OU on iTunes U – education 2.0 business models

The Open University is on iTunes U! As Denise Kirkpatrick, Pro-VC for Teaching and Learning says in the press release,

Making available selected video and audio items from among the University’s highly-rated course materials via iTunes U to audiences worldwide offers a new channel for the University. We can open up free access to educational resources as well as a window for our potential students.

John Naughton says “At last we have a proper global distribution channel for our stuff.”; Martin Weller says “This is for the proper quality stuff, and provides a good outlet for OU material”.

I think they’re right: this is the high-quality stuff that the OU has a well-earned reputation for, and the content up there is good.

OU iTunes U

(I note that the OU is taking a sideways look at the world, and placing the Arabian Peninsula at the heart of its activity – visually at least.)

It’ll be interesting to see how this fits in to the emerging ecology of online educational material. There’s been a lot of debate in the last week or so around new business models for education – kicked off by Tony Hirst, then followed on by Stephen Downes, Martin Weller, Gary Lewis, and others. It’s great to have good stuff available for free. But how we make that sustainable – particularly the high-quality stuff that costs a lot to produce – is a profound challenge that we don’t yet have tested answers to.

There was a good post by Mike Masnick on Techdirt yesterday, summing up a really interesting discussion on “The Economics of Free”, and pointing out that

The first thing to understand is that we’re never suggesting people just give away content and then hope and pray that some secondary market will grant them money. Giving stuff away for free needs to be part of a complete business model that recognizes the economic realities

Give-away-and-pray isn’t a business model. I don’t believe education is (or should be) a business, but in a world based on exchange (rather than a gift economy), there are bills, and to be sustainable, there needs to be some way of paying them. Educational resources – once produced – are infinite goods: the marginal costs of reproduction are zero, or very near to it. Mike Masnick points out that the price of such goods will tend towards zero, and suggests that to make a sustainable living in that environment, you need to link the free distribution of those infinite goods to scarce goods, so that the greater availability of the inifinite goods make the scarce ones more valuable. The canonical example is the music industry, with the give-the-music-away, charge-for-the-gig (and other stuff) model. But I think it’s very applicable in education as well.

The infinite goods are obvious. If we’re not already in a world where good-enough zero-cost educational resources are widely available, we’re very close to it. The OU’s offerings on iTunes U are just the latest goodie in a great and growing sack of wonderfulness (!).

The linked finite goods are less well articulated, and I think the discussion about ‘business models’ for education 2.0 could be improved with a focus here. Martin asks whether it’s acceptable to provide free resources and tools, but charge for support and accreditation. I think that’s exactly the sort of model we should be exploring. Learner support, guidance and accreditation are scarce goods: they depend on individual attention. The other thing that’s an obvious scarce good in education is bespoke production of learning materials. As with the open source software community, companies (and even some Universities) are prepared to pay programmers to develop specific bits of software as part of open source projects, to ensure that their particular needs are met. I’m sure this is also true in education. The employer engagement agenda is one aspect of this, and one we should be trying to link in with all this education 2.0/OERs stuff – I suspect that will make us a much more attractive proposition to businesses.

Swinging back to the OU’s offerings on iTunes U, I love our tagline “Warning! Content may transform your life” (as does Martin). It’s a lofty goal, but one well worth striving for. With all this unseemly grubbing around for money, it’s well worth keeping those noble purposes in mind.