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Open Education Resources: Bursting the $8 Billion Bubble

In the United States, the PreK-12 marketplace for digital education materials is estimated at approximately $8 billion, and growing. This is just for content and software, not including hardware such as devices and broadband infrastructure. And as schools continue shifting to digital content and materials, the effort to capture those $8 billion in profits has been fierce.

But as these resources are digitized and delivered online, is it possible the $8 billion bubble might burst?

The digital conversion of education resources has taken off over the last two years, and the big three textbook publishing companies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill, and Pearson) have taken notice and entered into the digital fray. Not only are their products flooding online—just look at their array of textbooks available as iBooks through iTunes—they are also aggressively acquiring smaller companies specializing in personalized learning, customized tools, data analytics, and more.

These three companies have so dominated the education marketplace, it sometimes seems as though this great digital conversion may simply culminate in digitized versions of the same mediocre print materials that came before. But one growing movement within the digital educational resources market has offered a glimpse at an alternative future for educational materials: the movement for open education resources, commonly referred to as OER.

While tremendously valuable, OER is often lost in the larger education conversation.

OER are, simply put, “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” While tremendously valuable, OER is often lost in the larger education conversation, and sometimes even within the ed tech conversation. In part this is because of the huge breadth of resources included: Some focus on online courseware. Others home in on platforms that share teacher-generated digital materials to students. Still others fixate on free tools that allow teachers and students to create their own text, video, and other multimedia products.

But this is also because, for now anyway, OER is still relatively unknown.

During the Open Education Conference in Washington D.C. this week, Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, spoke about the need for more open materials in the K-12 space, especially in the early elementary grades. He emphasized that, as the E-rate program brings more students online over the next several years (even more, if the funding cap is increased by the F.C.C.), schools will be using more digital materials. But, he said, the question remains whether there will be enough high-quality open materials to meet this need—or whether schools will be stuck with closed, proprietary resources.

A new initiative announced this week represents a huge opportunity to meet this growing demand for online materials and, in the process, may finally drive OER into the forefront of the public conversation on education. The K-12 OER Collaborative—a new nonprofit led by a group of 11 states that started with Utah, Washington, and Idaho and now includes states with huge markets like California—announced this week it will “sponsor development of comprehensive, high-quality, standards-aligned [resources for] K-12 mathematics and English language arts.” The collaborative has put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) for developers to create these high-quality OER, which would be open with attribution (content would carry a Creative Commons Attribution license, CC BY, version 4.0).

If successful, this initiative has the potential to burst the $8 billion bubble, both reducing costs and creating free, equitable access to quality learning materials. As Cable Green, director of global learning at Creative Commons, said during the announcement, "This is an obvious project to do. If we don’t do a project like this, states are going to collectively spend billions of dollars."

That said, there are huge obstacles to making OER the new reality. Expect that as OER moves from a fringe issue to a huge disruptive force, existing market forces will push back. The success or failure of the K-12 OER Collaborative will serve as a strong barometer for the OER movement’s potential for mainstream success.