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A Possible Game-Changer for Open Educational Resources?



Earlier this month, an EdWeek Market Brief reported that Amazon is preparing to beta-test a platform for open educational resources (OER) — textbooks and other classroom instructional materials that are provided online at no charge to users. Reportedly the platform will be called Amazon Inspire and is tentatively scheduled for public roll-out within the next two months.

What will it look like? Initial reports indicate that Amazon Inspire will be designed largely to mimic the experience of shopping on Amazon: site users will be able to search for OER by category/subject/format, to filter their search results by faceting, to add ratings and reviews, and to get recommendations based on their demonstrated interests. Furthermore, educators will be able to use Amazon Inspire for self-publishing and as a curation platform for their institutions’ own open digital products.

At this point, all indications are that Amazon plans to start by offering this service to the K-12 market. And my suspicion is that this fact, in itself, is what makes the initiative likely to have an impact on the textbook market in higher education.

Why? Two reasons, one less important and one more so:

  1. Less important: the more students get used to having free online access to textbooks and other classroom materials at the primary and secondary levels, the less they will understand why they suddenly have to start shelling out thousands of dollars for textbooks in college. It’s true that they already make the transition from freely-provided texts in K-12 to self-purchased texts in college, but that has historically been the reality in a print-based textbook environment; I suspect it will be harder for students to understand why open online resources worked fine in primary and secondary school and are then suddenly unacceptable in college.
  2. More important: college instructors have no structural incentive whatsoever to adopt OER, but K-12 administrators do—and the incentive is powerful. In K-12 systems, it is the educational administrators themselves who feel the pinch when buying textbooks for their students. (Not because they pay for them out of their own pockets, of course, but because they pay for them out of their budgets.) The same is not true for college instructors, who assign texts to their students without having to deal with any of the economic consequences of their choices. This means that the momentum for OER is likely to be generated at the K-12 level, not within higher education. If Amazon Inspire does what it is purportedly setting out to do, it will take away a major impediment to that momentum: the difficulty and inconvenience of identifying good OER.

One important question that is already being raised by observers of the textbook marketplace is an obvious one: if this platform is going to be provided for free — and if, as Andrew Joseph, Amazon’s VP of Strategic Relations, says, the company has “made a commitment that [it] will never charge” for it — how does Amazon expect to make money on this offering? Presumably it’s not developing the Amazon Inspire platform out of a pure sense of public altruism. Joseph is quoted in the EdWeek Market Brief as saying that Amazon doesn’t yet know how it will make the platform sustainable, though he suggests that it might generate revenue by connecting users with related commercial publications: imagine a textbook on Russian cultural history presented alongside links to the works of Chekhov, available for purchase.

Other observers have suggested that Amazon could use OERs to drive sales of classroom lab equipment like batteries or coils. I can also imagine OERs existing in multiple versions: a basic version that provides all necessary content for the class and is available for free, and a deluxe version that includes enhanced functionality and costs money. (This is the “freemium” model, one that has worked quite well in other markets.)

Another important question is that of findability. It’s one thing to create a free online resource and make it technically available to all; it’s another thing to do the work necessary to make that resource easily discoverable by those who might be interested in using it. Not everyone in your potential market is necessarily going to go to Amazon looking for the OER you created. Making your resource findable means creating metadata — good metadata — and organizing the metadata in such a way as to maximize its attractiveness to Google’s metadata crawlers. Recognizing this, Amazon Inspire will assign metadata to all of its offerings using the Learning Registry, a metadata aggregation platform developed as a joint program of the U.S Department of Education and the Department of Defense.

Some might find the Department Defense’s involvement in the creation and organization of OER a bit disturbing, but think about it this way: what government agency has a bigger stake in the idea of getting high-quality educational resources into the hands of learners as quickly and easily as possible?

Of course, some will find the idea of Amazon getting into this game disturbing in and of itself. These will be looking for the hidden agenda, for the invasion force hidden inside the Trojan horse of a “free” service. That’s probably not an unreasonable concern. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

About Rick Anderson

I'm Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.


25 thoughts on “A Possible Game-Changer for Open Educational Resources?

  1. The model suggested by Rick envisions an education system that still has classes, not that some will exist into the future. If, as the literature points out, there is a shift to competencies, then individual learners will need to seek out information whether from texts or their own search results in order to develop sufficient mastery to get certification (however defined and not necessarily by taking a 3 credit hour course package with traditional formats. This is already happening with a company like “Straighterline” which charges a basic fee for a period wherein an individual can spend as much time in mastering knowledge in as many subjects as they can handle. This changes the role of the “professor”. Think of the growing number of competency based institutions and those that accept a variety of 3rd party certifications. Faculty and departments on the old model will be reluctant to accept this; but it is the growing reality. A big boost not just of OER but OA and similar business models of institutions and publishers.

    Of parallel interest is the Bolgna program in the EU where courses are “harmonized” across institutions or the parallel “tuning” across universities in Africa. Credits can be awarded by one institution for mastery achieved elsewhere, including credit by experience, etc.

    Additionally, one can point out the Center for the Future of Museums which is focusing museums to enter the P-12 education market as more than exhibits or events, taking a lesson from edutainment of individuals from P->Grey (think Disney, think omni theaters. Think continuing education in all disciplines when one figures learning environments in science/tech/anthro/etc. And now one sees where Amazon’s thinking is heading.

    Let’s make note of the advances in AI and the rise of all the predictive analytics that can track a person’s progress at mastery with suggestions on what to study. The folks at the Singular University suggest that it will be middle class incomes that will disappear, think academics as one class in the very near term at the university level. Which brings us straight to the folks who subscribe to the Scholarly Kitchen.

    AI with predictive analytics will be able to scan the entire professional academic literature and provide evaluative analysis pointing out not what is professionally vetted but the uniqueness which will reduce the ability to stretch publications by thinning out the data or providing results that are obvious from searches not fully accessible by humans.

    This is basically near term within the professional lifetime of those now in graduate programs.

    tom abeles

    Posted by tabeles | Feb 29, 2016, 8:52 am
  2. Wow. If it works well it could also revolutionise workplace learning. Imagine if this were offered to trainers in various professional spaces whose business model involves written and pedagogical materials only as a cost – and instead they can use it as a calling card. Amazon has the reach to make this happen.

    Posted by duncanenright | Feb 29, 2016, 9:08 am
  3. I would count myself among those OER advocates who would not necessarily find Amazon’s OER proposals disturbing, but would certainly be questioning what the agenda is and what motivates Amazon’s desire to “altruistically” support K-12 education. Others have already pointed out that a primary purpose may simply be to capture personally identifiable information that could help to build a database of future Amazon customers (although they will likely all end up in that category sooner or later anyway).

    Perhaps the bigger question is whether higher education wants to continue to cede, no matter how much money it stands to save, control over its intellectual property to corporations and edtech ventures. Looking at projects like Open Textbook Network, higher ed appears to be showing it has the capacity to manage the future of OER just fine on its own.

    I can imagine at one point a conversation going like this:

    Academic One: “Hey, great news, there’s a company that wants to take our research articles, publish and distribute them, and we just have to help them by reviewing and editing the stuff. Then we just have our library pay a little money for subscriptions and we save lots of time, energy and money not having to produce it ourselves.

    Academic Two: “Sounds like a great idea. Count me in”.

    Ok. It probably didn’t happen exactly like that, but we all know how it turned out.

    So let’s not totally distrust Amazon or big game changing proposals, but we better go into this with our eyes wide open – and a determination to not let the future of OER fall into the wrong hands.

    Posted by steven bell (@blendedlib) | Feb 29, 2016, 9:42 am
    • Perhaps the bigger question is whether higher education wants to continue to cede, no matter how much money it stands to save, control over its intellectual property to corporations and edtech ventures.

      That’s a good question, and answering it is made more difficult by the fact that “higher education” isn’t a monolithic decision-making entity, but a huge and complicated ecosystem of interacting agents, each with a somewhat different set of motivators and incentives. (The same can actually be said of the corporations and edtech ventures with which the higher ed ecosystem interacts and does business.) Making things even more complicated is the fact that trading control for money isn’t a binary function, but a spectrum one: all of us cede different amounts of control over different aspects of our life and work to others in return for different amounts of money, and very often we look at the trade-offs others make and say to ourselves “I would never do that.” So this is an important question, but maybe an impossible one to answer in any comprehensive way.

      As for your hypothetical conversation between those two academics: it’s funny you should say “we all know how it turned out,” because in fact there’s a lot of controversy right now in the scholcomm and higher-ed communities about how it has turned out. Many people feel that the system you (pretty fairly, I think) described in that hypothetical dialogue has worked out generally okay; some others believe that it’s an okay system in principle but has gotten out of control in one or more ways (pricing, impact metrics, predation, etc.); some others believe that the system is radically inefficient and/or unjust. Some of the conversation between the various parties in this debate gets carried on right here in the Kitchen. So I think I would dispute your assertion that we all know how the system has turned out — on the contrary, I think we’re all (many of us, anyway) still debating how it has turned out, and what should happen next.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 10:32 am
  4. By coincidence I was active in a similar, albeit smaller, project several years ago, called This was a portal that aggregated Federal teaching materials, of which there are tens of thousands, possibly hundreds. See the Whitehouse blurb at

    Unfortunately the project was then killed but we learned a lot before that happened. The Web is awash in free teaching materials, but very little of it is useful in the normal classroom. Amazon may well drown in it, as others have.

    Textbooks may be a different issue, if people are actually writing full course textbooks, with all the supplementary material that comes with them, and then giving them away. I have not seen that but it was not part of my project. Are there such things?

    Posted by David Wojick | Feb 29, 2016, 9:55 am
    • There are, and they’ve been discussed multiple times here in the Kitchen. See, for example, here and here.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 10:21 am
      • Thanks Rick, but the first link is college level. The second is from 2009 in California. We looked at that program with some interest, but it was very narrow. How is it going?

        As I posted here back in 2011, textbooks are now subject to a regulatory regime, called State Standards. See my

        Moreover, since then the State Standards are now in a big new flux. In math and English we now have the Common Core Standards coming in, State by State, with much confusion. In science we have the Next Generation Standards working their way in. Each State, once having adopted a new Standard, then has to develop curricular to teach it and tests to test the teaching. Then and only then can the new textbooks come in. This is a massively ponderous process so I am not optimistic about freelance authors, working for nothing, making much of a dent.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 29, 2016, 10:43 am
        • David, your question was whether “people are actually writing full course textbooks, with all the supplementary material that comes with them, and then giving them away.” The answer to that question is yes, and what I provided is a couple of examples of SK postings in which such textbooks are discussed. There are many more examples out there, easily discoverable via Google search.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 10:47 am
          • Rick, I generally do not take the “go search Google and get back to me” gambit. However, as a search technologist I am curious as to what Google search terms you might suggest? Our readers might be too.

            But in any case you may have missed my expanded point. The textbooks have to be written to the State Standards and these Standards are presently in a massive state of flux. This has important implications for the Amazon initiative. In particular it is something that prospective freelance authors ought to be thinking about. In fact, the new Standards are often very different from the existing Standards.

            For example, the Common Core English Standards are switching for reading English Literature to reading Science. The textbooks will have to be correspondingly different.

            Posted by David Wojick | Feb 29, 2016, 11:02 am
            • Rick, I generally do not take the “go search Google and get back to me” gambit. However, as a search technologist I am curious as to what Google search terms you might suggest? Our readers might be too.

              I generally don’t take the “I have a question and would like you to do my research for me” gambit. I did provide you with some specific answers to your question, but getting additional answers to a different version of your original question is up to you. As for Google search terms, I’d suggest the phrase “open educational resources” and/or “free online textbooks.” (Make sure you search them as phrases, not as individual keywords. You can do that by putting the phrase in quotation marks.)

              As for your expanded point, I don’t dispute that state standards pose an issue for OERs (and all other textbook providers). But you didn’t say anything about state standards in the original comment to which I was responding.

              Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 12:17 pm
  5. “Gee a system in which no one has to talk to or be lectured by anyone nor interact with anyone. Education in isolation what a great idea. I really like the word edutainment. Wake up, pick up the mobile phone play a game, go to school if you want or not but turn on your tablet and be entertained while “learning” not necessarily retaining not asking why to anyone and not having anyone asking do you understand but you know being entertained. I am sure creativity will flourish and learning attain heights not envisioned in the old book learning system.

    But, it will save the school system some money and the tax payers will applaud and if the students suffer who cares because saving money is after all what it is it is all about isn’t it? And we ask where have all the jobs gone for those not educated but who were entertained.

    I remember the slogan reading was fundamental but now education is laughs and giggles you know edutainment.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Feb 29, 2016, 9:58 am
    • Harvey, did you intend to submit this comment in response to a different posting, maybe on a different blog? It doesn’t seem to relate much at all to this one.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 10:16 am
  6. I’m uncertain as to why you think textbooks and online educational materials are free to primary/middle/high schools? Certainly Pearson and other primary educational providers aren’t giving these large texts and online learning systems at no charge to school systems–there’s still a payer–it’s the school district, which is funded by the taxpayer.

    Posted by Carolyn Cockey | Feb 29, 2016, 12:12 pm
    • I don’t think they’re free to schools — however, in the U.S., these materials are usually provided at no charge by schools, to students. That’s why I said that “in K-12 systems, it is the educational administrators themselves who feel the pinch when buying textbooks for their students.” In the higher-ed context, it’s the students themselves who feel the pinch directly, because they buy their own textbooks.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 12:20 pm
  7. The business model is crystal clear to me. It’s the same as Google’s with their Google Education apps–Data, data, data. My kid is using Google docs, Google apps, and has a school gmail account. She is 8. Google tracks all kinds of information about the kids and because the school systems sign Google on as “trustee,” parental permission and notification is not required. Now, there are some safeguards on the data (meaning not used to serve advertising) IF the kids stay within the school provided Google apps. If, however, they pop over to You Tube or Google Maps, or regular Google search, they are fair game.

    Now, I am not knocking any altruistic motivations here. The fact that my kid knows how to use and share Google docs better than I do is pretty awesome. My point is that the collection of data, which they don’t need to tell parents about is probably all the payment they need.

    Amazon is talking about providing content to k-12 so there are obvious questions about curating that content. The good news is that I subscribe to Amazon’s kids-only content and so far, the age-appropriate materials has been fine (perhaps more conservative even). Lastly, there are dozens of website that provide content to kids via school subscriptions or even free set ups. They aren’t trying to sell books to the kids so Amazon already has competition.

    Posted by Angela Cochran | Feb 29, 2016, 1:49 pm
  8. Re the following quote from the article and the K-12 ed market: “but because they pay for them out of their budgets…” This statement is not completely clear or accurate.

    There are two types of states: adoption states (including the three bi states CA-TX-FL; CA is a K-8 adoption state); and open states (sometimes called open territories; e.g., NY; NJ, CT).

    If a school district, perhaps K-12 in Dallas, selects an Algebra 1 textbook from the state’s adoption list, then the state pays for the textbook, not the K-12 district.

    However, in an open state, perhaps the K-12 district in NYC, if NYC buys an Algebra 1 textbook the district does pay for the textbook since there is no state-wide textbook adoption list.

    Adoption states maintain lists that cover all K-12 subjects (e.g., reading, English, language arts, social sciences, the sciences, foreign languages, etc.), usually for several years. And it is very unlikely that a school district in an adoption state will select a textbook not on the adoption list since they will have to pay for the textbook.

    Al Greco
    Fordham University
    Gabelli School of Business

    Posted by ALBERT N. GRECO | Feb 29, 2016, 5:44 pm
    • Thanks very much for these clarifications, Al. But I think my point remains valid: in K-12 education, there is a solid structural incentive in place for those who select textbooks to look for more-affordable options, whereas in higher education (where textbooks are selected by those who don’t have to pay for them), that incentive does not exist. This is true whether the selecting/purchasing agency is the state education authority or a local school district.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 5:53 pm
      • Thanks for tour quick response.

        Use TX and Algebra 1 as examples:, the state assembly approves a textbook budget.

        An independent state textbook commission, not comprised of people from the state assembly, select textbooks based on state educational standards, not financial standards.

        The high school math teachers recommend to the math district coordinator what Algebra 1 textbook they want to use.

        The math district coordinator submits the recommendation to the Asst. Supt. for Curr. and Instruction, then to the Super., and then to the Board of Ed that approves the selection.

        Only the state assembly is concerned about textbook costs, not the others.

        Your argument works in open states but unfortunately not in the big adoption states.


        Posted by ALBERT N. GRECO | Feb 29, 2016, 6:10 pm
        • But in the big adoption states, aren’t those who select the textbooks for statewide adoption working within a budget (unlike the college professors who adopt books for their individual courses)?

          Maybe not — I genuinely don’t know.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 29, 2016, 6:54 pm
          • Yes. Al has misunderstood the exchange. Whether in adoption of non-adoption (“open”) states, the purchase is tied to the purchaser, whereas in higher ed., the recommender (the instructor) passes off the expense to the student.

            Posted by Joseph Esposito | Feb 29, 2016, 7:01 pm
  9. To suggest that this is a disturbing development is, in my experience, ignoring a substantial issue in higher education. I am a librarian and I know, from my work with academics & students, that many students cannot afford to purchase their textbooks & do not sacrifice giving their children food, shoes, etc to do do. So many students undertaking bachelor & coursework postgraduate degrees juggle many financial & time commitments – they are adults with adult responsibilities; not very young adults with parents who can subsidise their study expenses. And, students from poorer countries who come to study in wealthy countries also struggle to afford textbooks within the visa restrictions that are placed on their opportunities to work & the time pressures that come from studying in very foreign learning environments in a language other than their first. The traditional textbook model is becoming increasingly irrelevant to students, & the technological developments & learning & teaching responses to these are giving us wonderful opportunities to replace textbooks – open access textbooks can be much more than traditional textbooks (even with the recent add-ons that the web has given us), & well developed & used personal learning environments allow us to move further away from the textbook altogether to create greater learning- & learner-centredness. Of course a profit motive is behind Amazon’s move into the area – it exists to make a profit. But, if it can leverage its profit making activities to provide decent open access textbooks to all the people who can’t afford to buy them, then …

    Posted by Sandra Cochrane | Mar 1, 2016, 12:38 am
    • Hi, Sandra —

      Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that the emergence of OER is disturbing (though some in the textbook industry will surely find it so) — I was saying more specifically that there will be some who find the Department of Defense’s involvement in the development of OER disturbing, and others who will find Amazon’s involvement in it disturbing.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 1, 2016, 9:55 am


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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