In the Age of OER, Curation Will Be King
A major conundrum for educational publishers is what to do about Open Educational Resources (OER) — free materials, usually available in digital form, that educators can use in their classrooms in lieu of textbooks or more traditional supplemental materials. At a time when many K-12 publishers are still struggling to establish profitable digital business models, competition from free educational materials doesn’t make their lives any easier.
Thus, the recent announcement that McGraw-Hill Education, one of the “Big 3” K-12 publishers (a label McGraw-Hill eschews; it now calls itself a “learning science company”), plans to make OER resources available within its K-12 learning and assessment platform raised eyebrows in some quarters.
The specifics of the deal, announced in early March, are that McGraw-Hill will integrate 360,000 OER resources curated by Knovation into its Engrade learning platform. Knovation, based in Cincinnati, OH — about 100 miles down the road from McGraw-Hill’s Columbus headquarters — is not exactly a household name to consumers, but Knovation is well-known in K-12 circles as the developer of NetTrekker. NetTrekker got its start in 1999 as a curated index of websites appropriate for in-school use. Knovation now curates all sorts of digital sources for educators, aligning them to curriculum standards and tagging them by subject, grade level, and other attributes that educators find useful for discoverability.
The McGraw-Hill-Knovation deal is atypical in the OER world, as McGraw-Hill will obviously be paying Knovation for the OER resources and, in turn, will charge its customers for access to them. Given that OER is supposed to be free, this arrangement raises some interesting questions.
To start, why would McGraw-Hill include OER materials in Engrade in the first place, where they will co-exist with resources in which for-profit developers have made significant editorial investments? Secondly, what makes McGraw-Hill think customers will pay for the privilege of accessing OER materials that are available elsewhere for free?
The answer lies in a single word: curation.
“MH embraces the spirit of open,” says Christine Willig, president of McGraw-Hill Education’s K-12 group. “We believe our role is to provide a structured backbone with a scope and sequence but to do so with a lot of flexibility. The next generation solution we are building will show school districts that it’s easy to use OER combined with proprietary resources.
“The deal with Knovation is structured around that philosophy,” she said. “They have done a terrific job of validating the quality of the OER and tagging it richly.”
In essence, Willig is saying that un-curated OER isn’t very valuable because there is simply too much of it, and the time it takes educators to sift through haystacks of content to find some high-quality needles just isn’t worth the effort. Knovation has already searched, filtered, and organized gobs of content; McGraw-Hill believes that customers will place a value on that curatorial activity — and will be willing to pay for its output.
“Educators constantly say, ‘I need more time,’” says Willig. “They are spending lots of time Googling content or looking at sites like Teachers Pay Teachers. When discoverability is a problem, they are not being efficient.”
For Willig, betting on the idea that customers will pay for curated content that’s available un-curated for free is not such a radical notion. Knovation proved this point when it first launched NetTrekker. Willig was NetTrekker’s #2 executive prior to landing at McGraw-Hill. She had the good judgment, by the way, to recuse herself from the negotiations with her former employer as the two companies were forging their arrangement.
Still, an embrace of Open Educational Resources by one of K-12’s Big 3 — even if it’s the for-pay, curated variety — is an important milestone in OER’s battle for acceptance. In her enthusiasm for OER, Willig stands in stark contrast with one of her predecessors, Dan Caton, who famously said in a speech at an AAP conference a few years ago that the problem with OER was that it is “free like a puppy, not like a beer.” That is, a free beer comes with no strings attached, while the recipients of a free puppy, by the time they are done with all its care and feeding, find out the hard way that the cost of ownership is greater than zero.
The OER in Engrade is more like a beer, albeit the kind that customers belly up to the bar and pay for. One takeaway for publishers: in the age of OER, curation — not content — will be king.