What Happened to Amazon Inspire, the Tech Giant’s Education Marketplace?


What Happened to Amazon Inspire, the Tech Giant’s Education Marketplace?

By Jeffrey R. Young and Sydney Johnson     Jun 26, 2017

What Happened to Amazon Inspire, the Tech Giant’s Education Marketplace?

Last summer the world’s largest online retailer launched Amazon Inspire, touting it as a hub for educators to exchange lesson plans and other Open Education Resources. But a year later, the site remains in limited, invitation-only beta. Some wonder when it will be open to the wider education community (and what the company’s broader education strategy is).

The ambitious project stumbled just one day after it launched, when some educators complained that their teaching materials had been posted by other users without permission. As a story in The New York Times noted at the time, Amazon Inspire appeared to have opened without a system in place to review whether users were violating copyright when they uploaded materials—systems that are standard on YouTube and other collections of user-generated content.

At the time, the company got a talking to from teachers in comments on its Facebook page for Amazon Education. As one teacher put it: “Teachers are always so caring and giving and in most cases grossly underpaid. The resources that we create take hours and hours to create and to expect that our intellectual property should be given away freely is appalling, immoral and illegal.”

Amazon officials took down the offending content and pledged to quickly put a review system in place. Since then, the service has had a much lower profile—in fact, several educators asked about the service this week had either forgotten about it or never heard of Inspire. Even some who were invited to be beta testers say they sometimes had trouble getting to it, seeing only a message saying the site was temporarily down for maintenance.

The Amazon executive who spearheaded the creation of Inspire, Rohit Agarwal, left the company in March “to pursue other opportunities.” That official Facebook page for Amazon Education hasn’t been updated since June 30, 2016.

“Amazon Inspire is still in beta and we look forward to sharing updates soon,” said Stephany Rochon, a public relations manager at Amazon, in an email. “We remain committed to Amazon Inspire and are continuously innovating to help educators and improve student outcomes.” She declined to provide additional details. (Getting Amazon to talk about what it is up to is not as easy as just shouting questions to Alexa on an Echo, of course.)

Kristina Peters, public interest technology fellow at New America, says she worked with Amazon last year during a previous fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education. There, she worked with the Department’s Go Open campaign, which she says Amazon was initially a part of. “I know the product is still in beta, and there are a lot of states and teachers still counting on them [for open educational resources]”

Peters says she recently reviewed Inspire's terms of service, which the company has been re-crafting since running into trouble last year. She says Amazon is still facing “concerns around account creation and making sure users don't login with a personal Amazon account that is tied to their credit card.” After all, she adds, someone going to get classroom materials might not want want the platform to suggest buying non-educational items, like groceries, after downloading a resource.

Some of those who have tested the service question how useful it will be for teachers, noting that the quality of material posted varies widely and that it’s hard to quickly evaluate the listings. Though users can give each item a star rating, the vast majority of resources in the collection have no ratings, since only a limited audience has access to the beta site.

“The biggest complaint about Amazon Inspire was that [users say] ‘I can’t tell if this is a good resource, and it’s taking me too long to get to a good resource,” says Angela Estrella, an instructional coach for the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “Teachers want vetted resources.” In addition to posts by users, the site includes content from partners, including the Newseum and EdLeader21, but a key feature is the ability for any user to add their own material.

Estrella says that she sees more and more teachers seeking out online materials. Administrators, she says, “notice that for new teachers the quality of their lesson plans are better because they have access to so many more resources, and it’s easier to get resources,” she adds.

Many observers wonder whether Amazon Inspire represents a first step by the company into creating a marketplace for educational materials. Several other services already provide such a marketplace, such as TeachersPayTeachers, but experts say a major tech player like Amazon could greatly expand the visibility and use of exchanging and selling lesson plans and other educational materials.

Inspire wasn’t Amazon’s first move into education. In 2013 it bought a math instruction company called TenMarks, which was co-founded by Agarwal.

Trace Urdan, an independent analyst who watches the education sector, notes that back then the acquisition raised speculation that Amazon’s massive body of user data had told them that educational software was going to get hotter. “They have so much information about what people are doing with their dollars,” says Urdan. “That has to inform at some level what they choose to do and what not to do.”

“Everybody is constantly interested in what the giant tech companies may or may not do around education,” says Urdan. “And Amazon wants to dominate every kind of marketplace out there.”

He says that for years major textbook publishers have talked about creating something like Inspire to collect Open Education Resources, though so far none have made a major push. “My sense of publishers is that they’re in this mode of dismissing OER entirely, and it’s a crazy mistake,” he adds.

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