Kanye West tweeted yesterday about the high cost of textbooks yesterday. (Buzzfeed collected his rants into an article. Because journalism.) As Tressie McMillan Cottom later noted, he might have been right about the sticker price, but his analysis – particularly the part when he appealed to the tech sector for a solution – was sorely lacking.
See, despite it being one of the most cited parts of Walter Isaacson’s biography, it’s not really evident at all that Steve Jobs, as Yeezy suggests, wanted to lower the cost of textbooks for the sake of educational affordability or access. Indeed, when Apple finally launched its digital textbook offering in 2012, it partnered with rather than “disrupted” traditional publishers. Moreover, Apple’s plans to charge schools and students a subscription for access to textbook content would prove to be more expensive than purchasing (printed) copies (not to mention the added cost of also having to buy Apple mobile devices).
Here’s the passage in question from the Isaacson biography where Jobs’ plans for the textbook industry are discussed:
Most of the dinner conversation was about education. [Rupert] Murdoch had just hired Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, to start a digital curriculum division. Murdoch recalled that Jobs was somewhat dismissive of the idea that technology could transform education. But Jobs agreed with Murdoch that the paper textbook business would be blown away by digital learning materials.
In fact Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform. He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around. “The iPad would solve that,” he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. “The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,” he said. “But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.”
I quote Isaacson’s biography at length because I think it demonstrates that Steve Jobs’ plans for textbooks and his motivations for “disruption” were a lot more complex (and a lot less altruistic) than Kanye West and the popular narrative he’s parroting suggest. It’s not really clear who will save money, for starters. Who is “them” in Jobs’ final sentence? And sure, we might cheer the bypassing of an entity like the Texas Board of Education, renowned for its insistence that textbooks approved for use in the state (and by extension, textbooks that are sold to many other states) contain factually inaccurate information and reflect conservative socio-political values. But as we’ve seen with Apple’s tight regulation over its ecosystem – its decisions about what’s permissible in the App Store, for example – what we might actually read from Jobs’ plans is less about a shift from “expensive” to “free” than a shift in power from governmental bodies to technology platforms as the locus of control.
This is all a very long-winded introduction to some of the questions and concerns I have about Amazon’s recently-announced plans to offer a platform for open educational resources. Education Week’s K–12 Market Brief first reported the story, based on a presentation given at the School Superintendents Association’s recent conference. Details are light. Really, really light. But because the adjective “open” is in there, lots of folks seem to believe that this will be A Good Thing.
The platform’s in beta, and we know its name – Amazon Inspire – but little more. We don’t know what the business model will be. (Neither does Amazon, by EdWeek’s account, although Amazon Education’s vice president of strategic relations Andrew Joseph promises it’ll always be free. Mmmhmmm.) We don’t know how it’ll work, other than these two sentences: “Users of the site will be able to add ratings and reviews, and to receive recommendations based on their previous selections. Educators will be able to curate open resources, self-publish material they have developed, and put a school’s entire digital library that is open and freely available online.” We don’t know what the interface will look like or how usable it will actually be (and I think those who've used Amazon Fire will concur: the company does not excel at UX. It's also failed repeatedly when it comes to accessibility issues). We don’t know what format the OER will be available in (for composing, publishing, or remixing). We don’t know if content will be interoperable – that is, usable beyond the Amazon (Kindle) ecosystem – or if there’ll be integration with other software systems. We don’t know what data Amazon will glean from the resources posted there – it does say that materials will be tagged with Learning Registry metadata – and we don’t know what Amazon will do with that data. We don’t know how the licensing will work.
It’s also not apparent yet that Amazon has paid attention to the history lessons that other OER registries might offer about what has and has not worked to spur OER adoption. Mike Caulfield has touched on this in his response to the Amazon news, arguing that these efforts have mostly been ill-fated as they’ve largely focused on the centralization of resources in order to solve the so-called problem of discoverability:
It’s been a disaster for two reasons. The first is that it assumes that learning objects are immutable single things, and that the evolution of the object once it leaves the repository is not interesting to us. And so Amazon thinks that what OER needs is a marketplace (albeit with the money removed). But OER are living documents, and what they need is an environment less like Amazon.com and more like GitHub. (And that's what we're building at Wikity, a personal GitHub for OER).
Amazon is a commercial powerhouse – as Paul Ford recently wrote, “It is possibly the most purely optimized commercial enterprise in history, marrying hard computer science to ruthless labor practices in pursuit of delivering brown, branded boxes to anyone who might conceivably want them.” It is also a technology powerhouse. Amazon Web Services, which includes computer storage and processing, is a $5 billion business that undergirds in turn much of the rest of the tech sector. (Netflix, Coursera, Yelp, Zynga, and on and on all run on AWS.)
But it doesn’t appear as though Amazon Inspire is about enabling schools or educators to spin up their own infrastructure to publish, host, and share content. It’s about building a marketplace, controlled by Amazon, to buy, sell, and trade stuff. This is Amazon.com for education, not AWS. And that’s a pity, because rethinking some of the infrastructure of an educational Web – something that Caulfield has been writing about lately – is far more interesting than building yet another centralized and corporatized OER repository.
Textbooks cost too much, and everyone knows it, as the 64,000 retweets of Kanye West perhaps underscore. But that inflated price tag is just one of the problems that OER purports to solve. (See David Wiley’s 5 Rs of open content: the ability to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute work.) It remains to be seen if Amazon Inspire will support these activities or if the “problem” that Amazon really seeks to solve here is a stronger foothold in the education market.