A new startup wants to shake up the textbook market by making it easier for professors to adopt courses created at colleges and universities rather than commercial textbook publishers. It’s the solution: create a new market for instructors to find them.
A key premise of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based company called Argos Education is that the way textbooks are created and reviewed must be reset. Namely, it wants to help build an open source system that allows professors to put together online course materials from a variety of sources and also offer their materials for sale to colleagues around the world.
Co-founder Micheal Feldstein believes that creating a common, open source platform for distributing teaching materials can help make materials cheaper for students and help professors continually refine their teaching.
“Universities should buy and sell teaching materials from each other,” says Feldstein, a longtime edtech consultant who also runs the popular blog eliterate.
Argos is calling its course platform and marketplace Sojourner, and the goal is to make it a hub for professors and students to create, assign and use digital learning materials, in a way that allows professors advanced analytics, showing them how they are. their students using materials.
“You can almost think of it as an Amazon-like self-publishing system plus the Amazon Kindle Store and Amazon Kindle reading software for courses,” said Feldstein. “You can create the content, you can sell it, you can adapt it, you can give it away.”
When authors choose to sell content, Argos will take a portion of the revenue.
The platform will be built on open source software and materials that universities have already developed, primarily a combination of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative platform, called bulland online materials from Arizona State University’s Center for Education Through eXploration, called ETX. The leaders of the two projects have agreed to work together to build together a next-generation course platform, as well as a set of standards, which will form the basis of Sojourner.
“One of the ongoing challenges in the adaptive course space is that we haven’t been able to find a functioning market,” says Norman Bier, director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon. “Argos … is going to overlap a service. They are trying to build a market for adaptive courses. “
In many ways, Carnegie Mellon’s OLI project pioneered the adaptive course model, creating software that guides a student through academic material and alters what it shows to each subsequent student based on how well the student has done so far. In a recent blog post, Feldstein notes that OLI has launched an entirely new market segment for textbooks, inspiring commercial publishers, including Pearson, Cengage, and Wiley, to build their own course products that are now growing into adoption.
Since the pandemic, Carnegie Mellon has seen an increase in people using OLI courses. The past academic year saw 82,000 enrollments, up from 55,000 the previous year, says Bier. But a market could help boost it further, he adds.
For its part, ASU’s ETX project has taken a slightly different approach that it calls guided experiences or “immersive and interactive virtual field trips,” according to its website. For years the ASU Group has been building these adaptive experiences on a commercial platform sold by Smart Sparrow. But Pearson last year acquired the businesses of Smart Sparrow, leading the ASU to look for an alternative platform to provide its offers, which are also increasingly used.
The system will also extract material from OER textbooks developed by OpenStax, a low-cost publisher of Rice University.
Feldstein argues that building a shared open-source platform can lead to insights into how to improve adaptive courses and virtual experiences, and even how to improve teaching practices. Right now, he adds, the Sojourner platform is not easily comparable to any existing tool.
“It’s not just another new product, it’s a completely different ecosystem,” he told EdSurge. He gave the example of a professor who wants to adopt a popular biology textbook but has no intention of giving it a chapter. “So I tell students, ‘Don’t read chapter 9, follow this link and read this part I wrote, then follow this link to this quiz I wrote and then go watch this video at Colorado State University,'” he said. Feldstein. “I have to do all those stunts just because I don’t like Chapter 9. I have no way to work them all together.”
Traditional publishers have no incentive to solve this problem, Feldstein argues, because their business models rely on keeping students and professors within their proprietary content systems. “This is the way their DNA is wired,” he says. “And as long as that’s your core business, you can’t create an environment that can solve that problem.”
Argos has already secured some venture funding. The company received $ 250,000 in support from WGU Labs, plus some in-kind services to help with efficacy research, market research, and outreach support.
This isn’t the first time someone has tried a marketplace for courses, notes Stephen Downes, a national online learning technology expert who runs the long OLDaily newsletter.
And some past efforts by publishers to allow professors to customize textbooks have not been very successful, as some may be happy enough to use the links on their syllabus or learning management system to the various assigning materials, even if this is a bit clunky.
Feldstein focuses on improving the quality of teaching through a process sometimes referred to as learning engineering, which aims to encourage instructors to use courseware data and other tools to continually improve their teaching. In recent years, he has managed a non-profit organization called the Empirical Educator Project to convene various actors in edtech and above to further this effort. That project is continuing and has held on virtual meeting this week.