Don’t Whine, Compete!

In describing commercial publishers’ response to the open textbook bill in Washington state, Cable Green hits the nail on the head:

Publishers are desperate to maintain the huge profit margins they make for essentially packaging the same content in new wrappers year after year. If their quality is indeed as superior as they claim, they shouldn’t have any trouble competing with open educational resources.

This is the key point folks aren’t getting. No one outside the open education movement is impressed by books that are “open.” They don’t even know what it means, let alone care about it. What they’re excited by is a book that offers a better quality to price ratio than whatever they’re currently using.

Commercial publishers are afraid to compete with OER head-to-head on the price side of that equation and want to make conversations about “quality.” But it seems to me that many OER publishers are afraid to go head-to-head with commercial publishers on the quality side of the equation and try to limit conversations to “cost.” This is not a sustainable strategy for folks on the OER side of the conversation.

For too long the OER discourse has suffered from thinking that the pitch line “you can get the same quality for less!” is sufficient. While this claim may still true today, it will not be true for long. Most OER projects have been so busy doing “as good as” commercial publishers that (1) there is little indigenous innovation in the OER world and (2) as publishers raise the curtain on a new generation of diagnostic and adaptive products the OER community will be years away from a reasonable response. This failure of foresight will change the OER pitch to “lower quality for less!” unless someone starts paying attention.

Now, one of the main points of the Utah Open Textbooks project has been to demonstrate that open textbooks can be just as good as commercial books while costing much less. But this demonstration isn’t the end goal of the work – it is the baseline that must be demonstrated before any meaningful policy work can begin. Now that this first demonstration has happened and the policy ball is rolling in Utah, Washington, Arizona, and elsewhere, it’s time for us to get serious about shifting our attention.

The $15 textbooks recently published as part of the Apple iBooks / iPad announcement demonstrate that publishers understand the golden ratio. These are books with text, images, multimedia, interactives, video, standards alignment, etc. that only cost $15. They might not be willing to drive the denominator all the way to $0, but they’re clearly willing to move it closer to $0 while simultaneously growing the numerator. In other words, the publishers have a two-pronged strategy where open textbook and OER advocates typically have a one-prong strategy (cost). If OER / open textbooks people aren’t willing to significantly grow the numerator, then we’ve already reached the theoretical limit of OER’s golden ratio. That’s a horrifying thought.

1 thought on “Don’t Whine, Compete!”

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