opinion

OER: Free Like a Beer, or Free Like a Puppy?

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Is free curriculum content like a free beer or a free puppy? I heard this question six years ago after it was raised at a major publishing conference.

Those in the puppy camp argued, with good reason, that free curricula and OER content were hardly free once the related costs and risks were factored in. Foremost, most of it wasn’t very good, so there was a high cost to finding anything of real value. And even the good stuff lacked the breadth and consistency to rival traditional educational publishing products.

There were other sound arguments critical of open source and open access content, as well as doubts that creators of free curriculum would be able to secure the talent and resources required for sustained, quality production and delivery at scale.

So the discovery, vetting, and alignment costs inflicted upon the teachers and districts that would try to embrace free and OER content would remain high. And there were capacity constraints on what free content providers could accomplish. Traditional publishers would maintain their competitive advantage.

Competition from a new wave of edtech companies and entrepreneurs, along with the arrival of the Common Core State Standards, was beginning to change market dynamics related to product development, distribution, and competition for customers and investment capital. But longstanding assumptions were expected to hold. For example, districts and teachers would most value, and would commit to things they paid for, even if at first they tried the product because it was free.

But it turns out that many assumptions were incorrect about how the educational content market would evolve. And it turns out that a great deal of free and OER content is actually free like a free beer—in fact, like a really good craft beer.

Today’s digital materials show that it is possible for free and OER content to be as good as anything else in the market. As one small example, our nonprofit organization is able to feature best-in-class content from institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History, the National Audubon Society, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in part because our products and services are free to the public.

But there are two reasons for the ascension of free content that are particularly relevant to the edtech sector as we look forward, especially when focusing on English Language Arts (ELA).

First, too much of the content in the market, whether paid or free, is still not very good. Weak curricula and low-quality reading content have been, and remain, a huge and underappreciated cause of our country’s reading comprehension crisis. (Nearly 70 percent of all fourth graders in the U.S., regardless of income, cannot read on grade level.) The content usually suffers from the lack of a consistent cognitive science-based framework, poor quality of writing, and superficial indications of text complexity and student reading levels. All of this negatively impacts the instructional choices made by teachers—and increasingly by students within personalized learning environments. The bar for the market remains way too low for all of us.

Second, thus far in the content market the advantages that traditional publishers and other well-resourced companies should have in product development, R&D, sales and distribution have not created much of an advantage over free and OER content providers. Unfortunately, this is because the most effective research-proven instructional practices for teaching reading, such as explicit instruction and the gradual release of responsibility, have not yet been deeply integrated into many ELA edtech products. (See the IDA Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading for additional context about science-based reading instruction.) So the playing field remains wide open, and few ELA products will secure a reliable, loyal following.

From what our team has experienced over the past six years, a deep understanding of the cognitive science of reading and reading instruction is allowing a growing number of free and OER content providers to gain substantial market share. Our sense is that for paid ELA products, a company’s business and product development strengths won’t result in a competitive advantage until cognitive science-based instruction is at the core of its products and services.

The ability to leverage science-based reading knowledge will eventually determine which ELA content and edtech companies will succeed and which will fail, because eventually we will reach a point in the education market where business success is actually based on success in improving teaching and student learning.

Because we remain far from that point, ineffective products will continue to sell, teachers and districts will continue to switch among products when paywalls appear. Rapidly growing companies will struggle with retention until their products start having a deep, sustained educational impact—which cannot happen until cognitive science-based instruction is a dominant part of the product development equation.

Questions about whether it will be free or paid curricular content that ends up dominating the market are not that relevant—yet. We know from our work and from communicating with thousands of teachers that there are not enough quality ELA products in our current market, so business intelligence data and market signals are distorted. As a result, it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about how the content market will shake out, and what the implications will be for various business models and growth strategies.

Our hope is that there will be a vibrant and lucrative private-sector market for companies that are creating superb ELA products that make teachers much more effective and make students much better readers. There is a long way to go before that is the reality. But we are all closer than we were six years ago. 

David Ciulla (@ReadWorks) is Executive Director of ReadWorks

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