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:
- 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.
- 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.