Scitable and the Course of Open Courses

A couple of weeks ago I noted that the number of college students taking online courses is on one of those steadily rising trajectories that are invariably under-remarked-upon even as they fundamentally change the world in which we live. It’s also worth noting that formal online coursetaking doesn’t represent the full extent of how information technology is changing higher education. Take, for example, Scitable.

Created by Nature Publishing Group, who bring us Nature, Scientific American, and many scientific journals, Scitable is a “free science library and personal learning tool” that focuses on topics like cell biology and genetics. It’s a species of open courseware, free online materials including text, video, audio, problem sets, and forums for student-to-student interaction that can be used either by self-directed learners or adopted by teachers at secondary and postsecondary schools as part of regular courses. Other examples include MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Yale Courses, the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative,  iTunes U, and many more.

Nature doesn’t charge for Scitable. This makes sense for Nature because they’re in the business of selling journals about nature. If Scitable is adopted by lots of people, particularly in developing countries that lack a strong higher-education infrastructure, there will eventually be more scientists and thus people willing to pay for new high-quality articles about science. They’re also going to fund Scitable through corporate sponsorship, premium services, and customized versions of the standard resource. MIT, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon can afford to give away course content because they’re in the selective research university business. Apple can afford to give away course content because they’re in the expensive cool-device business and they’re not even paying to create the content in the first place.

All of this spells trouble for two other businesses. One is traditional textbooks. The people running those companies aren’t stupid; they see the handwriting on the wall and the Kindles on the Metro. Their problem is that while the physical textbook business is obviously doomed in the long run, it’s still large and profitable today. It’s very hard for a business that was designed to do something to stop doing it, particularly when there are opportunities to run out the string for a while and keep getting paid. In theory shareholders would prevent this from happening but in reality this often doesn’t work; look what happened to Blockbuster Video. A rational company would have cashed out five years ago, but they predictably hung on until the bitter, bankrupt end.

Trying to avoid this fate, the textbooks companies have been moving up the higher education value chain with services like MyMathLab and MyStatLab, owned by textbook giant Pearson, and, according to their website, used by millions of students at over 1,900 colleges and universities.

This, along with things like Scitable, spells trouble for people in the second threatened business: teachers at a non-selective undergraduate institutions. Wealthy institutions in the business of sorting the most academically promising students and putting them in proximity to both one another and esteemed scholars will probably be operating in more or less the same way 100 years from now. So, too, will small liberal arts colleges that specialize in teaching. The future of everyone else is muddier. Although it’s hard to predict exactly who, how, and when, it seems very clear that in the long run, the number of organizations who decide it’s in their best interests to provide free open courseware will grow and the tools themselves will steadily improve. All of which is to say that if your career plans involve teaching introductory cell biology at a regional four-year public university or community college in 2030, you might want to reconsider.

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