Publishers and Open-Resource Advocates Square Off on the Future of Course Content

April 17, 2017

At a friendly yet spirited debate last month over the pros and cons of open educational resources, publishers and OER advocates agreed on at least one thing: The "old" textbook market is broken.

But that’s pretty much where the common ground ended.

Team Publisher asserted that the evolution of the textbook marketplace was already leading students to create "their own market equilibrium," allowing them to obtain required course materials at affordable prices through a combination of textbook rentals, used books, and purchase of new so-called smart books from commercial publishers.

Team OER, meanwhile, argued that if the goals were affordability and better pedagogy, the use of low- or no-cost, openly licensed content, which can be reused, revised, remixed, redistributed, and retained with no limits, was the better option by far.

The debate, hosted by The Chronicle as part of the South by Southwest Edu conference, featured Peter Cohen, executive vice president of McGraw-Hill Education, and Cheryl Costantini, vice president for content strategy at Cengage Learning, representing the publishing industry. (Mr. Cohen quibbled over the Team Publisher name; he said it didn’t fully reflect the nature of what companies like his now do.)

Their sparring partners on Team OER were Kim Thanos, co-founder and chief executive at Lumen Learning, and Mark Johnson, a dean at San Jacinto College and head of its open-resources project. This reporter was the moderator.

In an hour marked by humor and the occasional pointed jab, the four panelists debated the sustainability of both the commercial-publishing and OER models, the quality of OER materials, and which model was best for allowing professors to customize materials for their courses and giving students "agency" in their education.

Following are some of the key arguments the debaters made. You can listen to the full debate, now available online, here.

• The old publisher model, in which a company edited and produced a textbook and then marketed it through an army of salespeople, is "morphing and changing," said Mr. Cohen. Today, he said, publishers’ course products typically include online assessments and components that adapt based on students’ previous responses. Along with salespeople, he said, publishers now employ "learning-technology representatives" to assist professors with the materials.

• Citing estimates that students now pay an average of $67 per class for their course materials, Mr. Cohen said that companies like his could continue with a financially sustainable model. If every student paid $40 to $80 per class for technology-enhanced course materials, "the industry would be fine," he said. He questioned why at the college level the cost of course materials is separated from the course itself. If a college provides students with the course, the faculty member, and the degree, "Why are you not also providing the instructional resources?" he asked.

• The OER movement suffers, Ms. Costantini said, because many of the open resources are organized in ways that keep professors from readily finding them. "Discoverability is definitely an issue," she said. She argued that publishers have been better than the OER community at responding to students’ desires for "efficiency of learning" with products that are personalized and adaptive to them.

• When it comes to promoting strong pedagogy, Ms. Thanos argued, open resources have the advantage. "They are your resources as a faculty member and a student," which allow for greater engagement than with content that is "locked down" into a commercial product, she said. Grants and philanthropy have supported much of the OER work so far — including at San Jacinto, which is part of a zero-cost-degree effort being coordinated by the community-college group Achieving the Dream. Mr. Johnson said the open-resources concept is so popular on his Texas campus that many faculty members are creating courses based on OER even if they’re not part of the grant program.

• Team OER also took issue with publishers’ framing of the issue as a choice between open content and curated content from publishers. Much of the content in OER products, they noted, is curated too.

For more highlights from the 2017 South by Southwest Edu conference, view The Chronicle’s collection of videos from the event.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at