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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]