Thoughts on Cengage’s MindTap ACE

Cengage recently announced a new offering called MindTap ACE that includes OER and is now available in pilot. I haven’t had access to review the offering yet, but you can see some screenshots in the video linked above. The video clearly shows Cengage content listed for each topic, followed by some OER.

Michael Hansen, Cengage CEO, is quoted in the press release as saying:

“far too often, the debate is an either/or of achievement versus price, when the reality is that OER can complement proprietary content. MindTap ACE addresses this challenge by including OER alongside Cengage’s best-in-class content. The result is an affordable option that ensures students still benefit from a meaningful learning experience.”

This statement is masterful (if your goal is to suppress OER adoption). It subtly and repeatedly belittles open content, while still managing to make you feel happy about it’s inclusion in the ACE product. Hansen contrasts “achievement” (Cengage) with “price” (OER), allows that “Cengage’s best-in-class content” can be “complemented” by OER, and implies that an “affordable option” (OER) can still ensure a “meaningful learning experience” so long as it is paired with Cengage’s proprietary content.

The overall strategy is also masterful. MindTap ACE is an OER vaccine – it introduces OER into courseware in a manner specifically designed to inoculate faculty from contracting a full-blown OER adoption. It allows faculty to “check the OER box” while still paying for Cengage proprietary content. This is not the last OER vaccine we will see from a major publisher desperate to sell their content for a few more semesters.

(Even though I’m a vocal advocate for OER and disagree with what Cengage is trying to accomplish here, I’m still allowed to appreciate creative messaging and strategy when I see it.)

We will have to wait and see if MindTap ACE provides faculty or students with the technical capability to meaningfully exercise any of the 5R permissions that are literally the defining characteristic of OER. If the ability to change the order of chapters shown in the video is meant to check the revise box, my hopes aren’t high for retain, reuse, remix, or redistribute.

I want to say a word in praise of Cengage here. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Before we accuse Cengage of openwashing, it’s important to note that Cengage isn’t claiming to be “doing OER.” They’re not claiming to be “open” in some impoverished sense of the word. All they are claiming is that they are using OER to improve the affordability of their offering. And at $40, it appears that they’ve succeeded at that goal.

(It does make me wonder, though… How does adding content (in this case, OER) to a product reduce it’s price? The existing MindTap Introduction to Psychology wholesales to bookstores for $96. According to the press release, MindTap ACE Introduction to Psychology will cost $40. Is the OER that have been added to the product so inferior that they actually decrease the product’s value (by more than half)? I don’t think that’s what’s happening. The decrease in price only makes sense if OER are replacing content in the existing version of the course.

If it’s true that OER are replacing existing content, there’s trouble afoot. Either (a) MindTap ACE Introduction to Psychology will be substantially worse than the existing MindTap version because inferior OER have been used to replace Cengage’s “best-in-class” content, or (b) Cengage have unwittingly validated OER by replacing their own “best-in-class” content with OER to create a product that will be just as effective in supporting learning as the more expensive version. I wonder which Cengage would say is true – is MindTap ACE a case of “pay less, get less?,” or will Cengage vouch for the efficacy of MindTap ACE and, perhaps accidentally, OER?)

But coming back to the praise… Cengage does seem to have managed to avoid using “open” or “OER” in ways that are dishonest and offensive to the community, which is more than most other publishers have managed. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Perhaps if the OER community  welcomed small forays into OER territory on the part of publishers, they would find the courage to come more fully into the OER community. I know most of you (all of you?) think I’m crazy, but I dream of a future in which proprietary publishers actively contribute to OER the way that proprietary software companies contribute to open source software. If we encourage them and support them in acting within community norms and values, there’s a chance this might happen. If we bodyslam them every time they come within hearing distance of the word “open,” we won’t make much progress.

I’ve not been as effective at this in the past as I wish I had been and want to do better, so this post is a start.


Of Analogies, Learning, and Weather

E-literate recently ran a story about the emergence of a genuine science of learning. Keith Devlin follows many who came before him in making an analogy to medicine. Generally speaking, I don’t like comparisons of education to medicine. I think they’re problematic for a range of reasons I’ve written about in the past. But in the context of this article, the biggest problem with the comparison has to do with the role of data.

Educational technologies have worked their way into the everyday lives of millions of students, resulting in an explosion of learning-related data that could be analyzed by researchers. The logic of the argument is that the ease and scale of capturing these data will result in an unprecedented corpus of “big data” about learning whose analysis will rapidly drive new discoveries in learning science. Now, while medical instrumentation has made incredible advances in the past century, these instruments haven’t worked their way into the everyday lives of millions of people, resulting in a similar explosion of medical data available for analysis using “big data” techniques. (Data-obsessed athletes and quantified self advocates being the closest thing we have to an exception here.)

If we truly believe that the coming revolution in learning science will be enabled by the unprecedented levels of data collection enabled by pervasive educational technologies, perhaps the analogy to medicine is mistaken since medicine has never undergone a similar transformation. Perhaps we should look for another field where a technology-facilitated explosion of data drove progress forward. How about meteorology?

You can read Meteorology on Wikipedia for more detail, but I’ll summarize here. Weather is happening everywhere, all the time – the amount of potential data to capture is “big.” The development of reliable instruments and common classification scales led to a standardized way of collecting and talking about weather data. Data collection networks were then established to use these new instruments to systematically collect this data in a wide range of geographical contexts. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to bring massive amounts of this data together in a single location quickly. As the scale of these data grew, people began talking about numerical weather prediction, beginning with the 1904 paper “Weather Forecasting as a Problem in Mechanics and Physics.”

Any of this sounding familiar yet, educational technologists?

Maybe there would be some value in a closer evaluation of this analogy. Weather is a dynamical system, and so is learning. Both are highly sensitive to initial conditions (like a student’s prior knowledge). The study of each will always result in probabilistic forecasts rather than deterministic predictions.

Given the efforts pundits are making to persuade us that education is poised to enter a new golden age thanks to all the data that are now available, we’d do well to familiarize ourselves with relevant history. Who knows – maybe one day learning scientists will be as accurate at predicting learning as weathermen are at predicting the weather. While that may sound like a dig against both professions, I actually mean it simply as an acknowledgment of how incredibly complex and dynamic both phenomena are.

On reflection, the impact of learner agency on the learning process makes me doubt that we can ever be as good at predicting learning as we are at predicting weather. Still, I think there might be value in thinking about this analogy a little more.

What do you think? What other fields have seen rapid progress occur through a technology-facilitated explosion of data? What could we learn from them?


Last year Bob Reiser invited me to contribute a chapter to the fourth edition of Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, to be published by Pearson. I agreed on the conditions that I would retain copyright in the chapter and that it would appear in the book under a Creative Commons license. Pearson agreed. Now that the book is appearing in print, I’m publishing the full-text chapter here so that there will be an easier-to-access open access version of the chapter available online. If you’re interested, the full citation is:

Wiley, D. (2017). The Evolving Economics of Educational Materials and Open Educational Resources: Toward Closer Alignment with the Core Values of Education. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education.

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