Another Publisher Expands OER Footprint

Macmillan Learning will offer low-cost digital textbook bundles in 16 gen-ed courses, joining experiments that drive down prices for students (and potentially profits for publishers).

February 14, 2018

The companies formerly known as textbook publishers are in an all-out competition to show that they are ready, willing and able to bring down the price of their offerings -- both to help students afford college and to remain financially viable themselves.

Most of them are feeding into the open educational resources movement to do so.

The latest entrant in what might be called the low-priced digital courseware sweepstakes is Macmillan Learning, which on Tuesday said it would begin selling prebuilt -- but customizable -- courses based on curated open educational resources (but supplemented by student assessments, instructor resources and analytics) in 16 high-enrollment courses at $15 per student. Macmillan will make the courses available beginning this month through the Intellus platform it bought a year ago.

The Macmillan announcement follows by several months a major push by Cengage to embrace the movement toward open resources and to shift its business model heavily toward digital course materials at a lower price.

Other major publishers such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill have been exploring such approaches in response to the emergence of new-age content providers that lean exclusively or heavily on community-developed OER, including OpenStax, Lumen Learning, PanOpen, VitalSource, Top Hat and others.

"It is part of an emerging trend for college publishers to find new markets in the developing OER universe," Joseph Esposito, an analyst who monitors the publishing industry, said via email. "Cynics would say that these publishers are trying to co-opt OER, as the big journals publishers (SpringerNature, Elsevier) have co-opted open access. The economics are fascinating, as the publishers are essentially ceding the high-cost development of texts to the community at large (much of it in the not-for-profit sector) and focusing on the lower cost and higher margin business of selling materials around the core text.

"Nice work if you can get it," Esposito added.

Macmillan's Approach

Macmillan officials said their new offering would deliver many of the benefits of OER -- lower costs for students, increased flexibility for professors -- while responding to some of the leading faculty complaints about open resources by curating them to help instructors find relevant material and ensure their quality and supplementing them with additional resources.

Early last year, the company bought Intellus, whose platform helps institutions catalog and organize all the instructional materials their professors are using and then layers on analytic data about how students use the material. Intellus claims to be the "largest single repository of open educational resources and open content, including 5.4 million resources focused on higher education coursework."

Macmillan capitalized on all that openly licensed content to create courses in general education disciplines such as American government, sociology, economics, pre-algebra, psychology and chemistry. The publisher's own editorial team and subject-matter experts curated the content and fashioned a set of PowerPoint slides, assessment question banks and other materials to supplement them.

"We know the No. 1 complaint in terms of why people aren’t adopting OER is that they're difficult to assemble," said Nikki Jones, senior director for communications at Macmillan. With "heavy" editorial oversight, she said, "we've done the legwork so instructors can adopt these turnkey courses and students can have access" at a much lower price than traditional textbooks, she said.

Students in courses where professors adopt the Intellus courses will pay $14.99 each for access to all the materials -- and students will retain ownership of the content after the class ends, Jones said.

Academic departments and institutions can also buy access to the courses for larger groups of students, she said, but Macmillan expects that it will market the courses much as it traditionally has textbooks: to individual instructors.

In that way, Jones said, the Macmillan approach could avoid a critique that some faculty leaders have leveled against the institutionwide approach that Cengage is promoting in its "unlimited" model and in the "inclusive access" programs embraced by other courseware providers. Some critics said they worried that individual instructors could feel pressure to adopt one publisher's offerings if their institution received a heavy discount based on scale of use.

"We know that academic freedom is a big deal, and we want to make sure that faculty have agency when it comes to how they deliver their courses," Jones said. "As we've done a tremendous amount of research about this, that point has bubbled to the surface from professors: they want the process of finding material to be made easy, they want to retain their agency and they want to offer something of benefit to their students, in terms of lower costs."

As is true for the other recent publisher initiatives that aim to tap in to the open education movement, advocates for openness had more questions than answers about Macmillan's program.

"The future of educational resources is headed toward open, and traditional publishers are finally start to acknowledge it. However, it remains to be seen whether it is simply a branding exercise or genuine change," Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said via email.

She posed a series of questions about pricing, whether the content will be freely available and if "Macmillan is releasing any of their own content as OER? It's hard to take their interest in OER seriously if they aren't willing to put their content where their mouth is."

The Macmillan approach seemed to have "more in common with 'inclusive access' programs than OER," Allen said. "Don't get me wrong, if all this program amounts to is charging students $14.99 for access to flexible content, that's a step up from the status quo. But we should not be calling it OER. OER locked behind a paywall is not open. It's just content."


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