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Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources

San Francisco—What do publishers and software companies think of a $2-billion federal grant program that will support the development of freely available online college courses?

“I think it’s very dangerous for them to be in the product business,” said Bill Hughes, vice president of business development and innovation at Pearson Education.

“There’s no free lunch,” said James Kourmadas, vice president of strategic marketing at McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

“I fear when big bucks from government is put into certain places, it actually stops pushing people to innovate,” said Kevin Wiggen, chief technology officer of Blackboard Xythos.

The criticisms came at a meeting this week of a trade group, the Software & Information Industry Association, where companies discussed in several sessions the implications of the grant program, which is designed to expand job training at community colleges.

Community colleges will be required to make any courses they produce with the grants freely available under a Creative Commons license. Proponents say the program, which will award $500-million this year, could lead to a vast expansion of free online course materials.

But industry officials argued this week that the plan is a wrongheaded use of government money that would “pick winners” in a wide-open market for digital course materials. Several also said they wondered what would happen to the newly created course materials when the federal grant money runs out.

“I think what the industry says is that we don’t see the point in the government collecting up taxpayer money and trying to rebuild an industry from scratch,” said Mr. Kourmadas of McGraw-Hill.

On Tuesday, Karen Cator, director of educational technology at the Department of Education, rejected those ideas. She argued in a panel on open educational resources, known as OER, that the program could benefit companies by providing usable digital course content that they could build businesses around.

“The federal government can put some money into OER,” she said, “but what is much more important is we can help you all in whatever way you need help in opening doors and building global business.”

In an interview after the panel, Ms. Cator said the companies should look at free educational resources as an opportunity, and not a particularly threatening one. “There is such a tiny fraction of the money that is spent on education going into this that I feel like it’s given more credence than it actually needs at this point,” she said.

Community colleges have submitted proposals for the first round of grants, which will be awarded later this year. Ms. Cator emphasized that the grants are primarily designed to support job-retraining programs and that not all of the money will support the development of open educational resources.

But the grants come at a challenging time for textbook publishers, in particular, which have seen print-textbook revenues decline while a model for digital course materials is still emerging. The federal government is seen as an unwelcome new player.

After Ms. Cator spoke, Mark MacCarthy, vice president for public policy at the industry association, released guidelines asking that the government not specify open-source licensing requirements and not directly involve itself in creating course content.

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