Pearson, Blackboard, And Education's New "Openwashing"

Open educational resources—textbooks, curricula, video lectures and more that are released, usually online, under Creative Commons license for free sharing and reuse—have been at the forefront of the movement for higher education innovation. They're a key part of the Obama administration's national education technology plan; in January, the Department of Ed created a $2 billion grant program to fund open community college textbooks and other materials. Even after creators are compensated, open materials typically cost about 80% less than traditional textbooks, which students spend almost $1,000 a year on. 

Now some of the largest for-profit education behemoths are jumping on the "open" bandwagon. At EDUCAUSE, one of the largest ed-tech conferences and trade shows, last week, Pearson, the largest textbook publisher, announced that they're launching something called OpenClass, described as a cloud-based, self-service learning management system (LMS), compatible with Google Apps for Education and available in the Google Apps store. Most colleges use an LMS as an online gradebook, a place to find the syllabus and maybe complete assignments; more full-featured LMS's allow for teaching of classes online.

OpenClass is completely free to use—free of licensing, hardware, or hosting fees. However, though they're using the term "open," the Pearson materials most compatible with the platform will remain copyrighted and fee-for-use.

Meanwhile Blackboard, the LMS market leader, which has a similar free cloud-based service alongside its paid services, announced that it's becoming Open-Educational-Resource-friendly, making it easier for educators who use their free platform to publish the resources they create under Creative Commons license, and to allow universities to more easily grant access to their learning platforms to non-enrolled students.

These announcements have the ed-tech blogosphere looking a "free" gift horse in the mouth. There have been accusations of "openwashing."

"You keep using that word...I do not think it means what you think it means."

On the one hand, it's great that these large education incumbents, partly goaded by the example of Google's free education apps, are bending to the power of the concept of open and free sharing of educational resources to the future of education: collaborative, peer-based, puppies, kittens, and ice cream for everyone. On the other hand, particularly for institutions that want to pursue a strategy of increased openness as part of their public mission, wouldn't it be better to migrate to an actually open-source LMS like Moodle or Sakai than a version created by Pearson, whose core business is selling copyrighted resources, or Blackboard, whose money comes from fees for services and licenses?

What's getting lost here is the power of "free" to benefit not only institutions, but students as well.

On the other, other hand, it's only rational for these companies to pursue multiple strategies to remain sustainable in a rapidly changing market, both holding on to their old closed businesses (buy a printed, copyrighted textbook from Pearson here) and trying to create platforms. And advocates of OER, likewise, have to try multiple strategies to remain sustainable, whether as profitable businesses, consumers of government funding, or as nonprofits.

[Image: Flickr user philip.bitnar]

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  • dchapman

    "What's getting lost here is the power of "free" to benefit not only institutions, but students as well." excellent point!

  • George Kroner


    As I'm currently writing this from the Open Ed conference, I must say that I love where you're coming from. Even though I work for Blackboard, I do believe in the potential for openness to do great things. I do, however, think you are being a little misleading in hinting that open source software is always inherently cheaper than commercial or proprietary software. There are many cases lately that have shown that this isn't the case - or at least it's not the case for everyone. (You can find some of these reports linked to from here: Each educational institution has a responsibility to make its own decision on what their investment should be in educational software and if the additional cost of any system for its perceived benefit over others is justified. For systems such as LMSs, this cost is usually several dollars per student per year. If you looked at the costs of back-end student systems, I'm sure you'll find the costs to be upwards of 10x this amount. If you look at the content and software licensing costs for libraries, you'll likely find it to be still higher. So I think the focus on costs associated specifically with the LMS are a bit misdirected. I'd add that the bulk of the cost of software development (unfortunately) comes in maintenance and support. Some textbooks quote this figure as 80% of the total cost of developing software. Even if using an open source solution, someone somewhere has to maintain it and support it, for example to keep up-to-date with new browsers and operating systems - not even accounting for new and enhanced features. This will incur some cost - maybe direct, maybe indirect - no matter which solution is chosen - commercial or open source. Also, no software is completely without issue, so I'm skeptical on comments that focus on a quality comparison alone.

    But nevertheless, I think the root of your frustration in this article is that you feel that commercial software providers are misusing, maybe even abusing, the term openness. I believe this may be because the term is inherently vague. Does Blackboard have APIs, web services, and plugins? Yes. Can Blackboard clients freely share with each other tools and utilities they've built using these capabilities? Yes. Does Blackboard support open content and back-end interoperability standards? Yes, specifically to address vendor lock-in perceptions. Does Blackboard now support open content licensing and guest/visitor access? Yes.  Does Blackboard count said visitors/guests against yearly license fees? No. Do Blackboard clients have raw access to every bit and byte in the product database? Yes. Do you still consider Blackboard to not be an open product despite all of these efforts? ...

    So the challenge now is this. Some have said that the term "openness" is the new "enterprise" - a term that everyone knows they like but are not sure exactly what it means. The qualities that make a system enterprise class usually manifest themselves in more tangible ways like proven scalability, back-end integration capabilities, and identity management support. Similarly, I think we should begin to speak of openness in more tangible forms, too. These might include detailing specific product capabilities such as existence of APIs, support for interoperability standards, and ownership/portability of content. Perhaps this will serve to clarify where the differences lie and enable more productive, and less propagandistic, conversation.

    Thank you,

  • John Fontaine

    Blackboard listened to critics regarding openness and responded in a positive and direct way.  This latest announcement is just the latest in a series related to openness.  Blackboard embraced and implemented industry standards from IMS.  Blackboard Learn's underlying database schema was published for customers to use under an open database policy.  Blackboard supported open APIs developed by IMS for administrative system integration and learning tool interoperability.  This last week Blackboard announced license changes and new tools in support of open education.  These announcements should be seen in the context of the wider changes at Blackboard towards becoming a more open platform.

    CourseSites creates a free place to teach and learn online using many of Blackboard's tools. CoruseSites allows instructors to come and go as they please.  Instructors can always take their instructional materials with them in the widely adopted Common Cartridge format.  Instructors and learners may login to CourseSites via open integrations with Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo, MSN or Twitter.   Materials may be shared over social networks and published as open educational resources using a Creative Commons CC-BY license.  Published resources are annotated with OpenGraph and metadata allowing search engines and other third parties to easily consume these materials.   

    I encourage you to check out CourseSites at