The online learning startup Coursera and a handful of textbook publishers announced today that they’re teaming up to make certain digital course materials available to students enrolled in Coursera’s classes. Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE, and Wiley will offer versions of their textbooks via an e-reader provided by Chegg.

For certain courses, students will be able to access all or parts of textbooks for free. The materials are restricted by DRM: students will not be able to copy-paste or print, and access to the textbooks will be revoked when the course ends. As the press release reads, of course, “students will also be able to purchase full versions of e-textbooks provided by publishers for continued personal learning.”

The partnership aims to encourage professors to assign more reading in their Coursera courses. As it currently stands, many only recommend rather than require course readings. (The emphasis instead is on video lectures.) A survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education of professors who’ve taught MOOCs found that just 9% asked their students to buy a physical book and 5% asked that an e-book be purchased — and it seems likely that the lack of course readings contribute to those respondents’ reluctance to have these online classes actually count for formal credit.

Commenting in The Chronicle, Chegg CEO Dan Rosenweig said that the agreement with Coursera is “empowering students, giving educators a chance to affect more students, improving learning outcomes, and lowering costs.”

But I think it signals other things too about the rapidly changing MOOC landscape…

A Business Model — For MOOCs, For Publishers, For Professors

The Chegg/Coursera partnership isn’t the first one struck between a MOOC startup and a publishing company. Last year, Elsevier announced that it was making one of its textbooks available for free to students in the edX 6.002x Circuits and Electronics course.

That Elsevier textbook, it’s worth pointing out, was co-authored by Anant Agarwal, one of the instructors for 6.002x and now the President of edX. And while MOOC-related course recommendations could obviously drive sales for publishers, taking a cut of that certainly offers the MOOC startups like Coursera and edX a possible revenue stream too. And it also provides one for the authors of the textbooks — authors that are, in many cases, the professors of the MOOCs as well.

Super-professors. Super-textbook-authors. There's a Venn Diagram to be drawn there, I'm sure.

In a recent blog post, George Mason University history professor Mills Kelly explores this particular angle of the “what’s in it for me” lure of MOOCs for faculty — in addition, of course, to the altruistic “sharing knowledge with the world” rationale — noting that of a random selection of 8 Coursera courses he examined, "five of the eight professors recommended or suggested as optional books that they had written, ranging in price from $8 to $110.” (emphasis mine.)

Do the math: even if just a small fraction of students buy the book, it’s likely to make for a nice royalty check.

As Kelly notes, different institutions and states have different provisions on whether or not professors can require students buy the books they’ve authored; but it’s not clear if any of these would apply (legally) to MOOCs.

It is clear, however, why traditional publishers would be eager to jump on board with this partnership and find a way to have their textbooks be a part of, rather than supplanted by the MOOC hype. Indeed, as Mike Caulfield and others have pointed out, in its current form “a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.”

A proprietary, DRM’d textbook, that is. Despite the growing number of openly-licensed textbooks and course packages that are available — via OpenStax, the Saylor Foundation, and MITOCW, along with the growing pressure for scholars to publish in open access journals — it’s notable that Coursera has partnered with traditional © publishers.

Digital Textbooks and Student Data

But what about learners, right?

In survey after survey, college students indicate that they prefer print textbooks. Why? Even though they’re notoriously expensive, print textbooks aren’t DRM’d. They don’t expire when the course ends. They can be bought used and resold at the end of the semester. They can be rented at a discount from sites like Chegg, which boasts that some 30% of US students are its customers.

Unlike its popular textbook rental service, the Chegg e-reader that Coursera will utilize has almost all of the features that students continually report that they dislike: namely, locked-down content that expires and an inability to share notes, highlights or the books themselves.

Of course, it is worth asking here if the students who enroll in Coursera students actually match those “traditional college students” (whoever those are) that are surveyed about their textbook frustrations. Will Coursera students be less apt to worry about sharing notes? Will they be less concerned if they lose their highlights and notes when access to the textbook expires? Will they be likely to purchase a book at the end of the course — particularly since access to a Coursera course also disappears at the end of a term?

While students remain indifferent (at best) about digital textbooks, publishers seem quite excited about the possibilities of gleaning interaction data from them. As a Wiley editor told The Chronicle, “Because the free versions of the books will be read through an e-reader, we’ll also get information about usage. How students use the electronic text, how they use the material, will be tracked through software." And Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller added that this data might be used by professors for “a more personalized, data-driven experience for instructors, too, allowing Coursera to improve courses in real time.”

It’s hard to know how much of the data gleaned from these and similar sorts of student textbook-tracking applications will really be terribly useful, particularly given the great variety in interactions and intentions of students enrolled in these classes. But there sure will be lots and lots of student data — MOOCs are “massive” if nothing else.

I have the increasing sense here too — as with many of other aspects of our digital world — that students aren’t simply the consumers of the MOOC product; they are the product. Or their data very well could be.

The Portal and the Anti-Platform?

At last week’s Ed-Tech Innovations conference in Calgary, Stephen Downes quipped that “Coursera is the last gasp of the standalone education application.” Even learning management systems — once the pinnacle of isolated and restricted education applications on the Web but never of the Web — have recognized the importance of becoming a platform and have opened up APIs in order to connect to third-party applications.

But not Coursera. It runs counter to the early MOOCs that Downes and others created that grew from and exemplified the theory of connectivism — learning on the Web, from the Web, of the Web. The Web was the original MOOC platform. Coursera seems to be the education anti-platform.

Coursera aims to keep the activity of its students and professors on its site, with little recognition of the other online places where interactions (Q&A, discussions, collaboration) might occur. Indeed, the Terms of Service clearly state that “You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material.” And the Honor Code says that “I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.” Posting code from a class to GitHub, for example, counts as “cheating.”

That makes a partnership with Chegg, one of the most well-funded education startups, a particularly interesting one. (Chegg has raised over $195 million in investment.) While the company was fairly quiet last year, 2010–2011 saw it acquire a number of other education startups — Cramster, CourseRank, Notehall, Zinch, Student of Fortune, 3D3R Software Solutions, that is a number of tutoring, note-sharing, course scheduling, and HTML development tools.

And it’s all in the service of building an education portal — a one-stop-shop, if you will, for college students to purchase or rent textbooks, identify interesting courses, buy college swag, hire tutors, find answers to homework, and so on. This isn't about opening up APIs or utilizing RSS to foster partnerships across the Web. Oh no. It's about acquisition, consolidation, enclosure. Much like Coursera, Chegg is on the Web, but not of the Web. Think Yahoo. Think AOL. “The last gasp of the standalone education application.”

The Edu-Enclosure Movement

All these things feel incredibly far afield from the original vision of MOOCs, particularly when it comes to that most contested letter in the acronym, O for Open.

While the addition of the free textbooks via Chegg can be couched in terms of keeping the costs low or zero for students, choosing proprietary content is quite different than choosing openly licensed content. The licensing is different. The access is different. The Terms of Service are different. The ability to share, remix, experiment is different. The ability to participate anonymously is different. The data collection is different.

It’s different for the student; it’s different for the professor. It's different for publishers. It's different for the Web.

What was a promise for free-range, connected, open-ended learning online, MOOCs are becoming something else altogether. Locked-down. DRM'd. Publisher and profit friendly. Offered via a closed portal, not via the open Web.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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