An Evolutionary Unizin Approach for Commercial and OER Content

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The member universities of the Unizin Consortium have unique, campus-based priorities for course materials. The pace of interest and passion in any particular topic varies by institution and its local priorities, yet Unizin institutions share common, overarching themes in the options that they would like to have available when opportunities arise for digital course materials at their institution.

These themes include:

  • Reducing the cost of instructional materials
  • Enabling access to materials preferred by faculty while supporting faculty choice
  • Substantially advancing the quality of accessible educational materials from all sources
  • Ensuring that analytic data/information are readily available for policy-compliant research and instructional improvement uses by faculty and institutions
  • Enabling educational innovation that enhances learner success
  • Proceeding at a pace and with priorities that suit each institution

There are multiple means to achieve these thematic interests:

  • Pushing on all things that enable the creation, discovery, and adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER) whether without fee or partially subsidized
  • Enabling easy linking to licensed content from an institution’s library
  • Negotiating favorable pricing and access terms for commercial content from publishers
  • Enabling academy ownership and/or access to the data and technologies that generate and track student engagement and analytics

It is a challenge to translate these themes and an array of means to achieve them into a single Unizin strategy at any point in time that is responsive to the distinct needs and timing of all Unizin members. Likewise, on the other side, the content providers (e.g., publishers, presses, OER repositories, etc.) also each have their own disparate timing, interests, and willingness to engage in Unizin’s interests.

This document proposes an evolutionary approach for a Unizin content strategy that addresses both the themes and means to execute over a number of years. It begins by stating some assumptions and proposes several courses of action by Unizin for engagement with content providers.

Assumptions:

  1. OER is the lowest cost outcome for students when it is available AND desired for instructional purposes by faculty. Institutions will work at their own pace to promote and support the adoption of OER. Unizin should do all that is productive to enable authoring, discovery, use, improvement, and metrics for OER.
  2. For the foreseeable future, commercial content will be the dominant selection by faculty for course materials (print and digital). Given that commercial content has a decades-long head start, even the most vigorous effort on #1 for OER will not materially displace the volume of the commercial ecosystem for many years (if ever).
  3. Commercial publishers are engaging in some cost shifting to students by making online homework/workbook exercises an added cost for which no used book market or other substitute exist.
  4. Thus, Unizin needs a two-pronged strategy that rigorously pursues the expansion and the best of OER while also crafting the best possible engagements for commercial content to meet the needs of learners and faculty.
  5. Absent any demonstrably superior option for content delivery, Unizin content will be provisioned and accessed by students via the Unizin Engage eReader/Annotation platform that provides for capture and management of interaction data, for use in learner analytics.
  6. In all cases and with all content, Unizin must have no less than non-exclusive, perpetual rights to all interaction data/analytics from the use by students/faculty through Unizin. This also includes data/analytics through “Adaptive” technologies that do not use the Unizin Engage platform.
  7. In Unizin’s own internal work and through its engagement with all providers, Unizin will pursue standards-based approaches for data formats and tools with a preference for IMS Global standards whenever possible.
  8. Experience shows that pricing for digital commercial content is highly variable by academic discipline, publishers, sales channel, etc. (see Figure below):
    1. Currently, the very best pricing and terms are given to for-profit institutions that have line authority to dictate curriculum and materials to its instructional staff. Those firms can guarantee student volume and fully bundle the materials’ costs into tuition/fees in a Business-to-Business (B2B) model.
    2. The next best pricing and terms are a B2B model with bursar billing, near-100% sell-through to all students in a course section, longevity of access beyond a single semester, and digital delivery. Students would have the ability to opt out of the eText as per the new October 2015 Department of Education regulations. This preserves faculty choice, makes no volume commitments since course materials choice is up to the faculty, reduces prices to students, ensures that all students have the course materials before the course starts, enables longer-term access/printing, and provides common analytics for an entire course section. This model has been proven with great success at Indiana University and other non-profit universities.
    3. A B2C (consumer) model, more properly labeled a Direct-to-Student (D2S) for Unizin, is the least cost advantageous over the baseline, everyday Retail model. Providers make wholesale pricing offers to various resellers of digital content. At present, digital resellers (e.g., Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) each use proprietary readers such that Unizin cannot aggregate analytics, and have separate dashboards for student and faculty that increase complexity and cause confusion by a student who may have several eBooks for one or more courses. Prices vary greatly in the Retail model.

A table showing the different models of publisher and institution relationships

Unizin Strategy

Unizin should pursue a strategy that enables its members over a few years to make the following assertions to faculty and others at their institutions:

  1. Unizin will preserve and promote faculty choice. Unizin is enabling faculty choice across the broadest range of materials at the best prices possible. Faculty may choose to avail themselves and their students to this or ignore it entirely.
  2. Unizin will enable the best learner analytics from engagement with digital course materials in a policy-compliant way for insight and research.

Unizin should pursue agreements with digital content providers that offer the following terms that are in the interests of students, faculty, and institutions:

  1. Unizin should get the most favorable pricing available for near-100% sell-through (per course section) adoption (B2B with Bursar billing). It should be at or better than the current Indiana University pricing and improve with actual, aggregated volume across all of Unizin. This pricing is only available to institutions with the capability for the B2B, bursar-billed, near-100% sell-through model.
  2. Unizin should get highly favorable pricing (as good as or better than other digital sales channels) for a Unizin D2S offering. Enrolled students at Unizin institutions will be able to elect, at their choice, to buy digital content from Unizin at these favorable prices. This would include optional/recommended materials for courses that otherwise use the B2B model for required materials.  Course materials would be delivered through the Unizin Engage platform and faculty would have access to all analytics for students who chose this path.This enables another evolutionary option for Unizin institutions for digital content. It leaves materials buying in the hands of the student via any means s/he deems best.
  3. Unizin should strongly preference arrangements for flat-tiered pricing rather than a discount off of an ever-changing list price. Consistent with this evolutionary strategy, this could begin for large-scale content providers by choosing 100 titles at flat-tiered pricing as a joint experiment in how that would affect adoption.
  4. Unizin should monitor and push providers to offer best price and access to the full catalog and spectrum of learning materials, including adaptive learning systems and not just existing (or older) textbook-like electronic materials.
  5. Each Unizin member could opt-in to any parts of this model at a time that suits local institutional interests. This provides an evolutionary path via the D2S model to get access to greater learner analytics via Engage for faculty-authored or edited Course-Packs that may have some copyright clearance fees. Some institutions may not have interest in B2B for the campus, yet they may find that some special programs (e.g., MBA or online degree programs) may have interest in smaller scale B2B pilots. Members may also opt not to use any of this.

Why This Approach?

The goal is to enable a mutually evolutionary path for institutions, their faculty, students, and content providers to a win-win model that is best suited to each entity’s timing and needs. It creates incentives for each to optionally take steps that reduce the cost of attendance, fairly rewards content creators for use of their work, and enables access to far greater learner analytics than current models. It creates a framework for holistic Unizin action and leverage while respecting the full autonomy, preferences, and pace of each member and individual faculty.

Endorsed by the Unizin Board, January 2016

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Brad Wheeler and James Hilton, Unizin Founders