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The Anti- IPA Position Paper: A reply from an Educator to the International Publishers' Association Position Paper

The Anti- IPA Position Paper: A reply from an Educator

{In this revision I have reversed references to OER and commercial publishers. ALL their arguments and then some can be better argued in support of OER. Wherever "OER" appeared in the original text. I have substituted "commercial content" My additions are for the most part in italics} – Rory McGreal

UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in OER

May 29, 2013

Read the original IPA position paper at


Publishers and Open Educational Resources (OER) can work together. Our mission as educators is to provide continuously effective learning resources, tools and services for teachers and students, using the best media available. Dynamic, progressive education delivers learning resources developed with the quality, coherence and scope that individual students need and expect. For millenia teachers have been exploring the effective use of technology in education. Educators continue to adapt rapidly as new technologies and devices overlap into education from consumer and professional markets.

Publishers and Open Educational Resources both have value and are not mutually exclusive. Publishers can be contracted to produce OER. OER support the free market whereas commercial publishing is controlled by a oligopoly of  large publishers. OER can help free the market.

Alongside our professionally published OER products, there are many commercial products offered for use in the classroom.

Commercial content has been a perennial of education. Teachers have always developed their own material complemented and enriched by the commercially-published, curriculum-focused, structured learning material that makes up the backbone of resources used by most students and their teachers. With the availability of the Internet and digital production tools, the means exists for easy distribution of these free, crowd-sourced learning objects that are aggregated in repositories such as [TES]. As educators we recognise the value of commercial content that is developed. We have problems with the sustainability model of commercial content however as it becomes more and more overpriced.

In recent times commercial texts have proliferated due to support from not-for-profit organizations and government supported public funding as well as private investment.  The increased textbook costs have been primarly covered by a decreasing amount of government and philanthropical funding. These commercial initiatives are motivated by profit rather than the important policy objectives such as equal access to education, affordable education, even for the poorest, the use of technology to improve the educational experience, and the means to achieve these objectives under conditions of severe financial constraint. Some technology companies promote the concept of standardizing curricula internationally and making available appropriate free content that will encourage more effective use of digital technologies in schools.

As educators, how do they align with commercial  objectives?

We recognise the beneficial role that commercial content can play in our mixed media environment and in some specific educational environments, particularly where OER are scarce or non-existent. We are sceptical however about the capacity of commercial companies to provide high quality content in core curriculum subjects in the longer term.  The exorbitant pricing, increased “versioning” (making minor changes to texts in order to render older books obsolete), digital locks and restrictive licencing of  commercial texts make it impossible for insitutions to make effective use of and update content. An over-reliance on commercial content is endangering the quality of school level and higher education until a number of challenges related to extensive use of commercial content are addressed, especially sustainability, quality, and efficacy in a digital environment. There are also issues associated with public funding of commercial content development.

Commercial content brings challenges for Sustainability, Quality, and Efficacy

Sustainability: Commercial content contributes useful content to the totality of available learning resources, but they lack important features commonly associated with OER that are needed in order fully to support students and teachers.  These include: digital locks, restrictive licensing, crippling of devices, disallowing format shifting, etc.

Because of these restrictions and the inability to keep paying the exorbitant textbook prices, commercial content tends to become out of date quite quickly. Few commercial  programmes have built-in sustainability strategies or the on-going capacity to keep wide range of material up to date, except by charging taxpayers, students and parent exorbitantly and by restricting access to their content making its use problematic.

Quality: The development of quality instructional materials requires great amounts of knowledge, experience, expertise, investment, and persistence to ensure that they align with current academic standards and are effective in improving educational outcomes. Institutionally recognized OER are carefully researched, designed, and reviewed through  established quality assurance processes. There are however currently few recognisable quality assurance procedures associated with commercial content and these are controlled by private interests, who use versioning and other profiteering methods that increase costs to students, parents and institutions.

Efficacy: Publishers routinely study the markets to increase their profits and routinely make available studies and analytics of the positive impact that our products make in the classroom. Yes, only the positive impact. This type of research is biased, skewed and unscientific.

There are currently few if any reliable analyses of the extent to which extensive use of commeercial content improves learning outcomes for students, and few if any commercial content has the assessment and data features that can be built into OER. Publishers insist on retaining control over their data and only release what suits them. Moreover, commercial licenses provide publishers to unrestrictive access to student and faculty computers to use the data however they want. This raises privacy concerns.

Government funding of commercial  content development has restricted choice. Government indirectly supports publishers through their loans and grants to students. At K12 level, government buy the texts in bulk, thus restricting choice. With OER teachers or anyone else can alter the content, delete it, add to it, augment it or do whatever they want with it.

Effective course materials need to be demand driven, fuelled by national standards, adapted to specific curricula and aligned with assessment frameworks. They should be refined by selection and competition in an open market. OER supports the open market. Openness is part of the OER movement. Commercial monopolies in all cases try to close off the market to their advantage. This is what they are trying to do with this paper.

“In-house”  government-funded projects historically have a poor track record for impact or sustainability. OER are not produced “in-house”. They are open, whereas many publishers collude with governments to determine content that will be included in texts.  So we have concerns about the use of public funds for commercial publishers as well. Ironically, government-funded (direct or indirect) commercial programmes can restrict choice for teachers and learners, because they undermine the ability of private sector providers to compete and thus to have the confidence to invest, so that these providers progressively withdraw from the market leaving it controlled by a small group of publishing giants.

Commercial content can however have a positive role to play if the open market or OER are unable to deliver a full set of appropriate  learning resources. Commercial opportunities then tend to arise naturally to complement and to fill the gaps in open provision.

OERs have also been used effectively in combination with published materials by integrating access from the same platform. Public-private experiments are under way in several countries, such as in Holland with Wikiwijs.

Publishers are happy to bring their skills, experience and expertise to OER projects that are sustainably funded and realistically remunerated.

A balanced solution to resource provision is needed

With balanced solutions in mind, we suggest that the following questions, which constantly concern educators who create professionally-produced learning resources, need also to be applied to commercial initiatives:

· What have we learned from the latest research, pilot schemes and educational initiatives around the world?

· Do we fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of the application of technology in education?

· How do we attain and sustain good quality in learning content?


· Can commercial content attain and sustain the same high quality levels expected of professionally published OER? – especially with exorbitant pricing and excessive restrictions on the content.

· What role do we expect commercial content to play alongside professionally-published OER?

· What quality levels are required in order to fulfill this role?

· How can a healthy plurality of provision be sustained and publishing monopolies avoided?

Educators stand ready to engage in a dialogue around all these issues, indeed any issue related to the effective use of learning resources. We care deeply about serving eachers and their students.


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