*Note: This piece was originally published in DeltaThink’s December 2017 newsletter.
The newest twist in educational publishing—Open Educational Resources or OER—is dramatically disrupting textbook publishing, and conventional wisdom holds that these resources may even replace traditional textbooks all together. Case in point: in just four years, Eureka Math, an OER K-12 curriculum developed by the nonprofit GreatMinds.org, and funded by a federal grant to the New York State Education Department, has become the most widely used math curriculum in the United States according to a 2016 report by the Rand Corporation. Out of the 1168 elementary school teachers Rand surveyed, 52% said they used Eureka. In comparison, the most popular math textbook was used by only 32% of teachers.
While moving slower than math, OER is becoming a presence in English Language Arts, particularly given recent developments in states like Louisiana. More than 80 percent of school districts in that state have adopted– in whole or in part– a teacher -developed OER English Language Arts curriculum known as “guidebooks,” primarily in response to Common Core requirements. “There wasn’t anything on the market good enough for our teachers,” the assistant superintendent of academic content at Louisiana’s education department told Education Week in an article last spring. This curriculum is spreading beyond Louisiana. On November 2, Open-Up Resources, a startup that originated as a multi-state collaborative (and led by a former Pearson executive), announced its adoption and offering of a curriculum based on the Louisiana OER.
Yet despite these events, conventional wisdom about the death of textbook publishing just might be wrong. The need for scope and sequence of materials have seen OER developers like Great Minds and Open-Up Resources adopt models that, while OER based, have attributes suspiciously similar to traditional publishing. And in higher education, Cengage may be seen as disrupting itself by launching a fully CC-BY OER platform called “OpenNow.” Accordingly, OER can provide a push for publishers to broaden their offerings, adapt their business models and reap new revenue streams, even as the publishing landscape continues to morph and make room for the new breed of OER publishers. There is an obvious parallel to Open Access publishing.
What OER offers that traditional publishers don’t
The startling OER adoption statistics in K-12 were driven, in part, by the need for school districts to quickly find teaching materials that aligned to the Common Core standards. The Eureka Math curriculum was created to fill this need, and as an OER, it can also be updated, customized and revised for errors or updated pedagogy more quickly than is possible with the revision cycles of old-school textbooks. Not to mention that OER are “free” to use (more about those quote marks later), reducing the risk of adopting the yet-untested curriculum. Similarly, a district may view the cost of moving away from an OER curriculum as smaller than with a traditional textbook that involves a substantial investment in books (although with OER training and implementation costs remain substantial, perhaps even higher). OERs also offer school districts a seeming ability to update and adapt the curriculum themselves, and to do so without threat of infringement on a publisher’s copyright. However, while appealing, such control can be difficult to implement.
Of course, there are challenges with OER, too. For one thing, in its original form much of OER was served up online in a smorgasbord of random lesson plans of varying quality, unsystematically connected to the Common Core State Standards, and to some degree it remains like this today. Teachers needed to select quality materials and align them in scope and sequence to ensure that the student received adequate instruction on all the relevant skills in proper sequence (e.g. you cannot teach multiplication before learning addition).
The new breed of OER publishers need a sustainable business model to pay for quality content and must move away from free floating lessons and ensure full scope and sequence. As Kate Gerson, formerly of the New York State Regents Research Fund, told Education Week, “You have to solve the who-pays-for-it question if you’re going to develop good material.” And even more so when it will require comprehensive alignment to standards.
Which brings me to the big question with OER: Does it actually have a sustainable business model?
First, as with most complex economic systems, there are many paths to both sustainability and failure. To state the obvious, without models to underwrite funding for OER, its producers will run into trouble. High quality content is never truly free; it needs some kind of funding to be created, supported and updated. Initially, governmental agencies and private foundations in the United States provided funding for the creation of OER materials, but the struggle to identify sustainable models to eliminate dependence on these sources of funding has reduced interest among some foundations.
The future of OER will be developed by the professionals, such as Cengage, GreatMinds, Open-Up Resources and the State of Louisiana. Financial models will involve print on demand, sale of canonical works to accompany OER curricula, teacher training, assessment, and a host of related services. Publishers who wish to benefit from these new developments must be as nimble as their new OER publishing competitors. They must also focus on what OER does not give away for free, and jump in to fill the gaps.