The penetration of digital is education lags behind the trade market -- For those who have read my different reports or my book on the growth of digital textbooks in education, you know that digital content is indeed increasing rapidly in terms of usage. Still, the market for digital in education lags considerably behind the trade fiction market. This means that we have yet to see the broad demand for digital products or the tools/platforms that might facilitate the same kind of self-publishing and distribution that we have witnessed in the trade market.

  • Generally speaking, OER and open textbooks are not as competitive as the commercial alternatives -- I know that foundations like Gates, Hewlett, and 20 Million Minds have poured significant funding into the OER/open textbook movement, and we are seeing high quality, compelling resources as a result. The problem is that, while good as individual resources, the content and product being developed by these initiatives is not competitive with similar products being created by commercial publishers. This is because open content lacks the platforms that provide the type of differentiated learning experiences offered by MyLabs and MindTap. These platforms are big advantages for the major publishers and add perceived value to their content that open content groups cannot currently match.

  • Use and re-use of OER and open textbooks is too difficult -- I have said this many times before but it bears repeating. If I want to use a commercial content product, the publisher or provider makes it extremely easy for me to evaluate the product and then to use it within my teaching world. The goal of the major publisher is for me, as a faculty member, not to have to do anything but start teaching my classes. They will handle almost everything else. OER and open textbooks do not currently work that way. As a faculty member, I have to be willing to do a little work on my own. And, while I might argue that all faculty members should be willing to do this in order to reduce costs for students etc., it is naive to think that they will.

What Will It Take to Drive Faculty Adoption of OER and Open Textbooks?

There are some fairly obvious answers to this question in the previous section, but I would like to point to a couple of specific areas where OER and open textbook initiatives need to improve in order to gain broad faculty adoption.
  • Discovery -- Commercial publishers use the distribution channel chaos of educational content to their advantage, while for OER creators this noise means that no one can really find anything easily. Commercial publishers have nice portals for content discovery and purchase, and these are easy to find or be guided to by Google. These companies also have extensive sets of marketing materials that they send out to instructors, which are intended to help their content rise above the rest. And finally, commercial content providers have sales reps who work face-to-face with faculty helping them discover the right product for their classes. By comparison, OER and open content has no analogous portal(s) for easy discovery and information (and certainly not any that an average faculty member would be able to find). There are no materials to explain advantages of products and there is no one to help faculty get information or make a decision.

    If organizations hope to drive broad faculty adoption, discovery -- at the same level provided by commercial publishers -- must become a key priority.

  • Ease of Use and Differentiated Learning Experiences -- If we're really serious about faculty adopting and using OER and open textbooks, we must become competitive with regards to ease of use and differentiated learning experiences. That means that we must have platforms that make it extremely easy to teach with any OER or open textbook in a variety of platforms or Web sites. We must develop the same type of differentiated learning experiences for OER and open textbooks that are available through MyLabs and MndTap. This means flexible instruction, meaningful analytics, and adaptive student experiences.

  • Marketing -- But even ease of discovery and use alone won't lead to the wide adoption of OER and open textbooks by faculty. For that to happen, OER and open textbook organizations will have to market their products to faculty in ways that will reach that constituency effectively. This means having a presence at major conferences, employing targeted marketing campaigns, developing improved SEO, and purchasing search advertising.
If I haven't made it clear yet, I believe that OER and open textbook organizations/providers must act competitive with commercial content providers in order to become competitive for faculty adoptions. In order to reach that level of competition they must do more that simply build good or rich resources. They must become competitive in terms of content discovery and information, in terms of platforms, and in terms of marketing.

If and when that happens, we will see OER and open textbooks garner a significant portion of the learning content market in the U.S.


  1. I am an author for Flat World Knowledge (www.flatworldknowledge.com), mentioned in Mr. Reynolds’ thoughtful column as a commercial publisher of open textbooks. Mr. Reynolds makes some good points, but I think he is overly critical and pessimistic regarding access to open textbooks, at least those published by Flat World, and of the quality of the learning experience provided by these books. Flat World books are as easy to use from day one as those by traditional publishers. In fact, they are probably easier to use, as an instructor interested in them just has to go to the Flat World web site and read them, which anyone reading this comment can do right now. Students may also read them online for free, or via a variety of low-cost options. Traditional publishers do have platforms and sales reps, but these come at a price—a price that students must pay.

    Flat World produces learning aids for a nominal fee and publishes open textbooks by veteran authors that are peer reviewed and high quality and that have won some awards for their excellence. Its books are at least as good as those published by traditional publishers at a much higher cost, and it engages in extensive, innovative marketing. Mr. Reynolds rightly notes some obstacles in having instructors adopt open textbooks, but I think the present and future of open textbooks is rosier than he suggests.

    Steven Barkan
    Department of Sociology
    University of Maine

  2. Steven,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. First, let me clarify that I did not intend to sound pessimistic with regards to Flat World Knowledge. I have written positive notes/posts about Flat World in the past, and have listed the FWK model as an important part of the future of educational publishing in my book on the future of learning content.

    For the record, FWK has a solid track record of creating excellent textbooks and has a strong product model that addresses: 1) open content; 2) flexible access; 3) supplemental materials.

    If anything, FWK is an example of what I feel the overall OER/open textbook ecosystem needs in order to flourish with faculty. I would argue that FWK is successful precisely because it has developed a model that is designed to be competitive with commercial publishers. This means it provides focused efforts around discovery, ease of use, and marketing.

    Also, I am not actually pessimistic with regards to OER and open textbooks. The fact of the matter is that either non-profit foundations or VC/Angel groups will fund initiatives to address and commoditize OER/open textbooks in ways that will make them more attractive to faculty (and thus, adoptable). My goal with this post, more than anything, was to address key issues that I think such groups and new initiatives need to address.

    Again, I appreciate the comment.

  3. Hello Rob,

    Great article. To your point about discovery, would love it if you checked out a free resource we just launched to make discovery and comparison easier, and more of an apples to apples approach.


    We believe the best way to let more affordable, quality texts rise to the top is to have faculty come in and rate/review texts they have used. Outreach is also key for a tool like this--how do we get the word out to faculty without spending thousands of dollars?

    Faculty are often so busy, they may feel they have no time to discover and compare texts. Last week, I had a faculty member tell me he doesn't see what the price of the texts he choose for his students has to do with him--and his university caters to a large population of under-served students. It is mind blowing.

    Best wishes,
    Ingrid Ramos Nakamura

    ps. If you have time to send any feedback on the tool, you can use the feedback button within the site and that copies me.