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Project Blue Sky: Big Boost to OER From . . . Pearson?

This article was originally posted at e-Literate

In June 2012, Campus Technology interviewed some higher education leaders in the use of open educational resources (OER) to discuss the major challenges to more prevalent adoption of free and open resources. The top two challenges mentioned in the article were:

  • discovering material efficiently due to the vast quantity of resources; and
  • getting faculty to move beyond the “textbook is the course” mindset.

In a move that could have a significant impact on higher education, Pearson announced just before EDUCAUSE the creation of Project Blue Sky, which directly addresses both of these challenges.

From the article:

There are too many resources to choose from. OER may be a new concept for some professors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t enough resources to go around. In fact, Geoff Cain, director of distance education for Eureka, CA-based College of the Redwoods, said the number of resources is so vast that it can literally paralyze instructors.

“Helping faculty find appropriate resources is a major issue,” said Cain, whose institution is a member of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.[snip]

Cain said impressing upon the educators the fact that they already “adapt” coursework and textbooks to meet student needs is a good way to help break them out of the “textbook is the course” mindset. “Teachers skip chapters, incorporate current events, and drill down on specific student needs all the time,” said Cain. “OERs are really just an extension of that.”

While anecdotal, the findings of this article (at least on discoverability) are backed up by an upcoming report from the Babson Survey Research Group that lists the barriers to adoption of OER from a faculty study.


Pearson, Gooru and Project Blue Sky

So what is this new service from Pearson and what is the partnership with Gooru? In the web site description:

Project Blue Sky allows instructors to search, select, and seamlessly integrate Open Educational Resources with Pearson learning materials. Using text, video, simulations, Power Point and more, instructors can create the digital course materials that are just right for their courses and their students. Pearson’s Project Blue Sky is powered by Gooru Learning, a search engine for learning materials.

Gooru Learning itself has a pedigree that is worth considering. Gooru is developed by Ednovo, the nonprofit education startup founded by Prasad Ram. Ram has a rich history in Silicon Valley, including work at Xerox PARC, Yahoo! and Google. While Director of Engineering for Google Research, Ram developed the concept for using search technology to discover educational content. Ram decided to leave Google in January 2011 and pursue this concept.

Ram has started an education focused non-profit startup called Ednovo, which is going to build upon Gooru, a free web based education solution that was begun as a ’20% effort’ at Google, and piloted in India with 25 classrooms and 1000 students. Gooru allows teachers to use openly licensed web resources, find lesson plans on all subjects and topics and then customize it to their specific needs, with rich multimedia content including videos, slides, and simulations.

In a sign of OER’s growing importance for higher education and for large corporations dealing in education, Pearson and Google are providing the resources and research inspiration to improve the discoverability of open resources.

Of course the project is not all about OER, as it combines searchable content from 25 different open-license databases along with Pearson’s own content. The video below, from a preview of Blue Sky on their web site, shows the combination of both content types.

Blue Sky intro video

Project Blue Sky is not the first system from a publisher to allow the combination of OER and paid content into custom course materials. Cengage’s MindTap has been a leader in this field for several years. What seems to be a first, however, is the combination of discoverability across such a broad base of OER in combination with publisher / OER integrated material.

Move Towards Competition of Content

Pearson seems to be taking a risk with Project Blue Sky by allowing their content to be more directly listed alongside OER content. From Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed:

Pearson says it is confident that facilitating OER discovery will not undermine the company’s own products. “We clearly believe our content is superior to OER content… but we recognize there is a place for OER in the current environment,” says Kilburn.

“If we can’t compete effectively there, we have a bigger problem,” he says.

Although not a major part of the discussions at EDUCAUSE, Pearson seems to be open to including other publisher content in the Blue Sky platform should their competitors be interested.

In addition to OER content, Kilburn says the company may consider letting competing for-profit publishers have their content indexed in Blue Sky’s search results. “That’s an open discussion we’d be happy to have,” he says.

Thoughts from an OER advocate

I talked to Dean Florez from 20 Million Minds to get his take on the Blue Sky announcement. 20MM is a non-profit that supports “the creation, sharing, and proliferation of effective, affordable and quality textbook content”. Florez is a strong OER advocate and one of the driving forces behind the recent California bills creating free digital textbooks and a digital open source library. He has never shied away from criticizing the publishers for the high textbook prices, but in the case of Project Blue Sky, Florez seems to be quite optimistic and sees Pearson headed in the right direction.

Florez was very happy to see the Blue Sky announcement, partially due to the signal that OER has reached the point where a publisher such as Pearson is publicly and financially acknowledging its importance. This position is a significant change from what has been the typical response of the big-five publishers (Pearson, Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Macmillian, Wiley&Sons) to OER threats to their market.

Furthermore, Florez is impressed that Pearson is trying to solve the discoverability problem mentioned above by creating a portal to seamlessly search across all these OER silo’s repositories. That potential solution alone is extremely valuable in terms of helping the education community benefit from OER.

According to Florez, it is important that Pearson is supporting faculty to make their own book that is a mix of paid and free content. The OER community should also acknowledge that there are gaps in OER content that need publisher material. The combination of sources is a good approach, and we should enable faculty to choose the appropriate content.

Perhaps the biggest concern from Florez is that “I hope books don’t end up costing $80 – they should be under $30. Other than commoditizing their content and selling for free, however, this is best you could expect [from a publisher].” Florez hopes other publishers will follow Pearson’s lead. “Everyone in OER should be doing a high-five.”

Some open questions

Will Pearson play fair? Not everyone shares this optimistic view on the announcement, and there is a healthy dose of skepticism in the OER community about Pearson’s intentions. The biggest question seems to be whether the search engine or portal display will be tweaked to favor Pearson content. Favoring paid content would seem to me to be a colossal mistake and not worth the risk, but we should watch to search results are based on relevance.

Will Project Blue Sky last and improve OER discoverability? I would add the question of the viability of Project Blue Sky. As David Wiley noted in the IHE article, this is not the first search engine for OER content, and none of the previous attempts have made a significant dent in the discoverability problem (as seen by the Babson survey results).

Will Pearson make the internal changes to support Project Blue Sky? For now, however, it seems the biggest risks from this new service are internal to Pearson, particularly by changing the game on allowing direct comparison of paid and free content. Pearson’s sales force is one of their greatest assets and greatest sources of inertia, and internal support of this new paradigm will not be easy. The impact of Project Blue Sky will probably tell us as much about Pearson’s ability to transform itself from a textbook to a digital services company as it does about OER adoption and acceptance.

I think Michael got it right in early 2011 regarding the publishers and OER. Seen in the context of his post, Project Blue Sky represents the biggest bet to date from a publisher in finding a sustainable model combining proprietary and OER content.

I see no reason to believe that open educational resources will be any different [from open source software]. Right now, we’re in the early days. It’s very hard to predict which sustainability models will work or who the winners and losers will be. But I think it’s reasonable to predict that, five years from now (a) there will still be for-profit textbook publishers (though their all-digital products probably won’t be called textbooks by then) and (b) most or all for-profit textbook publishers will be involved with the production, support, and/or distribution of OERs in some way or other. There will likely be some OER projects that will have achieved long-term sustainability without commercial support and others that will have achieved long-term sustainability because of commercial support.

In the end, there are only two things that matter: Cheaper and better. Right now, a lot of the OER movement’s focus seems to be on making education cheaper. That’s a good thing. But we also need to make education better. David Wiley’s formulation ofstandard deviations per dollar is the right idea. OERs offer up a whole new set of sustainability models, including but not limited to business models, for trying to get more bang for the buck. From a textbook publisher’s perspective, they provide additional ways to work with the educational community in order to provide students with effective and affordable educational materials, regardless of the license under which they happen to be distributed. That’s a good thing too.

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