Monday, February 15, 2016


Amazon OER?

So Amazon is working on a site that will curate Open Educational Resources.  The initial market is K-12, though I have a hard time imagining higher ed will be far away.  They’re calling it Amazon Inspire, and it’s supposed to launch in a few months.


This could be very good or very bad.  But I’m leaning towards very good.

On one level, of course, it’s fourteen kinds of awesome.  I’m a big fan of OER, but I know that one of the major barriers to widespread adoption is the difficulty in finding material.  Combining Amazon’s considerable skill at user-friendly search, and user reviews, with a repository of freebies would make exploration much easier.  

Done well, it could do for OER what itunes did for podcasts.  Podcasts are underappreciated miracles.  They went from curiosities to a sort of cultural wallpaper without really passing in between.  Media that make that kind of quantum leap never really get their due.  They had a brief moment with the first season of “Serial,” but otherwise they sort of escaped notice until they were ubiquitous.  Apple may have promoted them to sell ipods (the “pod” in “podcast”), but they’ve transcended that purpose.  They’re free, they’re convenient, and some of them are really good.  To my mind, they’ve rescued audio from the fetid, inbred swamp that commercial radio had become by the mid-90’s.  The better podcatchers have pretty good search functions, making it easy for listeners to make intriguing finds.  And the podcasts themselves are free, so the cost to a listener of finding a dud is minimal.

In the case of OER, though, the upside is even higher.  Textbook costs are a real issue for both school districts (in K-12) and students (in higher ed).  For a student taking five classes a semester -- remember, 15 to finish -- it’s easy for a single semester’s book tally to hit four figures.  Taking that off the table would make a material difference for many students.  Even better, since OER are designed for accessibility from the outset, they’re likely to be friendly to screen readers and other devices that help students with disabilities participate fully from day one.  Free materials that are genuinely accessible to all students have been a dream up to this point.  Soon they could be as common and as vital as podcasts are now.  Instead of serving as alternatives to the Morning Zoo, OER would free up Pell money for rent and food.  That’s a real contribution.

My hesitation is around trying to identify Amazon’s interest.  In Apple’s case, the idea was to sell more razors by giving the blades away for free.  It worked.  But I don’t think Amazon is in a position to do the same with the Kindle.  Screens are everywhere now, and the whole point of OER is to be platform-agnostic.  Assuming that Jeff Bezos isn’t just a heckuva guy, I have to think there’s a business angle.  That’s fine when it’s clear, but I get suspicious when I can’t identify it.

Are they trying to kill commercial publishers?  Harvest student data?  Commission hagiographic treatments of the life of Jeff Bezos?  Amazon isn’t known for philanthropy.

The edweek article mentions that Amazon might use OER to promote paid materials that the reader might also like.  “Interested in reading more about accounting?  Try these…”  It’s a variation on the “freemium” model used in many game apps.  The first one is free, in hopes that you’ll get hooked and buy more.

In the case of education, though, I’m don’t mind that.  Getting students excited about a subject is a feature, not a bug.  If a student in my poli sci class gets so taken with a subject that she starts reading about it on her own, I consider that a win.  If Amazon is where she finds subsequent books, well, so be it.  I’ve certainly done the same.

In the best of all possible worlds, the podcast analogy comes to fruition.  Apple was the first to bring podcasts to scale, and itunes is still the most popular place to find and distribute them.  But there’s no shortage of alternatives.  (I’m a fan of Pocket Casts, fwiw.)  It’s easy now to listen regularly to a host of podcasts without ever dipping a toe in the Apple universe.  If enough alternatives come along to Amazon that it can’t control the market, even if it remains prominent within it, we could all win.  

Almost all, anyway.  The folks who charge $300 for a textbook will lose.  But I’m okay with that.

Bring it on, Amazon.  As with podcasts, this could be such a roaring success that nobody notices until we can’t remember what came before.  But if you could explain what’s in it for you, I think we’d all be a lot more comfortable with it.

My hunch is that Amazon is both (a) continuing to position itself as the one-stop shop for more or less everything and (b) taking a poke at traditional college bookstores, which in most cases are just fronts for Barnes & Noble or Follett.

I suspect their thinking would be something like: First a student comes to Amazon to get their free or cheap OER book, but then sticks around and orders a copy of a traditional textbook for another class. (New or used.) Since Amazon already operates humongous server farms, the marginal cost of providing the OER content is trivial.
If you want to be paranoid, assume the Walmart model of undercutting the competition, eliminating them, then raising prices.

Without being that paranoid, I would assume that Amazon will be collecting lots of data on the customers who use the OER resources, and crunching that to better sell them other stuff. If Amazon is paying nothing to create a resource, and nothing to editorially select it, then the only cost to them is a bit of space on their already-existing server farm. Might well be worth it for all the data they gather — especially if they limit the space any given resource gets (ie. no 3-hour-long HD videos).
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