Over the last couple of weeks, a new buzzword has been making the rounds when it comes to change in the higher education realm: open source. Last week, the Sacramento Observer reported on a new bill that would create an open educational resource digital library and was only one signature away, and yesterday Wired Campus wrote about Class2Go, a new open source platform developed by Stanford to host MOOCs.
Why is open source getting so popular all of a sudden? I think part of the success story is that the Creative Commons (and therefore open source) idea basically became mainstream. I recently wrote about the efforts to make the different licenses more transparent and easier to implement, but the success of Wikipedia, open source software, and programming languages like Ruby on Rails put the idea of sharing, remixing and enhancing deep into the mindset of today’s tech savvy part of the society.
The second building block is the Internet itself. There have always been people who were so passionate about a specific topic that they spent countless hours working on it. Before the Internet, they were often alone, not knowing that there were others out there who shared their passion. Sure, there were niche magazines and events, but it was still very hard to connect people to what we call a global community. Today, finding likeminded people is just a Google search away. Connecting in forums or via video chats is as normal as collaborating on shared files hosted in the cloud. Therefore, innovation in the open source space happens at a much faster pace and more people can get involved.
The third part of its success in academia is the fit with the core principles of education – which often got lost or buried underneath economic decisions over the past centuries, unfortunately. But in its core, education is open source. Educators, may they be parents or teachers, give their knowledge for free and the children take it, adapt it to their needs and create something new. The idea of paying for knowledge and advice is a concept that is fairly new and probably unsustainable, as we can see from the student loan bubble.
Therefore, the fourth part of open source education needs to be a new way of financing it. Free education is great, but content creators and teachers also need to get paid. Sure, one way is paying with tax dollars, but as we all know (or had to learn the hard way), when budget cuts are on the horizon, education is usually the first to suffer. So building a new and sustainable open source education model based on this revenue is not likely to be a very reliable one.
What are the alternatives? Some education providers are already experimenting with a “pay what you want” model. The title says it all. You pick the product you want and pay what you want for it. That could be nothing, the suggested price, or even more, if you think it’s worth it. In theory, the revenue will then balance out somewhere in the middle. A good example are the “Humble Bundles,” a collection of games that have massive success every time they become available. A similar package now also exists for e-books.
Another form of income are, of course, grants from philanthropists and foundations, with the most famous example currently being Khan Academy. Thanks to a variety of grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Google and other renowned individuals, Khan Academy has a long runway to follow its vision of open source education. Sal Khan and YouTube just announced an “American Idol” for the next batch of YouTube teachers who will receive training and some money for better equipment.
But then again, can “pay what you want” and grants be a stable foundation for open source? I won’t say that they are stable now, but down the road with more people getting used to the idea (there are already “pay what you want” sandwich shops!), it might become a viable alternative.
In the end, the success of open source will also be determined by the possibilities to build services on top of it that actually generate revenue. Linux is a good example here. Though the software can be downloaded and modified for free, there are companies like Red Hat that offer paid versions. These versions are more user-friendly, attracting customers who don’t want to hack their way to a working computer or simply want a similar interface they are used to from Microsoft. Earlier this year, Red Hat even joined the $1 billion revenue league — so the potential is huge.
In the textbook space those premium services will probably be around the creation of digital textbooks based on the open sourced content and the print and distribution of physical textbooks. People will have the choice to work with a bare bone version of the textbook, maybe even creating their own, personal version of it or purchasing a polished version from a publisher at a (hopefully) friction of the cost of textbooks today.