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.

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  • Dan McGuire

    The reason that proprietary publishing and OER don’t mix well is that they are so basically different. It’s not about cost; it’s about what one can do with the content.

  • blendedlibrarian

    I recently attended the American Library Association Conference. Gale is a longtime provider of library database content. Now they are a part of Cengage. I have previously heard them talking about Mindtap (and BTW, a Gale Cengage rep was at Open Ed 16 and asked to talk to me about OER and Mindtap – i am probably not the only one). So I asked some of the Gale Cengage folks what they knew about the recently released Mindtap Ace. I don’t think anyone really knew it all that well and they didn’t have anything to show me. They described it as an effort to “collect and conduct vetting of OER to identify quality OER that faculty could trust”. I was not sure what to make of that. Right, they are not claiming to provide OER – just that they are vetting it and I think, making it accessible in their platform.

    I guess this is not as bad as the rep at the B&N booth (first time they ever came to the ALA exhibits) who was talking about their new BNED platform – you know – where they are supplementing OpenStax books with their own accessories such as tutorials, question banks, study guides, videos, etc – he referred to it as “OER Software”. I told him that just because it’s connected with the OS books – it doesn’t make it OER – and he shouldn’t be calling it OER software. This could be a more blatant case of openwashing, but I hope they can learn what OER actually are and distinguish it from their proprietary platform ($50 per student and $15 for the textbook – if they want it in print).

    I hope you may write more about this sort of product approach we are seeing and how we talk to faculty about it in terms of textbook affordability. After all, even the BNED stuff at $50 per student is less than a $250 textbook – although students have no ability to sell it back. Things are getting messy out there.

  • blendedlibrarian

    Well I think you answered my question in your EdSurge piece on publisher platforms. Things are still messy, but at least you make it clear to OER advocates why we need to understand platforms from the faculty perspective – and how the next challenge OER advocates will face is shaping up.