OER or Traditional Textbooks? Look at Learning Outcomes Per Dollar


I recently had the wonderful opportunity to participate on a panel about OER at the Knewton Education Symposium. Earlier this week, Knewton CEO Jose Ferreira blogged about "OER and the Future of Publishing" for EdSurge, briefly mentioning the panel. I was surprised by his post, which goes out of its way to reassure publishers that OER will not break the textbook industry.

Much of the article is spent criticizing the low production values, lack of instructional design, and missing support that often characterize OER. The article argues that there is a potential role for publishers to play in each of these service categories, leveraging OER to lower their costs and improve their products. But it’s been over 15 years since the first openly licensed educational materials were published, and major publishers have yet to publish a single textbook based on pre-existing OER. Why?

Exclusivity, Publishing, and OER

The primary reason is that publishers are--quite rationally--committed to the business models that made them incredibly successful businesses. And the core of that model is exclusivity--the contractual right to be the only entity that can offer the print or digital manifestation of Professor Y’s expertise on subject X. Exclusivity is the foundation bedrock of the publishing industry, and no publisher will ever meaningfully invest in building up the reputation and brand of a body of work which is openly licensed. Publisher B would simply sit on the sidelines while Publisher A exhausts its marketing budget persuading the world that it’s version of Professor Y’s open materials are the best in their field. Once Professor Y’s brand is firmly associated with high quality, Publisher B will release it’s own version of Professor Y’s open materials, free-riding on Publisher A’s marketing spend. Publisher A’s marketing efforts actually end up promoting Publisher B’s competing product in a very real way. No, publishers will never put OER at the core of their offerings, because open licensing--guaranteed non-exclusivity--is the antithesis of their entire industrial model. Some playing around in the supplementals market is the closest major publishers will ever come to engaging with OER.

New Models Enabled by OER

However, we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of organization, which is neither invested in preserving existing business models nor burdened with the huge content creation, distribution, and sales infrastructure that a large commercial publisher must support. (This sizable infrastructure, that once represented an insurmountable barrier to entry, is quickly becoming a millstone around the neck of big publishers facing the threat of OER.) The new breed of organization is only too happy to take the role of IBM or Red Hat and provide all the services necessary to make OER a viable alternative to commercial offerings. I had to chuckle a little reading the advice to publishers Jose provides in his post, because that list of services could almost have been copied and pasted my company’s website (Lumen Learning): iterative cycles of instructional design informed by data, integration services, faculty support, etc. I agree wholeheartedly that these are the kinds of services that must be offered to make OER a true competitor to commercial textbooks in the market--but I disagree with the idea that publishers will ever be willing to offer them. That realization is part of what led me to quit a tenured faculty job in a prestigious graduate program to co-found Lumen Learning.

All that said, the emergence of these organizations won’t spell the end of large textbook publishers as we know them. Instead, that distinction will go to the simplest possible metric by which we could measure the impact of the educational materials US students spend billions of dollars per year on: learning outcomes per dollar.

Learning Outcomes per Dollar

No educator would ever consciously make a choice that harmed student learning in order to save money. But what if you could save students significant amounts of money without doing them any academic harm? Going further, what if you could simultaneously save them significant money and improve their learning outcomes? Research on OER is showing, time and again, that this latter scenario is entirely possible. One brief example will demonstrate the point.

A recent article published in Educause Review describes Mercy College’s recent change from a popular math textbook and online practice system bundle provided by a major publisher (~$180 per student), to OER and an open source online practice system. Here are some of the results they reported after a successful pilot semester using OER in 6 sections of basic math:

  • At pilot’s end, Mercy’s Mathematics Department chair announced that, starting in fall 2012, all 27 sections (695 students) in basic mathematics would use [OER].
  • Between spring 2011 [no sections using OER] and fall 2012 [all sections using OER], the math pass rate increased from 48.40 percent to 68.90 percent.
  • Algebra courses dropped their previously used licenses and costly math textbooks and resources, saving students a total of $125,000 the first year.

By switching all sections of basic math to OER, Mercy College saved its students $125,000 in one year and changed their pass rate from 48 to 69 percent--a 44% improvement.

If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that Mercy actually received a fair amount of support in their implementation of OER, which was funded through a grant. So let’s be honest and put the full cost-related details on the table. Mercy (and many other schools) are still receiving the support they previously received for free through their participation in the Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. Lumen Learning, whose personnel led the KOCI, now provides those same services to Mercy and other schools for $5 per enrollment.

So let’s do the learning outcomes per dollar math:

  • Popular commercial offering: 48.4% students passing / $180 textbook and online system cost per student = 0.27% students passing per required textbook dollar
  • OER offering: 68.9% students passing / $5 textbook and online system cost per student = 13.78% students passing per required textbook dollar

For the number I call the “OER Impact Factor,” we simply divide these two ratios with OER on top:

  • 13.78% students passing per required textbook dollar / 0.27% students passing per required textbook dollar = 51.03

This basic computation shows that, in Mercy’s basic math example, using OER led to an over 50x increase (i.e., a 5000% improvement) in percentage passing per dollar. No matter how you look at it, that’s a radical improvement.

If similar performance data were available for two construction companies, and a state procurement officer awarded a contract to the vendor that produces demonstrably worse results while costing significantly more, that person would lose his job, if not worse. (As an aside, I’m not aware of any source where a taxpayer can find out what percentage of federal financial aid (for higher ed) or their state public education budget (for K-12) is spent on textbooks, making it impossible to even begin asking these kinds of questions at any scale.) While faculty and departments aren’t subject to exactly the same accountability pressures as state procurement officers, how long can they continue choosing commercial textbook options over OER as this body of research grows?

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