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If you can’t beat them, join them.

That is Pearson’s latest approach to open educational resources (OER) — the free online learning materials that have proliferated over the last decade and a half, posing a threat to traditional publishers.

The education and media company today will unveil Project Blue Sky, a search engine to help instructors locate free materials from popular OER repositories.

The service, which Pearson has built with help from Gooru, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that specializes in search, will allow instructors to search for e-book chapters, videos and online exercise software. It will return aggregated results from Harvard Open Courses, Connexions, OER Commons, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Courseware, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, and Wikiversity, among others.

“There’s such a large amount of OER being produced, we cannot ignore it,” says Don Kilburn, vice chairman of Pearson’s higher education division.

The major publishers for a long time brushed off any suggestion that OER could undermine their market, claiming that free educational content is inherently unreliable and lacks the sophistication of some of their newer, high-tech products.

But with the price of course materials facing scrutiny pressure from student advocates and even some state governments, Pearson, which is one of the five major content publishers, is looking to serve that demand while also giving its own content a shot at changing the minds of instructors browsing for OER lessons and videos; in addition to OER from “over 25” different repositories, search queries in Blue Sky will also turn up results from Pearson’s own content catalog, which users can elect to purchase instead.

Pearson says it is confident that facilitating OER discovery will not undermine the company’s own products. “We clearly believe our content is superior to OER content… but we recognize there is a place for OER in the current environment,” says Kilburn.

“If we can’t compete effectively there, we have a bigger problem,” he says.

David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, says he thinks Pearson might be underestimating the sophistication of OER.

“It’s not going to be that long before people figure out that students learn just as well from OER,” says Wiley. “It’ll be interesting to see if this doesn’t backfire on them.”

Wiley points out that Pearson is not the first to build a search interface that aggregates OER content. And he wonders if the company will design Blue Sky to subtly bias the Pearson content. Kilburn seems confident that will not be necessary. In addition to OER content, Kilburn says the company may consider letting competing for-profit publishers have their content indexed in Blue Sky's search results. "That's an open discussion we'd be happy to have," he says.

In any case, Wiley says it is encouraging that demand for OER has grown to the extent that the publishing giant feels compelled to address it. “The more paths to OER there are in the world, the better,” he says. 

Katrina D’Aquin, an associate professor of psychology at Bethany College, is one of the 13 instructors involved in the pilot phase. D’Aquin says she is using Blue Sky to build a textbook for an upper-level psychology course using Pearson’s custom-textbook platform.

D’Aquin’s book currently contains about half Pearson content and half OER, and she expects that by the time she is done the book will cost students $30 each — although this may underestimate the typical cost of a Pearson-OER hybrid text since Pearson is making some of its own content available to pilot testers for free.

“I would say that this early in the development it’s quite promising,” she says.

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