Pearson & Open Content

Open Educational Resources are taking on a bigger share of K-12 content consumption. Even if the classroom is not digital, students can still be directed to, or on their own, access online digital learning content. The CEO of Pearson, John Fallon, was recently interviewed by EdWeek (link at the bottom of this article) where he addressed many topics, including OER's. Given they make billions ($7B of total sales to be exact) selling content, it's a very relevant topic indeed.

If you haven't already read our article about OER's, we recommend you do so when you are done reading this.

Fallon's arguments

As you would expect, Fallon has a somewhat negative opinion about OER's. Likely tainted by his company's business. Here is a (redacted) summary of the relevant arguments:

  1. Good digital content is expensive to develop, especially if you want quality.
  2. At some point the funding of OER's will dry up.
  3. OER's are used as supplements.
  4. The future is immersive learning which is even costlier to develop.

So let's go through them in detail in this article. This is important, you don't want to invest your time with something to find if falling by the wayside in a few years.

#1 - Quality is expensive

Absolutely. And this is why we agree to pay for it. But often we don't really pay for the quality, we pay for other costs.

Is a Rolex that much better than a smart watch ... it's a matter of perspective, but which will add more value to your daily life? Would you pay more for a branded shirt made in China when the same factory produces for department store brands?

German cars are a good example. The reason they are more expensive than American cars is due to other factors, including higher labor cost in Europe, cost of shipping, and other non-duty tariffs (e.g. regulations). American cars have suffered long due to structural issues (e.g. pension funds), but have now rebounced to be of very solid quality; even rivaling German cars in gas efficiency, performance and design.

For digital content, you may be paying for the publishers' bloated development teams, outdated technology stack (a real issue!), long review cycles and ... very high cost of sales.

Second, and this is a big one. What would you do if I asked you to either pay $30 per student for content at 95% quality, or pay nothing for 75% quality.

In other words you are paying for the quality differential, not the quality itself. In this case, you are paying $30 for 20 quality points. Is it worth it?

Most will say no. A few will keep paying, maybe for branding (e.g. private schools), for political reasons, or out of fear of 'free' things.

This is the law of diminishing returns in action (i.e. you pay a lot more for a small incremental improvement).

#2 - Funding will dry out

That's a nebulous one. Khan Academy was / is funded by Google, SAS has funded Curriculum Pathways, while others depend on great foundations (including the Packard and Gates foundations).

Truth is, the cost of maintenance is substantially less than the cost of original development. Especially if developed right. And all indicates that the OER's we have listed have been done right. As well, hosting costs are minimal, and are often provided at steep discounts by hosting providers.

These resources tend to have very limited overhead costs. CK-12 for example has a large team (as it seems) in India, with lower labor cost. Development can be cost-effectively outsourced as well to ex-Eastern Block countries (Ukraine is a favorite for many).

With no sales and marketing costs, you shave off a very large piece of the big publishers' overhead. OER's are mean and nimble.

And ... when was the last time Pythagoras' Theorem changed? The need for massive overhauls is simply not present.

What about standards? Well, we believe many of the OER's developed their content in a modular fashion, so aligning with a new standard is a matter of building a new tree with little change to the content itself (the standards are actually more similar than you would think).

Standards, whether you like them or not, have contributed to reducing the cost of content development, and hence, lowered the entry barriers for new digital publishers. This is probably the 'biggest' bad news for large publishers, who made an art out of customizing content for different states.

#3 - OER's used as supplements

From the big publishers' perspective that's true. Schools can buy their print and use free digital resources. And that in itself is great, as we slowly transition to digital only. A hard transition would not be easily absorbed by the community. Nice and slow is the way to go. So this is a point in favor of OER's.

Now a question for Mr. Fallon, how come schools don't supplement your print with your digital material? If they are using OER as supplementary, that spells trouble for publishers as print dies out (lest we forget, many OER's offer eBooks as well of the material, which can be printed if need be).

#4 - Future is immersive

This one is a matter of opinion, so we will share ours. But we do agree that immersive content is very expensive to develop.

There was a time where many thought we would all have separate lives in digital worlds (e.g. Warcraft, Sim City). That time has passed and MMO's (Massive Multiplayer Online Games) are now a niche market. In essence, immersive gaming has not become mainstream. We all still like regular games such as Monopoly, Risk and our favorite, cards, and 'digital' hasn't changed that. Electronic Games are here to stay, but many (if not most) of the big blockbusters are not immersive.

Even if immersive learning becomes de facto standard, we are still at the infancy of digital content in the classroom. The leap (if ever) to immersive is still many years away. At which point things will have changed, and cost would have certainly come down by then.


We liked reading the interview with Mr. Fallon, for two reasons:

  1. To better understand the 'spin' big publishers use against OER's -- and admittedly, it wasn't that strong.
  2. Gauge how much of a threat OER's are for publishers' business, as this will impact the landscape over the next decade (in short: you won't see us investing in them anytime soon).

Our opinion that the future of education technology lies more in the platform is strengthened even more. Content is now part of a much bigger picture.

As promised, here is the link to the interview with John Fallon, CEO of Pearson.

Shameless plug: If you haven't already launched your digital classroom, give ZeSchool's FREE pilot a shot! Once you use it in your classroom, you'll never look back.
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