Selling core curriculum

Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

Credit: Isaac Kohane

I’ve been thinking a lot about how K-12 districts adopt core math or ELA curricula and how this relates to OER. In this context, I’m not thinking about the product itself (though I may write separately about that), but more the sales and support process.

I know how large traditional publishers do it — with lots of marketing, beautiful collateral, big sales forces, lots of hand-holding, lots of promises.

What I’m trying to tease out is how much of this is essential and how much is not. Particularly in the case of an open-licensed (“free“) curriculum that is not likely to have the financial resources to sell in the same way as the big boys (and yes, they are mostly boys; it is an old boys network) players.

Credit: Side Wages

There are other models for selling to schools — some involve viral marketing, community building, and stimulating grass roots demand. In my mind though, those models work better for supplemental products that are more driven by teacher (and even parent or learner) demand. Core curriculum adoptions on the other hand are made by committees with a keen attention to high stakes accountability. In this risk adverse environment, a “build it and they will come” approach to sales and marketing is insufficient.

Another option to consider could be to cultivate in-district “champions” who are enthusiastic about the product and might take on some of the tasks described below, especially advocating for the project in face to face meetings. I’m not sure about the feasibility of this, but if it were to work, it would require careful cultivation.

[Note: For the purpose of this post, I am presupposing the goal to be district adoption of OER as the primary core curriculum. If your goal is to have your curriculum used in any fashion, e.g. “downloads,” then the options are much more numerous. And yes, it is true that schools are using more resources in a piecemeal basis, which I think is a good thing, but the context of this discussion is adoption as primary core curriculum.]

So then, here is a list of possible sales related tasks to be considered (Note: This relates to both adoption state and open territory districts, but obviously for adoption states, there is another whole set of hurdles before this):

  • Initial awareness building (e.g. trade shows, press, direct mail, telemarketing)
  • Getting on the list to be considered by district adoption committees (in-person sales calls, direct mail, telemarketing, sampling)
  • Correlations
  • Sampling (digital vs. print; this is a big issue for OER.)
  • Committee presentations (in-person)
  • Lots of paperwork (vendor approvals, bonds, etc.)
  • Piloting (not always required but often required in larger districts)
  • Research on “effectiveness” (This is getting to be a bigger and bigger issue.)
  • Follow-up; repeat, repeat, repeat

The question is which of these are essential and which are not, especially for “free” OER curriculum. My initial estimation is that many/most of these are critical regardless of the price of the curriculum. I’m going to be testing this supposition out by getting district input though and would love to hear your thoughts.

(Note: I’ve left out of this post the sales dimension involving personal relationships, which can be as straightforward as building personal trust or as unsavory as quid pro quo favors. While I suspect that these relationships have a sizable impact on some purchase decisions, and I have certainly heard stories of such, whether completely on the up-and-up and less so, I don’t have a broad enough base of factual evidence to support that.)

One possible answer to this dilemma is a business model that includes some flow of revenue to the OER publisher in order to fund the sales process (and also pays for follow-up support services like professional development and customization, which I don’t discuss here but will in a future post). The price, of course, still would be MUCH lower than traditional curriculum. To me, that’s a pretty good trade-off for everyone involved (especially considering that in some cases, it’s not clear who exactly benefits from free or lower-cost core curriculum). Future posts coming with more details on possible business models as well.


Positioning “open” – Where the rubber meets the road

Posted by on June 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

Credit: Jussi Männistö, CC BY

All of my thoughts on positioning OER core curriculum in the K-12 market may be well and good, but what really matters is what actual customers think.

Toward that end, I am going to be interviewing some district sups and curriculum and instruction leaders over the next couple of months. If you or someone you work with might be interested in participating, let me know. (I’ll also be talking to state level curriculum folks as well as publishers.)

And if there’s a question you’d love to have asked, let me know that too.

Otherwise, stay tuned for reports on what I learn.

This is a part of a series of posts on the positioning of K-12 OER core curriculum in the market.


Positioning “open” – digital/blended

Posted by on June 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

credit: uditha wickramanayaka, CC BY NC

Many of us believe that technology, appropriately used, can greatly enhance learning. Schools have spent billions on equipping themselves with infrastructure including connectivity, devices, and staff expertise to realize the potential. And while most schools have not yet made the leap to one-to-one and the abandonment of print, they are unquestionably much closer to that than ever before.

When talking about open educational resources, many assume digital. OER is typically distributed in a digital form, and part of the viability of the “free” aspect of OER is the zero physical product costs. There is nothing that prevents OER from being printed though, and in fact, many of the larger scale implementations in K-12 have been with printed books.

So, in our ongoing discussion of how to best position K-12 OER core curriculum, the question is how to deal with the digital/blended vs. print question?

Generally, in marketing, there is a tension between defining the market as broadly as possible to maximize potential sales and narrowing it to target unique product features to a specific segment.

In the case of core curriculum for schools, a big and fairly unique market, I am of the opinion that you don’t want to exclude any potential district customers at the outset. And that means defining your product broadly, rather than more narrowly, in this case as a specifically blended or digital offering. Here are some facts to consider:

  • For K-12 schools, when core curriculum is purchased, it is still largely in a print form, though that almost always includes optional digital components. Slowly over time, the balance is shifting.
  • Much like supplemental materials, digital instructional resources are often evaluated and purchased differently than traditional core curriculum.
  • Districts still largely operate in siloed spaces. What comes in through the “ed tech” door will often be cast in an “ed tech” frame rather than “core curriculum.”
  • Digital programs are sometimes viewed as being less rigorous or of lower quality than print. This can especially be the case with core curriculum.
  • Right now, equity means print availability. Legal cases like Williams v. California have upheld that equal access to instructional materials must be provided for use at school and at home. (The always-clever commercial publisher lobby has used this to build the case that schools should buy two copies of textbooks per student, one for school and one for home. Perhaps the OER movement could make the case that it would be a better use of public funds to make instructional materials more affordable and accessible.)
  • Parents and communities sometimes feel a strong preference for print instructional materials.

Now, all this is not to say that I think print is superior to digital, but it is to say that to play in the K-12 core curriculum market, print is essential in my opinion.

Also, the suggestion here to avoid positioning strictly as digital is based on the premise that the product to be marketed is a core curriculum product (as with the other posts in this series). If you’re marketing a smaller, nichier type offering, positioning as an innovative digital product might make more sense. However, the dollars involved in creating core curriculum and the associated expectations dictate a broader approach.

The K-12 OER Collaborative curriculum is such a product, and it envisioned to be available in both print and digital forms. Often though, in the press and elsewhere, it has been referred to a blended or digital program. I wonder how many school leaders look at that and conclude it is not a good solution for their schools or worse, discount it as a serious replacement for core textbooks.

On the other hand, those who are looking for digital curriculum will be drawn to the Collaborative’s work, as well as similar offerings, in droves — there’s no particular need to market or sell specifically to them. (I wonder sometimes if our need to emphasize the digital nature of OER is in part an effort to convince doubters of the benefits of digital. That seems a tall task and beyond our scope to me.)

Because the term “OER” screams digital, is worth considering how to be explicit and unapologetic about the fact that this will be available in both print and digital formats.

This is a part of a series of posts on the positioning of K-12 OER core curriculum in the market.


Positioning “open” – The 5 R’s

Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

Credit: David Wiley, CC BY

Credit: David Wiley, CC BY

Among of the most lauded benefits of OER are the 5 R’s — reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and retain.

The ability of educators and students to continually update, improve, and iterate on their learning materials is the basis for rich learning. This model stands in marked contrast to the traditional publishing, whereupon textbooks are updated every seven years or so, and updates are made by publisher worker bees without a lot of learner input. In fact, once published, users are not permitted to share any enhancements they make to the materials. OER, on the other hand, empowers teachers and students to become more reflective and self directed with their learning and to share their improvements with others, elevating the whole enterprise.

In a conversation on Twitter yesterday (see below), Bill Fitzgerald said “OER still suffers from an overemphasis on delivery and ancillaries, and insufficient attention to streamlining reuse.”

This brought to mind many things for me, among them some action research that has reported that many educational policymakers and decision makers see reuse, and particularly revision and remix, to be a negative.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Traditional education has a rigid command and control structure. Curriculum is developed by big brains in an ivory tower. It is approved by state legislators, departments of education, and district committees. It is then brought to teachers to deliver to students, with neither group having much input on the process.

Now, in fairness, this process varies a fair amount from state to state and district to district. But, by and large, and especially in the era of pacing and “fidelity to the textbook,” there isn’t a lot of teacher or student participation in a great deal of classroom curricula.

This is where I personally have to step back from my own views on open learning, which is diametrically opposed to this, and focus for now on open educational resources and how we can best position them to be adopted as core curriculum in a large number of classrooms. (This is the goal of the K-12 OER Collaborative, among others.)

If district decision makers don’t feel positively about their teachers remixing instructional materials, then it doesn’t make sense to me to position that as a benefit (or even mention it). Now some argue that it is our job to “educate” these decision makers about the benefits of the remixing, of how it can elevate the professionalism of their teachers and advance the learning of their students.

And while I love to evangelize these benefits, it is just too heavy (and unnecessary) of a lift if you’re trying to sell a district an open licensed core curriculum. There are so many other objections to be addressed, so many other hurdles to jump over, that it just isn’t worth it. In my opinion, it is also likely to be unsuccessful in most cases.

So let’s leave the 5 r’s for the choir and focus on showing how OER meets already-identified needs of K-12 districts.

[Note: A silver lining to all this is that many teachers do see remix as a benefit. In addition, the best teachers revise and remix even proprietary instructional materials every day (though they may not call it that). Add a resource here. Take out a section there. Make an assignment from a bit of this and a bit of that. Teachers will keep doing that no matter what decision makers favor, and OER gives them a better and easier way to do that. And students will benefit. They can even join in on the remix fun.]


Big step forward for the K-12 OER Collaborative

Posted by on June 9, 2015 in EdTech Update, Uncategorized

The K-12 OER Collaborative has taken a great step forward as Karl Nelson has agreed to join the organization full-time as of later this month.

Karl has been the Director of Digital Learning for Washington state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for five years and prior to that worked with Puget Sound ESD. He is a creative thinker about digital learning and a skilled manager. Karl has been instrumental in getting the Collaborative up and running in its early days as the Washington state Collaborative member.

Hiring Karl full-time is a great coup for the Collaborative and will undoubtedly help move their efforts forward.

For those unfamiliar, the K-12 OER Collaborative is a state-led initiative  involving 12 states and other organizations working to develop core, free, openly-licensed K-12 math and ELA curriculum aligned with state college ready standards. This is a ground-breaking initiative and is particularly important for its ambitious scope.

[Note: Some of my OER time this year, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, is being spent on thinking through implementation and business model strategies for core OER curriculum in the K-12 space with the K-12 OER Collaborative being a prime example. My “Positioning ‘open'” posts are part of the thinking going into this. Stay tuned for more.]


A truly open + collaborative MOOC

Posted by on June 2, 2015 in clmooc

I am often frustrated with the characterization of all MOOCs as amazing, or more often, terrible. In my opinion, that’s kind of like saying all books are amazing or terrible — there is too much variation to make that kind of blanket generalization.

I’ve been fortunate to participate in several MOOCs that are both truly open and engagingly participative. One of those is CLMOOC, which is returning for its third year this summer starting on June 18.

Whether you are intrigued by MOOCs or don’t really get what they’re about, whether you’re a Connected Learning or maker ed expert or these are new concepts to you, whether you have a lot of time and energy to devote to learning this summer or you don’t, CLMOOC is a valuable and fun collaboration to check out. You can sign up for more info here, join our G+ community, and/or follow us on Twitter.

And this year, we are again expanding the CLMOOC Make Bank so join us there too! Lots of great ideas you can borrow or steal and maybe even add some of your own!


Positioning “open” – Free

Posted by on May 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

Credit: Alan Levine, CC BY

In my continuing thoughts on ways to position open educational resources for the K-12 market, I now turn to the issue of “free.”

I have two concerns about using the term “free” in promoting these materials.

First, they aren’t really free. They cost someone something to develop. In fact, they generally cost about as much as comparable proprietary materials. Just because the end user doesn’t absorb these costs doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Perhaps more importantly, end users, in this case districts and schools, do have costs associated with OER (the “free as in puppies” argument). If print materials are required, the printing costs are typically absorbed by the schools. If the materials are used in a digital format, the costs include hardware, software, maintenance, support, etc. And for any use, there are significant professional development and related implementation costs. Beyond this, there are other items that open materials typically don’t include that have to be paid for, such as assessment, customization, differentiation, and ancillary materials.

Second, while “free” gets attention, it also signals reduced value or quality to many. There is still weight to the idea that “you get what you pay for.” In many markets, the argument has been made that a product priced at half the regular price will get more traction than one that is free. Specifically in the education market, the glut of free supplemental materials, some of which is not of the highest quality, has led to these materials not being taken seriously. While free is the standard for digital supplemental materials, core materials are almost always high priced. That is the expectation, and offering free core materials may cause many to wonder what the catch is.

Having said this, it is unquestionable that cost is the biggest differentiator between open materials and  proprietary ones, especially in the basal market. “Free” core curriculum in math and ELA was unheard of before EngageNY or the K-12 OER Collaborative. The potential cost savings of something less than $8 billion is astounding. And should those savings be redirected to something meaningful, say teachers, the results could be equally astounding.

(This is a side point but the question of what happens to the potential cost savings is a real one. K-12 education funding is complex with different states handling instructional materials funding differently. In some cases, the savings might go back into a general fund for the district to decide how to use. In others, it could go back into a state general fund. This is very different from higher education, where there is a clear beneficiary of free or lower cost textbooks, namely the student.)

To not tout open materials as “free” may be to walk away from their most sexy aspect.

So is there some middle ground? Instead of “free,” might we talk about “lower cost” materials or “great cost savings?”

I don’t have an answer to this one, but would love to hear your thoughts.

This is a part of a series of posts on the positioning of K-12 OER core curriculum in the market.


Positioning “open” – OER

Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

Credit: , CC BY

In marketing most things, including educational materials, positioning is important. Whether it is the short one sentence tag line or the elevator pitch description, how you describe something affects how people view it. I would even argue that coming to consensus on positioning within an organization affects the product or service itself. It becomes the target or the “mission,” if you will.

I’ve been thinking about how to position specific OER curriculum products, especially in the K-12 space.

If you ask most educators if they know what “open licensed” or “OER” or “Creative Commons” is, they will say yes. (This general awareness is fairly new and a triumph for the movement I should note.) But if you ask them more probing questions or more importantly, look at their actual use of content, their knowledge is not evident. Instead, most treat all free and digital materials pretty much the same.

So then the question is how to convey what open really means or what its benefits are. The 5 R’s are useful, but it is a big lift to explain this, and still, I would argue, these aren’t strongly perceived as benefits to many beyond the most innovative teachers. And in fact, to many in the leadership role, they may even be detriments. (That’s another post, I suppose.)

So there is a choice — do you try to educate and convince potential users of the benefits or do you take another path to positioning? Classical marketing thinking would suggest the latter, and I think I agree.

There are many benefits to open educational materials beyond their license — depending on the materials in question, these could include high quality or effectiveness, flexibility (ability to be personalized), ability to empower teachers and learners, cross-platform adaptability (including both print and digital), and of course, being free.

Next post, the pros and cons of positioning OER as “free.”

This is a part of a series of posts on the positioning of K-12 OER core curriculum in the market.


K-12 OER Collaborative enters next phase

Posted by on April 27, 2015 in EdTech Update

[Disclosure: I am part of an advisory group for this project.]

Last week, the K-12 OER Collaborative entered the next phase of their project, awarding contracts for rapid prototypes to the following developers:

As a refresher, the K-12 OER Collaborative is a project to create comprehensive CCSS-aligned curriculum for grades K-12 math and English Language Arts that is open licensed under a CC BY license. Quite an ambitious undertaking!

The project recently issued an RFP for content developers to develop rapid prototypes, the results of which “will be a major factor in determining which content developers are selected to move into the full-course development phase of the initiative.”

Many developers have expressed interest in this project, and 24 groups submitted proposals for the rapid prototypes.

While the task of developing these materials is a daunting one, my mind is already racing forward to when these materials are available. What will make schools want to use them? How will this use be supported? In what creative ways can the savings in instructional materials funding be applied to improve teaching and learning?

This may be the one of the important opportunities for OER, blended learning, and CCSS we’ve seen to date. It is imperative that we “get it right.”

Stay tuned for more on this exciting project as it progresses.


The consequences of success

Posted by on March 9, 2015 in EdTech Update

Today, on the first day of Open Education Week, I am happy to say that OER has gained traction in K-12 over the last year.

More and more people are talking about OER. States and funders are putting serious efforts into OER as core curriculum. More high quality OER content is becoming available, and most importantly, more K-12 schools are using and remixing OER.

With that success comes other side effects. One I’ve noticed is that as OER has come into vogue, people are shouting out its availability and often putting the tag “OER” on things that are not in fact OER.


To be clear, OER is “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” (Hewlett Foundation)

Things that are free but copyrighted “all rights reserved” are not OER.

Now I have no interest in acting as the license police, but I think it’s important to use language correctly. Calling things OER that are not open licensed doesn’t serve the movement’s purpose. More to the point, it confuses people.

Sometimes, this mislabeling is merely lack of knowledge on the part of the speaker. Often, when I ask about something like this, I get a response like “Oh, I really didn’t know exactly what OER was. Thanks for clarifying.” Other times, though, it appears to be a blatant marketing attempt to attract more interest through false advertising.

This week and beyond, I’m asking all of us to be precise with our language and to ask about open licenses on materials labeled OER that are indicated as “all rights reserved.” By doing so, we might help clear up some misconceptions, extend awareness of what “open” means, and possibly even get some new materials open licensed.


(Happy post note: I sent a “This looks great, but we don’t see an open license. Are we missing something?” message to someone a couple days ago, and just heard back that they added a CC license to their site. Yay!)