It’s about ownership, stupid

I went to an excellent presentation from Cable Green yesterday about the K12 OER Collaborative. The project is aiming to get states to some of the money they currently spend on buying text books from publishers to produce open ones. He highlighted very forcibly what a crappy deal we currently have in that books are often very old (because they can’t afford to update), children are not allowed to do anything useful like take notes in them (because they have to be passed on), and if you lose one, the parents have to pay to replace it (which results in some parents telling their kids not to bring the book home). And on top of this, it’s really expensive.

So what they did was for a fraction of the cost currently allocated to purchase books they put out a call for companies to create new ones, but crucially, these would be openly licensed. This means that a) the digital copy is free, b) the state owns the rights so can update and adapt as they want and c) they can match specifically to common core. While the big publishers boycotted the call, many smaller ones responded, as did university departments. A million dollars (say) may not mean much to Pearson, but to a small company it’s a decent sum of money, even if there is no further revenue had then on sales.

The finances are truly staggering here, at the moment the state (he was talking about Washington state) can afford to update two books a year. When you consider the range of subjects and the age ranges, that means a lot of set books are out of date before it’s their turn to be updated. For the same money to update 2 books a year, using the open approach they could create open textbooks for ALL subjects. And these would of course, be usable across the whole of the US, not just in one state. And they would have money to pay people to regularly update the books. And they’d still have change left over.

When this is laid out you realise, that much like the academic publishing model, the current system was devised when ownership resided with the physical artefact. It now looks ludicrous. I do think we will look back in years to come and think “how did we let it go on for so long?”. I don’t know what the figures are for buying UK textbooks for schools, or how the process works, but the same approach would surely work here. In the US the figure is $8 billion nationwide, and the K12 OER project reckons it could do it all for around $30 million. Imagine what that extra money might be spent on in education.

It reinforced to me an obvious point, but one that bears repeating – ownership is key here. The real reason education boards spend millions of dollars in buying textbooks is not because the publishers have specialised technology or skills anymore. It is because they own the rights to the content. Once you break that link, then all sorts of possibilities open up.

Here is Cable’s slidedeck: