Sunday, February 14, 2016

Open for business?

Openness is in the eye of the beholder and new variations on the theme seem to pop up every week. The open component in a MOOC has become very flexible indeed, sometimes meaning something as restricted as being accessible only to those who register and log in. MOOCs are now commonly offered in layered versions with a plain vanilla view-only version available free of charge. The problem with open and free is how to build sustainability beyond grassroots volunteer work. Open education depends on enthusiasts and volunteers who earn money somewhere else and are willing to work extra for the sheer enjoyment of it. Is there a business model for openness and how can you reconcile that with the original concept?

The field of open educational resources (OER) depends on educators sharing their openly licensed resources on public repositories, mostly without reward or career recognition. Is there a business opportunity even here? One answer to that question is a platform called panOpen where open textbooks and OER can be gathered and offered to students in a convenient package of services. Many of the resources are aggregated from other repositories but panOpen offers a convenient channel with attractive functions for educators such as LMS integration, data analysis, gradebook syncing, quizzes and note-taking functions. The twist to the concept is that they offer revenue sharing to educators who provide new content to the platform, no doubt attractive to those who commit months of work to write an open textbook. Teachers or schools can upload content, adapt existing resources (according to the Creative Commons license terms) and create customised repositories for their students. The platform guarantees quality by peer review of all resources and users are encouraged to add own reviews and comments to material.

The business model for all this is to pay educators for their work and charge students for access. Students pay $25 per course for access and this income is hoped to sustain the teacher commitment to add new resources. This has of course caused a stir in the open education community since open resources suddenly have a pricetag. This is especially tricky for material that has the Creative Commons Non-commercial requirement . Open is no longer free. PanOpen explains this as follows:

“Open” does not necessarily mean “free.” Not all OER materials are free and likewise, not all free materials are considered OER. Usage rights - not cost - primarily define OER. That said, when there is a cost, OER are typically significantly cheaper than textbooks - a factor students especially appreciate.

The argument is that the resources are available elsewhere for free but that panOpen provides the aggregation, LMS integration and quality control and that is what the students pay for. Compared to buying their textbooks the costs for students are radically cut. In an article in Inside Higher Ed from 2014, OER Beyond Voluntarism, panOpen founder Brian Jacobs states the rationale behind the new venture.

A better way forward is to compensate the stakeholders -- faculty, copyright holders, and technologists, principally -- for their contributions to the OER ecosystem. This can be done by charging students nominally for the OER courses they take or as a modest institutional materials fee. When there are no longer meaningful costs associated with the underlying content, it becomes possible to compensate faculty for the extra work while radically reducing costs to students.

The definition of open takes yet another turn as new business models are tested in an attempt to build a sustainable framework for OER. We will undoubtedly see many more new interpretations of the word in the future, some of which will succeed whilst many will flop. Somewhere along the line someone has to pay for the work involved, as part of teachers' regular work or by incentives from the educational authority or another organisation like panOpen. What is evolving is a layered approach to OER whereby you have open and free access to all resources if you are willing to search through various repositories but you may have to pay to access value-added services such as those offered in panOpen. If you want a good analysis of the future of openness in education you should have a look at Martin Weller's excellent book The battle for open (free to access online).

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