Open educational publishing is commercial publishing

Recently I spoke on a panel at the Education Week conference about developing open educational resources. It was great to share a stage with innovators like Mark Horner of Siyavula, Andrew Einhorn of Numeric, and Brett Simpson of Breadbin Interactive. I spoke about the relationship between OER publishing and proprietary publishing – sometimes called mainstream, traditional or commercial, though those labels are neither useful nor accurate. Here are my speaking notes.

I’m Arthur. I’m a fellow with the Shuttleworth Foundation, so you know I’m going to be a fan of open educational resources. I’ve also founded two companies in book publishing that work with OERs: Bettercare and Paperight.

I wasn’t always this way. About ten years ago I was working as an editor for a big textbook company, Oxford University Press. One day I heard about this guy at UCT who was getting students to write free high-school science textbooks. Hah hah hah! What a lunatic, I thought. He sounded quite brave but a little naive. I reckoned his band of enthusiasts would never be able to produce books as good as mine, or get people to actually use them.

Siyavula Grade 10 Physical ScienceToday, those textbooks are on more learners’ desks than any other textbook in maths or science. They’re beautiful. And you can read them on paper or on your computer or on your phone. Wow, I’ve had to eat my words. And now he’s sitting here beside me, as the founder of Siyavula. Hi Mark.

To make matters worse, he married my cousin, so now we’re related. Hayi. Life is funny.

So I’ve learned from his example now. At Bettercare we publish some of the best nursing textbooks in the country. We can get dozens of leading experts to contribute to our books because we open-licence them. Those experts know that their work will be able to spread freely. We can do this because we make money selling the printed versions to hospitals and universities.

At Paperight, we make money distributing OERs from many publishers, because we work with photocopy shops to sell print-outs in their stores. (We earn a service fee for bringing the copy shops the extra business.) So in photocopy shops from Khayelitsha to Peddie to Petrus Steyn, people pay for print-outs of all kinds of OERs (and other books), because we make it easy for them.

What I’m saying is that open-licensed publishing is not the zero-revenue opposite of ‘commercial’, proprietary publishing. Open-licensing can be a powerful add-on to commercial models.

A few weeks ago the International Publishers Association released a press release and position paper on OERs. Despite its title (‘Publishers and Open Educational Resources can work together‘), it was a disappointing, deeply flawed, reactionary piece, which argues that books published under closed licensing models are inevitably better than OERs. It says the same kinds of silly things that said I myself when I first encountered Mark Horner’s work ten years ago.

This misunderstanding is based on the notion that OERs are produced in a kind of financial vacuum; that they emerge clumsily – through ‘untested content creation mechanisms’ – without any costs being incurred. Whereas ‘commercial’ publishers, they say, invest lots of money in proprietary books, and this makes the books better.

That’s not true.

Open resources are just as expensive to produce. But they’re paid for in the time of volunteers, by grants from philanthropists, and from commercial CSR or advertising funding. It’s not that the costs are different. What’s different is the customer.

Who benefits from a textbook, and therefore will pay for its development?

For proprietary books, the publisher’s customer is an individual school child and their parents, who must pay for textbooks for their child’s sole benefit. (Sometimes not directly in cash, but in school fees or by choosing lesser schools with state subsidies.) Development costs are bundled into that price.

For OERs, the publisher’s customer is civil society, who will benefit over and over again from that child being educated. In the forms of volunteer time, philanthropy and corporate sponsorship, civil society picks up the book-development tab as an investment in its collective future.

Eventually, this could reduce costs, because the more open-licensed material there is, the more we share and reuse it, and the less authors and publishers have to spend reinventing the wheel. Or civil society could just keep investing in making those resources better and better.

Traditional publishers have a tremendous opportunity to use their expertise to contribute here, by changing who their customer is. And if they can’t do that, then more and more organisations just like Siyavula will step in and do it instead. Open educational publishing is commercial publishing.

Thank you.

PS For more on the usefulness and high quality of OERs, follow the work of Shuttleworth Fellow David Wiley at Lumen Learning.

5 thoughts on “Open educational publishing is commercial publishing

  1. We need to develop educational resources that are easily accessible for learners and students in South Africa, it is the best way to ensure that we close the educational divide. It is clear that authorities responsible to do this lack the resources. I am a huge supporter of quality learning material that can help learners improve their education.

    In this country we are all connected to each other and as long as commercial publishers want to hold onto the monopoly of knowledge, the people who need to access it will suffer.

    The age old cliche of ‘sharing is caring’ fits as a response to this article. – Funny how that is something we have to teach toddlers, and now we have to teach it to ‘educated’ people who forgot their first life lessons.

  2. Over on Facebook, I was part of a great discussion about these issues with author Lauri Kubuitsile, publisher Anthea Oosthuizen, author/publisher Dorothy Dyer, and OER pioneer Mark Horner. With their permission, I’m reposting the discussion here.

    Lauri: In this model, what happens to professional educational writers? Most are freelance living on royalties from books sold.

    Arthur: Note that I say development is paid for by philanthropy and corporate money. That goes to the authors, illustrators, designers and editors who are required for roles volunteers can’t fill. Even OERs are professionally produced.

    Lauri: But still far less authors will be required and they’ll likely be paid a one off instead of royalties.

    Arthur: I don’t think you’re following my argument, Lauri. I’m saying: same investment (money paid overall to professionals), and better books. The difference is that the money comes from a different customer, and the cycle of materials improvement is more efficient.

    I probably should have been clearer in my blog post. Here’s some more detail on why I think this. The royalties game has been cooked by proprietary publishers to reduce their own financial risk and pass it on to authors to carry. (I was once a higher ed, academic, and schoolbook publisher, so I’ve done these numbers myself countless times. This passing on of risk is deliberate and calculated.) Some authors do very well out of this system, and others just get screwed. Let’s say Bob and Lucy each spend four months, full-time, each writing a school textbook. Under the existing proprietary model, Lucy writes an Accounting texbook that sells a million copies and she gets to buy a new house and a fancy car. Bob writes a History textbook and, after waiting five years for his royalties to pay off the artwork permissions costs, makes R1000 before the curriculum changes and his book is put out of print. Lucy wins the lottery. Bob sells muffins to pay the bills. Alternatively, under an OER model, Lucy and Bob each earn a R120000 writing fee for their four months, paid up front by a corporate sponsor’s CSR budget. Their book gets used and remixed and improved by others, while they work on other books earning more fees — because they’re great writers who are nice to work with. After a couple of years, they get hired again by the corporate CSR project to improve their original books, remixing back in the improvements others have made. The books get better and better. Everyone gets paid for their work. Personally, I cannot see how a proprietary model is better for authors overall.

    Anthea: Two thoughts having scanned your article and discussion below, so forgive me if I’ve missed something: 1) sustainable growth requires a market-driven model…and CSR spend is by definition unreliable in that sense..nor is it likely to drive the kind of competitive focus on qualitative USPs that profit does..-i.e. .given that there is no direct ROI on CSR spend, it is unlikely (and in any case it may well be assumed as being in bad taste) that one CSR spender will be trying to produce better materials in a sector than other …rather it may be more likely that once one ‘sector’ or ‘field’ has been colonised by CSR spend, others with CSR moneys will look to invest elsewhere 2) more publishing companies may well work towards a situation in which they pay fees and so own content…many authors may well resist this..but nonetheless, I’m not sure that publisher-owned content will be any better than that generated via the royalty system….While I believe in the value of OERs..I’m not sure, Arthur, that the argument you set out here re the quality model is sufficiently robust.

    Arthur: Thanks for engaging with this, Anthea. You’re still assuming that OERs are not compatible with a market-driven model, which is exactly not what I’m arguing. I’m saying that the development of OERs can exist within a market-driven model. Let’s say Sasol and Telkom both sponsor a Science textbook, and want their textbook on every desk. Assuming govt and teachers choose wisely (as we do in the current model, for better or for worse), the best textbook will be used more widely. So if Sasol spends more, more often, on better authors, their book will be better and will get used more. The same goes for philanthropic money, which is directed just as carefully for maximum impact. The very existence and early successes of Siyavula (who’re building a solid business model around OERs sponsored by volunteers, philanthropy, investors and corporate CSR) is promising. In the software sector, open-source software has already proven the model. Canonical, Red Hat, Mozilla, WordPress and many others are successful businesses that produce open-licensed IP in this way.

    Lauri: And how do you retain objectivity in content when corporates are sponsoring the books? Corporates in schools in USA are already proving problematic. Even philanthropic organisations are sometimes not without agendas.

    Arthur: That’s a real concern, Lauri, but I think it already exists in the current model. Not least in the fact that state curricula and approvals panels drive innovation out of textbooks (and the spirit out of authors and editors) at every turn. We’re already working under an effective state publishing model, where it’s almost impossible to tell one publisher’s work from another’s. It would be straightforward to set up transparent, independent boards of advisors for any corporate or philanthropic publishing project who are free to comment publicly on a book’s content. And perhaps there are other ways to encourage objectivity. For one, simply giving teachers more choice among better materials would help float the good stuff to the top.

    Anthea: This is a worthwhile discussion..what I was trying to express (inadequately) was that I don’t think CSR spend is the best ‘customer’ to drive sustainable growth of OERs nor is it likely to generate the kind of co-opetition you sketch…and at this particular juncture OERs need a very robust model to withstand allegations of inadequately researched and outcome-enhancing outputs…what I’m saying isn’t’s analytical response to your argument 🙂

    Dorothy: This is an interesting argument – especially as a textbook writer who has benefitted and suffered from the current model! My concerns would be: CSR money might be enough to fund a couple of specialised projects – but surely it wouldn’t be enough to support a whole lot of different publishing enterprises, especially as there are a lot of other very legitimate demands on CSR spend. Same goes for philanthropic support. In terms of the current textbook quality concerns, I think a major problem is the prescriptive nature of the curriculum, so that publishers are focusing on being CAPS compliant rather than user-friendly to teachers and learners. I’m not sure that a different publishing model would be able to shift that, as textbooks that are not ‘CAPS compliant’ will not be approved.

    Mark: A FB comment thread might be the worst place to say anything but here goes ….

    A few additional areas to unpack in your next blog and in the broader OER discussion (in my opinion) include:

    1) Whether we can prove the premise that free-market driven publishing in K-12 results in quality. I’m not convinced as I see little evidence that pedagogical research and competition feed into the process effectively – a significant ceiling on innovation being imposed by the curriculum authors as well as experienced teachers that are often called on as authors not engaging regularly with academic literature around pedagogy and their subject matter.

    I concede that the publishers can’t be responsible for the curriculum authors lack of progress but it is a massive constraint on what is possible and a caveat that never accompanies the argument for free-market quality.

    2) In the OER system the cycle and incentives can be fundamentally different. Real OERs have continuously iterative development processes. They’re less likely to freeze once on an approved list. Long-term an single OER title can be sustained by many different organisations through many different cycles. Still early days but this is happening.

    3) Volunteers who help with OERs have fundamentally different motivations, they don’t meet deadlines but in my experience the quality of content and ability to meet deadlines of paid, professional authors isn’t very good either. The nice thing about volunteers is they’re in it because they care, when they have better credentials than you can buy-in for a commercial project. Managing them is a fundamentally different proposition and definitely not the way to run a commercial endeavour but it is naive to think that they can’t produce quality work.

    The real distinction, the graphic designers that do the illustration and layout – but that’s changing anyway.

    Ultimately the opportunity for OERs has arisen because the “traditional” publishers, for whatever reason, couldn’t actually secure their markets and that is just another market force – it is all just free-market in action. If everyone was happy with products/value propositions/supply chains there would be no gap for OERs.

    Dorothy: I agree that there needs to be major imaginative leaps on behalf of publishers, and (wouldn’t it be nice) the Education Dept. As someone steeped in the ‘old ways’ I am still getting my head around the possibilities for changes. So thanks for all the discussion here.

    Anthea: The issues around educational publishers’ relationship with their customer are complex, and the gap that has opened up for OERs may have less to do with quality than with ideology. Working within commercial publishing, I know that there is no failure of imagination. I do know that everyone who is working within the catalogue system is bound by the limits of the curriculum (from both a design and implementation timeframe perspective) and the ensuing procurement process. What we also know is that materials alone do not deliver results. Excellent teachers are both able to and do produce their own materials. And, the results of CAPS curriculum implementation do not depend primarily on the materials, but on the preparedness and ability of teachers to teach concepts, skills and content. What is clear is that both OER providers and commercial publishers are dedicated to contributing to the teaching and learning process. Given their differing ideological frameworks, though, there is a risk that the positive contribution and integral value of both models might be lost in a value-driven analysis of inputs, processes and outcomes. Teachers and learners won’t be best served by that, and I doubt that they care.

    Dorothy: I’ve been thinking about this debate… And looking back, as a writer, my best work was when a publisher paid me a salary to develop and write a series of textbooks, with the emphasis on quality and useability. In this way I could use premium working time on the project, and did not have to squeeze it around other necessary paid work, as volunteers and writers waiting for royalties have to do.

    Arthur Attwell This has been a super discussion. Lauri, Anthea, Mark, Dorothy: would you mind if I posted this entire conversation on my blog as a comment on the post? Since this post was public, it’s already available, but the blog would be a better place to keep it for reference and posterity.

    Lauri: I don’t mind.

    Dorothy: Fine by me!

    Mark: Ag, ok

    Anthea Oosthuizen: sure

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