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.