Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Amazon goes OER

Are we in the midst of a major change in the distribution and sharing of open educational resources?
Just as I had published my previous post on the platform panOpenI read that even Amazon are entering the OER arena. Amazon have announced a new platform called Amazon Inspire that will allow schools to search for, share and manage resources in an environment that will to some extent resemble the massively successful Amazon website. They promise that the service will be completely free for all schools and a beta version will come online for pilot testing in the next few weeks.

An article on Edweek Market Brief, Amazon Education to Launch New Website for Open Education Resources, describes the platform:

- Users of the site will be able to add ratings and reviews, and to receive recommendations based on their previous selections. Educators will be able to curate open resources, self-publish material they have developed, and put a school’s entire digital library that is open and freely available online.

This sounds very similar to the platform offered by panOpen except there's no mention of the twist that they offer; charging students for access and offering revenue sharing to contributing teachers. The difference is of course the sheer clout behind Amazon in terms of being able to sweep the board if their idea hits the soft spot. Schools and teachers can upload their resources and make them available to all, assumedly with Creative Commons licenses, and Amazon offers powerful search, analytics and safe storage. The problem with OER has always been the lack of consistent metadata making many resources extremely hard to find as well as the lack of efficient search tools that can harvest suitable material from the myriad of OER repositories that exist. If anyone is able to pull it all together then Amazon seems like a good bet given the success of their business so far with recommendations based on previous searches and preferences.

Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed is enthusiastic about the new venture, Amazon OER? He sees a similarity between Amazon's interest in OER and Apple's interest in podcasting when it launched iTunes and the iPod. Most of the podcasts available on iTunes are, like OER, largely free and produced by enthusiasts but the impact of some podcasts is global thanks to the power of the iTunes platform. Similarly hundreds of universities already offer over 2 million lectures free to download on the iTunes U channel. 

In the best of all possible worlds, the podcast analogy comes to fruition. Apple was the first to bring podcasts to scale, and itunes is still the most popular place to find and distribute them. But there’s no shortage of alternatives. (I’m a fan of Pocket Casts, fwiw.) It’s easy now to listen regularly to a host of podcasts without ever dipping a toe in the Apple universe. If enough alternatives come along to Amazon that it can’t control the market, even if it remains prominent within it, we could all win.  

The inevitable question is what Amazon gets out of offering this platform. There must be a business model in there despite their insistence that they will never put it behind a paywall. The logical conclusion is that they will try to sell commercial resources based on your preferences and this was indeed the logic behind Pearson's Open Class venture a couple of years ago. It will be up to the user to decide whether the openr resource is better than the commercial one but I don't think it needs to be an either-or issue. In some cases the commercial resource will offer opportunities that no open reosurce can match and then the price is justified. There must be room for commercial high-quality material as long as we can make wise choices. The other attraction for Amazon must be big data. A platform like this if it takes off will get millions of clicks and the user data must be worth quite a bit for developers. Amazon, like the other giants (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc), are drilling for the new oil, data. The rewards are in how you refine that crude oil into new products and services.

Could 2016 be the year OER go mainstream and at what cost?

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