Thursday, November 26, 2015

The OER Business Model

     I was really pleased to see Sarah Hinchliff Pearson's Medium article, Open for Business:
A look at how platforms and creators build successful endeavors around open digital content. Sarah is attempting to answer the question that my sister-in-law asked me at this year's Thanksgiving dinner which was - "How do you make money doing that?" That came after she had asked, "so, what are you doing for work these days?" In between the first and second question I had said, "I'm creating a digital curriculum for Minnesota 3rd grade science, which will be free for any teacher in Minnesota to use; the curriculum will eventually be free for any teacher anywhere to use." The entity responsible for this new, free, open, digital curriculum is the Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum.

   Now, here's the thing that I don't think Sarah quite nailed down, yet. It's the act of creating the curriculum in a particular form that will be useful to Minnesota 3rd grade teachers that generates revenue for me, and not the content which is created. I'm getting paid for doing something; the content I'm using is already free and Creative Commons licensed or in the public domain. I'm getting paid for collecting this content and putting it in a particular digital format that makes it easier for teachers to use. That digital format will include notes for the teacher about how to set up lessons and learning activities - some of those notes will be based on my experience as a teacher of 3rd grade science using digital curriculum. Other notes will be the notes that others have written based on their experience using the curriculum. In many cases, I'm taking content that is designed to be printed out on paper and converting it to content that is digital and that can be uploaded to a learning management system. 

    In addition to providing the teaching notes, I'm aligning the activities and content to the Minnesota Science Standards and creating assessments that work in learning management systems. The value I'm adding is the notes, the alignment and the assessments. When I'm done, that's it; I won't get paid any more money for doing the act of creating those notes and assessments. I won't get any royalty payments or accrue any percentage of profit from the continued sale of the content because the content isn't going to be sold; it's going to be free to anyone that wants to use it. All of the schools in Minnesota who use this curriculum will save any money that they otherwise would have paid for science curriculum. I'm not sure exactly how much money all of the schools in Minnesota are currently spending for 3rd grade science curriculum, but whatever the amount is, it can now be spent on something else.
   Those savings are important, but they're not the really big value that Minnesota schools will accrue. The big value will be the community of teaching and learning that gets created in the process of sharing notes and stories about how the lessons worked. The curriculum I curate is just a beginning. It will be revised and improved upon, I hope, every time another teacher uses it. Sarah does acknowledge that creating community is a crucial aspect to Open Education Resources, and I do think that there's a likelihood that the community might need more work from me, but it won't be for doing the same thing for which I'm being paid now. This is, indeed, a new kind of business model; it's very different than the models of creating or curating or providing learning content that have been in place for at least the past century in most of the world.
   The new business model is about creating specific value. That value needs to be replicable by others. That replication doesn't create monetary compensation for the 'original' creator/curator/collector. In order to keep getting paid creators need to keep creating new things that are of value to others and replicable by others. The new 'things' may be the act of coaching others how to use the content more effectively, but that, too, if done right will only produce compensation for a short time. Good creators keep working themselves out of jobs. But, the good news for me is that there is no shortage of needs in the world for new creations, especially when we're talking about the education of our children.


  1. In my teaching life, what you describe is what I and my colleagues have always done. We create, share, learn and improve.

    Thank you for bringing in another tool for us to use.

  2. Great post Dan. The biggest problem that OER faces according to recent research is that people just don't know enough about it yet, if at all. As teachers, curriculum directors and school administrators learn more about it they will see the value in content developed and curated by the community of users. Free does not mean of lower quality. By all indications much of the OER being developed is as good, or better than the vendor content. Having said that, it's not free. What these 200+ school districts in MN have decided is that it's better to invest in people, professional development and continual improvement over a subscription model, or handing on to old textbooks until they are falling apart. We have the ability to update faster than they can.

    In terms of use, we have documented approaches for using this content in traditional, blended and fully online settings. It's more flexible than anything currently available and the teachers using it can have a say in how it works. We have printed copies, versions that go into multiple learning management systems and the ability for teachers to make their own copies and edit the resources provided. We are only just starting to realize the possibilities of developing content this way.

    Thanks for writing about this topic. We need to get the word out.