As we’ve been working through the possible business models to sustain OpenCourseWare, we’ve come across revenue opportunities that can be broadly divided into two categories—opportunities that depend on the site as a whole, and opportunities that meaningfully depend on content from individual course content. There is some blurring between the two, as will be clear below, but it is a useful distinction nonetheless.
At the outset, too, I want to say that I am only discussing opportunities that are consistent with the mission and spirit of OCW, i.e. don’t charge end users for access to content. There are plenty of opportunities that do charge end users for access to content, but those are best left to the faculty to negotiate directly with the other interested party. (An example of this would be a faculty member who negotiated with a helicopter manufacturer to allow use of his course content in training materials the company developed for the military–a clear commercial use outside of the scope an license of OCW.)
For the uses I am discussing here, an example of the type of revenue opportunity that depends on the site as a whole would be corporate sponsorship writ large, where the company provides money to support the overall publication of our content. Our sponsorship from Ab Initio falls into this category. There is no one faculty member who can claim the funding came as a result of his or her contribution. On the other hand, there are are clear scenarios, such as print-on-demand funded by a sponsor, in which faculty members have a strong claim to their content being a clear generator of revenue, since the orders are easily measurable.
We’ve tended to shy away from the second scenario becasue the faculty rightly have a claim to a share of the money coming in, and the complexities of arranging the profit share are daunting, especially given that any one opportunity is likely not going to generate a significant amount of revenue. We’ve had a couple of instances that kind of cross the boundary–our Amazon links for instance, where the faculty might claim some share of the revenue generated by links on the site from books they use, but some of the revenue generated is on unrelated purchases such as computers, movies, etc. In the Amazon case, the dollars are so small ($40K a year with 1,600 faculty contributors), there is no faculty interest in revenue sharing.
Beyond the complexity of it, another reason we’ve shied away from revenue opportunities that depend on specific faculty content is that the likelihood of any one scenario panning out is fairly slim, so we may go through a protracted negotiation with faculty only to have the opportunity fizzle, and going back to the well again and again on these is frustrating both for us and for the faculty.
So I’ve been imagining ways we might usefully address the complexities of this second category of opportunities, so that we might try some of them and generate more revenue without the negotiation and logistical headaches that seem to come with them. The following scenario then, is a thought exercise in that direction that exists only in my head and this blog post, and DOES NOT represent any kind of program under discussion at MIT. I share the idea because others in the OCW community might find it useful at their own institutions.
I’m imagining it might be possible to enlist faculty in an OCW development cooperative that would exist primarily to secure funding to support OCW, and secondarily to generate revenue share for participating faculty. Here’s how it would work: When faculty publish on OCW, they would be given the opportunity to join the cooperative, and if they did, their content would be flagged as available for use in revenue-generating scenarios within a set of defined boundaries (consistent with OCW’s mission and spirit as above). If they chose not to, their materials would not be used. This blanket participation would save us having to negotiate on individual opportunities.
In return for this permission, faculty would be assigned one share per course contributed to the site, as well as additional shares for other qualifying characteristics, such as an additional share per 100,000 visits to a course each year, or five additional shares for a course with a full series of video lectures. This would help to balance the relative pull each course has in generating revenue. At the beginning of the fiscal year, a target amount of revenue derived from cooperative efforts would be negotiated as a part of the overall OCW fundraising effort, say $500K. If at the end of the year the total amount of revenue generated from efforts covered by the cooperative agreement is below $500K, then participating faculty get to feel good about supporting OCW; if the amount exceeds $500k, then the excess is divided among the shareholders according to shares held.
I have no idea about the tax implications of all of this. Most of these efforts would end up being unrelated business income I’m sure, so taxable, and the agreement would have to specify how that would be addressed. But such an arrangement would simplify ongoing negotiations with faculty, provide a potential incentive for participation, and aggregate distribution of shares from across multiple revenue streams.
Just a thought…
Addendum: I failed to include the possibility of departments also holding shares based on the level of departmental participation, which would recognize the value the department as a whole brings and incentivise the departments to encourage participation.
Also posted on the OCW Consortium blog.
The 2012 Awards for OpenCourseWare (ACE) Committee is seeking members to help refine the program for its second year and to judge nominees for the awards to presented at the 2012 Global OpenCourseWare Consortium Meeting April 16-18 in Cambridge, UK.
The ACEs honor individuals, OCW sites and individual courses that have made significant contributions to the OCW movement. In October of this year the ACE Committee will re-examine the process used to confer last year’s awards and set the process for this year. Nominations are expected to be accepted in November and December of this year, and ACE Committee members will participate in selection of winners during the spring months.
The Committee is seeking participants that will provide the broadest possible representation of Consortium membership, and especially welcomes individuals fluent in multiple languages. To volunteer for the ACE Committee, please register for the ACE mailing list here.
Most of my thinking about educational technology in the past ten years has been about the changes in informal lifelong learning, the space where OpenCourseWare has had its biggest impact. For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking more about the changes technology will bring to the traditional campus. It’s been a topic of intense discussion here on the MIT, with a number of interesting ideas emerging. In particular, the focus on modularity of curriculum discussed in the above article has brought me back to a musing I’ve had for a while about one direction of technology’s impact. From the article:
MITCET (MIT Council on Educational Technology) has identified the theme of modularity as a key enabler of ideas like the ones above. Rather than trying to dictate specific initiatives, our goal is to foster an educational system at MIT that is more modular and flexible both in time (not always organized into one-semester chunks) and geography (not always on campus).
What I’ve been wondering is When will campus-based education have its TiVo moment? TiVo changed everything about the way I consume TV by freeing me from the dictates of the broadcast schedule through a technology that overcomes its constraints. Similarly, one of the most determinant aspects of the campus experience is the course schedule, which impacts nearly every facet of how campus-based education is provided. Certainly there are time-shifting opportunities for campus education, but education is far more complex than simple broadcast, and the impacts of technology on academic scheduling are likely to be far more wide-reaching that the impacts on television.
In addition to the basic requirement that groups of people be in the same place at the same time, the rigidity of the academic schedule has other effects as well. Students end up taking courses they otherwise might not have, simply because they fit the schedule slot. As the MIT article points out, the semester-length course is an artifact of the academic schedule as well. And because courses are chunked into such large blocks, our systems of prerequisites have been developed to ensure smooth progression.
Scheduling also shapes the relationships that develop between students and faculty. For most of my undergraduate and graduate programs, my interactions with faculty were bounded by the semesters in which I took their classes. There were many faculty that could have provided valuable perspective over the course of my education—from my undergraduate years, I can think of a chemist, an anthropologist, a science historian, and a fiction writer who were all quite influential for short periods of time.
There are dangers, of course. Technology-enabled learning tends to focus on knowledge transfer at the expense of problem-solving and academic inquiry. Smaller chunks tend to miss the bigger pictures. And the social tools that might enable deeper student-faculty engagement require a digitally fluent faculty and students that understand and respect social limits.
What might learning look like on this new, technologically enable campus? I don’t think anyone can say at this point, but let’s suppose we can agree that flexible, modular and customized learning would still require an overarching structure of some kind, and that generally people learn best when they have a problem they care about to solve. Let’s also assume for the sake of argument that we agree its important for students to understand how to approach a complex problem from multiple perspectives.
I could then imagine a first year curriculum that was developed around a number of challenges in a range of disciplines—a study of an animal population, design of a mechanical device, a piece of historical fiction. In each case, the student would pick a challenge, be assigned an mentor from the appropriate field, and have a relatively controlled set of aspects to consider in approaching the problem–historical, scientific, mathematic. ethical, etc—as well as prescribed outcomes including written work. If curriculum was chunked into relatively small units of a couple a weeks, a student could start into a subject at a more advanced level—say a statistical analysis of animal populations over time—discover they lacked some of the prerequisite knowledge required to carry it out, loop back and acquire the prerequisite knowledge, and then move forward. In addition to their disciplinary mentor, they might be assigned a mentor for a specific skill set, such as writing. Mentor relationships would be supported by a social networking software and persistent throughout the student’s time at the school.
During that first year also, the student would be planning for a larger challenge or inquiry, perhaps in coordination with a faculty member’s research, that would structure the final three years of the undergraduate experience. At the start of the second year, they might add another disciplinary mentor and map out a plan of study to support their challenge. Again, with shorter, more flexible units to study, students could approach knowledge in a more natural way—going straight to what interests them and looping back to learn the underlying concepts when they have the need and motivation to do so. They could also be guided to units on perspectives they might not have considered themselves, but that the mentors sees as important to a complete understanding of the challenge.
Obviously this would change the teaching experience dramatically. To enable the short units of curriculum, much of the knowledge transfer aspects of teaching would move to media platforms, so there would be some elements of creating these. I’d imagine professors then would spend more of their time working with students in rectitation-like sessions in their discipline, where the focus is on tackling problem areas for students who are struggling; these could be in person or online. They might also provide shorter, three or four week units in more traditional lecture or classroom settings. In addition, they would have a more prolonged involvement with a subset of students that they mentored.
Obviously there are many hurdles to overcome to achieve such a vision, and the above might not be the correct vision to begin with, but it’s an interesting exercise to imagine how technology might change the campus experience, and one that is in many ways as difficult as anticipating the way TiVo changed the how TV is consumed. The only thing I feel sure about is that the TiVo moment is coming for education, and it’s likely not that far off.