Aside from the words “free” and “openly licensed,” another word that often arises in discussions of open educational resources (OER) is “sustainability.” With a business model that largely relies on funding from foundations and governments, the question is often posed: Is OER’s model sustainable? After all, OER is free to use, but it certainly costs to develop it.
For those not familiar with the term, OER is educational content that, once developed, is released with an intellectual property license that allows for its free use and repurposing. Since the inception of OER nearly 20 years ago, open developers have created millions of resources including textbooks, courseware, supplemental materials, videos, assessments, and more for use in K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions in the U.S. and abroad.
For the most part, OER development has been underwritten by foundations and to a lesser degree, federal and state governments. While there have been some signs recently that foundation funding for OER is waning, some are still writing checks. Meanwhile, government funding is increasing. Last year, the Texas legislature approved a measure that provides $20 million for the Texas Education Agency to develop OER courses.
The most recent development related to government OER funding occurred in March 2018, when the U.S. Congress authorized a small, $5 million OER program that will fund competitive grants for universities to develop open textbooks. The “open textbook grant program,” which is tucked in the mammoth fiscal year 2018 federal omnibus spending bill, will be administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
Obviously, the OER business model is sustainable as long as foundations and governments are willing to keep funding flowing. But, are there alternatives?
Is the Service Model The Answer?
Funding from large foundations and governments highlights the fact that development of quality curricular resources cannot be done cheaply. The complexities of development require real professional talents and skills in instructional design, publishing, and an array of technologies. Not surprisingly, the staffs of several of the largest K-12 OER organizations have started to swell and are peppered with professionals who have extensive backgrounds in publishing, technology, assessment, and education. The migration of publishers and techies to OER organizations is one sign that the lines between OER and publisher programs are starting to blur.
Another more important sign is the services model that some OER developers have started to use. The concept is simple: develop programs schools can use and then sell professional development and technical services to support them. In many cases publishers include such services with their offerings. In the OER services model they are sold as add-ons.
For example, Open Up Resources – an OER organization funded by five foundations – has developed K-12 language arts and math curricula that are available for districts to download and use. But, in addition, Open Up offers support services such as professional development for teachers, enhanced print services and more. “Districts using our freely-licensed curriculum can channel their savings on content towards investments in professional development, instructional coaching, and other teaching and learning supports,” according to the organization’s website.
Great Minds also sells service supports. It offers free PDF versions of its popular K-12 Eureka Math program – a resource that was originally developed as EngageNY using federal Race to the Top funds. Great Minds offers an enhanced, interactive digital version of the program for $145 per license. This enhanced “Eureka Digital Suite” contains professional development modules and videos for teachers. Great Minds also sells print editions of its programs.
Enter Private Equity
A third example that should not be overlooked is Lumen Learning, an OER organization that has received foundation support. In 2015, Lumen created a buzz when it raised $2.5 million in private equity funding to grow its line of low-cost college courseware programs. Lumen sells an array of professional development and technical services to support its programs. The organization created more buzz last year when it announced a partnership with college bookstore behemoth Follett, which manages course materials delivery at more than 1,200 colleges and universities.
Readings of copyrighted, third-party materials such as literature selections and other canonical works are another product sold by some OER organizations. This type of product provides OER developers with a way to offer students access to authentic texts without having to place copyrighted work in the core, openly licensed curriculum.
Not surprisingly, for-profit-publishers are following suit with their own OER offerings and service models. Cengage, one of the largest for-profit publishers in the post-secondary space, recently unveiled “OpenNow,” which is an OER platform that can be customized with service options.
It is a stretch to think that the services model can underwrite all the development costs of OER. However, these three examples do show how OER publishing is becoming increasingly professionalized and that publishers of all types are looking for new models of sustainability.
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