How traditional textbook publishers can do well by the OER community

Commentary: Traditional publishers can be important to the growing field of open educational resources — if they take some key principles to heart.

Open educational resources (OER) have been causing quite a stir in the education space. The OER field has grown significantly and now boasts top-rated curricula and a wide base of support and adoption.

In fact, OER — freely available materials that can be downloaded, edited and shared — have gained so much popularity in both K-12 and higher education that textbook publishers seem to be rushing to join in. Several traditional publishers have recently announced new products that incorporate OER.

This rush by traditional publishers to retain their hold on a lucrative education market by leveraging OER has created some tensions with the open community of practitioners who have invested years in advocating for, authoring and improving the OER. The tensions can be distilled into two essential issues:

1. Are these publisher products truly “open”?


2. Is this new activity happening in good faith?

It’s natural to wonder how a for-profit entity can provide open materials. Is what they are providing truly “open” or are they simply using the word to jump on the OER bandwagon (a phenomenon the open community calls “open-washing”)?

I’ve studied these questions in sectors ranging from education to entertainment and media, looking at the intersection between the open market and “the Commons.” (By “the Commons,” I mean all of the resources that are collectively accessible to all — not privately owned.) Along the way, I’ve uncovered some important insights about the relationship between OER and traditional publishers.

First, it’s important to recognize that the Commons operates differently than the market — it’s driven by different values and principles. These principles include:

  • Adding value
  • Giving more than you take
  • Being transparent about what you are using from the Commons, what you are adding, and what you are monetizing
  • Giving attribution and gratitude
  • Developing trust — don’t exploit
  • Defending the Commons

For the OER community, the norms of “open” are incredibly important, and the risks of exploitation are real. (In fact, members of the OER community recently published a framework for how organizations — including publishers — can be “good OER stewards.”)

When traditional publishers apply strictly market norms and rules and act as if the Commons part of their business is just another market commodity from which to extract profit, the endeavor is bound to be met with skepticism and, perhaps, hostility. It won’t work as a long-term sustainable strategy. Adopting and abiding by the principles of the Commons goes a long way to building acceptance and inclusion in the open community and lays the foundation for success.

In “Made With Creative Commons,” a book produced in partnership with Sarah Hinchliff Pearson, we look at 24 cases that show how it is possible to combine open with revenue generation. We describe these kinds of business models as hybrids; they are partly of the market and partly of the Commons. To be successful, they must blend norms of both into their businesses. Specifically, they need to keep these ideas at the forefront:

1. Contribute high value resources to the Commons. The higher the value proposition of your contribution, the greater the likelihood of long-term success.

2. Have a social mission. If you are exclusively looking for profit, you can’t truly engage with the open community. If your mission is to make the world a better place, people can get behind that.


3. Be human, and focus on building relationships around the open resources you are putting into the Commons. Work directly with the original authors and users to understand their experience with your resources and how they can be improved. Then, work with them to improve the resources, incorporate and curate improvements, and release them together in future iterations. Thank those who have authored the resources — thanks can be expressed in both monetary and non-monetary ways.

4. Rethink operational processes. Research and development, manufacturing, sales and business development, distribution and delivery, and even customer support all need a rethink in the open context. In the open world, many of these processes can be decentralized and distributed — resulting in significant cost savings and changes to the way a business works. If you simply try to use open resources without changing traditional business operations, you’ll fail to really innovate.

The landscape of educational materials is rapidly evolving and becoming more complex, and the OER field is a big part of this growth and change. As traditional publishers explore ways to be a part of both the market and the Commons, experience tells us that they can be important contributors — if they take some key principles to heart. The larger the community and the more everyone collaborates and contributes, the greater the likelihood open resources will persist and continue to provide long-term value.

Paul Stacey is interim executive director of the Open Education Consortium and co-author of Made With Creative Commons.

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