What Amazon's OER Platform Means for Education Publishers
One topic of discussion at Digital Book World earlier this month was the degree to which the “Big 4” technology companies -- Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google -- are setting the agenda for what happens in the publishing industry. In the K-12 sector of the industry, however, it has seemed -- until recently -- that only Apple and Google are battling it out to be the dominant technology platforms. It makes sense that Facebook isn’t (yet) a player in K-12 education, given that educators go to a lot of trouble to keep students away from Facebook while they’re in school, but Amazon’s relatively low K-12 profile has been somewhat of a mystery.
Amazon has made some interesting moves in the K-12 market, but they have tended to look less like strategic thrusts than shots across the bow. A little over five years ago, Amazon bought TenMarks, a provider of online math instruction, which gave Amazon a foothold as a supplier of content to K-12 students. We’ve heard little about TenMarks since. Last summer, Amazon won a bid to be the ebook provider to the New York City school system, but the deal was temporarily shelved over concerns that Amazon hadn’t properly dealt with the needs of visually impaired students. News that the parties had resolved the issue came only last week, and the New York Department of Education is expected to approve the contract, with an estimated value of $30 million to Amazon over the next three years, in April.
This deal, plus a new development reported in the educational trade press last month, suggests that Amazon may finally be staking out its claim in the K-12 space. Several publications reported in February that Amazon is beta-testing a platform called Amazon Inspire that will index and facilitate discovery of Open Educational Resources (OER).
OER, for those unfamiliar with the term, is content made available to educators free of charge. Development of OER is often funded by deep-pocketed entities such as the Gates Foundation, and has recently received support from the federal Department of Education. OER copyrights are usually governed by Creative Commons licenses that allow users to share the content free of charge, as long as they follow certain ground rules.
OER’s popularity has been on the rise, given that it can save school districts significant amounts of money on textbooks and other materials. Years ago, when OER first began to surface, publishers who felt threatened by this no-cost competition could argue that the free resources were generally of lower quality than professionally produced curriculum materials -- the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” argument. This argument has weakened as the quality of OER has improved, in part because there is serious money behind OER development.
Amazon’s positioning itself to be the curator of record for OER is a significant move that should get Google’s and Apple’s attention while giving educational publishers even more reasons to lose sleep over the growing importance of OER.
Two years ago, Apple was taking the K-12 market by storm; school districts bought iPads by the boatload even though they had little idea what they were going to do with them. Intense competition from Google coupled with some high-profile stumbles -- notably in the Los Angeles school district, where an iPad implementation program failed miserably as a result of both hardware and software glitches (and where a curriculum provided by Pearson failed to meet expectations) -- served to slow Apple’s momentum in the K-12 market. Since then, Google’s Chromebooks have been overtaking iPads as schools’ hardware of choice, particularly for students in upper grades.
Chromebooks have several advantages over iPads: they are cheaper, they have full keyboards, and they are optimized for accessing internet content (whereas Apple continues to try to force users to stay within its software and content ecosystem). Moreover, Google adds value to the Chromebooks platform by making Google Apps for Education -- a suite of productivity tools that facilitate classroom collaboration -- available to teachers and students free of charge.
So what does Amazon have to gain by making itself the definitive source of information about OER? Just as Google believes there are strategic benefits to having teachers and students use its platform in school -- presumably to strengthen their dependence on Google so that its spills into their lives as consumers -- Amazon has good reason to want to be the go-to source of information about OER.
Google is a terrific discovery platform for information of all sorts, but when you are looking to find a product, Amazon is the place to go. While there was a time when most of us thought of Amazon as only a destination for books, we now go there to find everything from diapers and light bulbs to lawn chairs and power tools. Indeed, one of the great surprises to be derived from a reading of Jeff Bezos’s biography, The Everything Store, is that he always planned to sell more than books -- a product category he chose for Amazon’s market entry because of their unique attributes: lots of SKUs, relatively easy to ship, and not really fungible. Now OER is yet another expansion of Bezos’s Everything Store vision.
One might ask how Mr. Bezos plans to monetize Amazon Inspire. Here’s my take on it:
Keep in mind that Amazon doesn’t seem to care much how profitable its book business is as long as it helps the company acquire customers and drive them toward purchases of other products. Similarly, if Amazon Inspire becomes the most important source of information about products that can be used in schools, Amazon won’t mind if the service doesn’t have a clear business model, at least in the short term. In addition, it’s easy to envision Amazon bringing paid educational products into Amazon Inspire to sit alongside free OER materials, and/or using all the merchandising tools it has at its disposal (“Customers Who Selected This Item Also Bought…”) to drive sales of educational products.
If Amazon Inspire becomes the destination of choice for educators and students seeking products for classroom use, it will help the company make up much of the ground it has lost to Apple and Google in the K-12 space -- and it will further support Jeff Bezos’s strategy to make Amazon the place to go to find, well, everything.