Open Education’s Publicity Problem

Arlington, Va. — David Wiley calls the annual Open Education Conference, now in its 11th year, a “family reunion.” This year, the hearth is crowded. The Hilton ballroom here overflows with bodies.

Mr. Wiley, the co-founder and chief academic officer at Lumen Learning, an upstart company that organized this year’s event, asks that all the new people stand up. At least a third of the crowd rises. “Our little family is growing,” he says.

And yet, outside the family, open educational resources have a publicity problem.

Open educational resources, or OER, are public-domain learning materials that instructors and students can use free instead of shelling out for textbooks. If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone: 66 percent of faculty members said they were “unaware” of OER, according to a recent survey by the Babson Survey Research Group.

At the same time, the survey results indicate that most of the instructors who were familiar with OER considered their quality to be “roughly equivalent,” in general, to that of traditional textbooks.

That was big news for Mr. Wiley and his colleagues. For years, they fought claims from publishers that you get what you pay for, and so OER cannot be trusted. The Babson survey, along with a number of recent studies on efficacy, has given them ammunition to fire back.

But the survey also defined a different problem: Most professors don’t know what OER are, or how to seek them out.

I caught up with Mr. Wiley at the conference and asked him about OER’s publicity problem. He told me it’s a tough one to fix.

Traditional textbook companies “have a budget to send out dead trees—big marketing budgets,” he said. “That’s what you’re really competing with: (a) with that marketing budget and (b) with a very, very lean-back experience for the faculty member where content just magically appears, for them, on their desk, and they say, ‘Oh, this table of contents looks good,’ or ‘I like the cover art on that one.’ It’s not generally a very proactive experience for many of them.”

Mr. Wiley, who is also an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, explained that the community of OER advocates, though it may be growing, cannot compete with textbook publishers when it comes to cold-calling professors.

“I don’t think you can market OER the same way you can market textbooks traditionally,” he said. “The way textbooks get marketed is there are these huge collections of databases of which faculty members are teaching which courses at which institutions and how many sections and how many students are estimated to be in each section—tracking all of that data and figuring out which of those are worth mailing dead trees to, and which can we only do in email, and—just huge amounts of money. And it’s the kind of money you can only spend when you charge $250 for a textbook.”

Mr. Wiley and his colleagues are trying to find other ways to get on professors’ radars. Two years ago he helped to found Lumen Learning, a company that bundles OER materials into something like free textbooks and then helps colleges adopt those materials for a fee of $5 per student. So far, Lumen has about 60 institutional clients, according to Kim Thanos, the company’s chief executive and co-founder.

Instead of going after professors, Lumen goes after provosts. The company’s strategy is to persuade academic leaders to give it an audience with faculty members so it can make the pitch for OER adoption—or, at least, explain what OER are. The company’s hope is that educating professors about free online resources will have the same effect as selling to them.

“If we go head to head with the major publishers and try to outspend and outhire, we will lose,” said Ms. Thanos. “We all know that.”

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