WikiPremed

OpenCourseWare economics in the New York Times

Mike Linksvayer, March 31st, 2010

In As Colleges Make Courses Available Free Online, Others Cash In the New York Times writes about how universities are funding OpenCourseWare programs as well as how businesses have sprung up around CC licensed Open Educational Resources (OER) from such programs. Regarding the latter, our CEO is quoted:

On a philosophical level, the idea of making money from something available free might seem questionable. But Joi Ito, chief executive of Creative Commons, which issues the licenses defining user rights to most OpenCourseWare materials, supports the mixing of free and for-profit: “I think there’s a great deal of commercial infrastructure that needs to be created in order for this to be successful,” Mr. Ito said: “It can’t all just be free.”

As readers steeped in knowledge of free culture/open content (and before it free and open source software) will recognize, this means three things.

First, sharing does not preclude making money. To the contrary, artists have long been making CC licensing part of their business strategies, and recently some OER creators and companies are following suit. Examples include WikiPremed, Flat World Knowledge, and Bloomsbury Academic. See Eric Frank explain how Flat World Knowledge gives away CC licensed open textbooks and profits from print materials and services rendered around the content in a video just uploaded from CC Salon NYC.

Second, there needs to be an ecosystem built around open materials, and businesses are an important part of that ecosystem. In the OER space the article mentions Academic Earth. Consider the many businesses providing services around CC licensed materials more broadly (e.g., Flickr, and Fotopedia, which leverages CC licensed works from both Flickr and Wikipedia) and the legion of businesses build around free software (e.g., Red Hat). Consider how huge education is. The opportunity and need for businesses that provide distribution, curation, and a plethora of other services around OER are huge.

Third, free can refer to price and freedom. Businesses, universities, and others can charge a price for access or services around OER. The ecosystem works due to the freedoms that have been granted to use and build upon OER.

The article also mentions the values of OER, one of which is to “[create] an incentive for universities to improve themselves.” It quotes Cathy Casserly, who recently joined the Creative Commons board of directors:

“I think that by putting some of the spectacular professors, and putting their approaches and pedagogical instructional strategies that they use with their students in front of the world, it sets a new benchmark for all of us to learn from,” she said. “And I think that’s actually one of the incredible powers of this open educational resource.”

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WikiPremed makes money by giving away MCAT course

Jane Park, March 30th, 2010

Artists have been using Creative Commons licenses in interesting ways for a while, whether it’s to encourage interesting adaptations of their work or to help boost album sales. But it’s not only the visual artists and musicians diversifying the use of CC licenses—open education initiatives like Flat World Knowledge are experimenting with innovative business models by giving away digital content while charging for services added around it. WikiPremed is another one.

WikiPremed is the result of fifteen years of hard work, founded by John Wetzel, a graduate of Stanford University who has been helping “premedical students prepare for the MCAT in small group teaching through over fifty course cycles.” The site is comprehensive in scope, basically a course “in the undergraduate level general sciences,” consisting of textbooks, flash cards, test questions, images, and more that a premed student would need to prepare for the MCAT. All materials are available for free under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike, which means you can translate, improve, and republish it as long as you share alike.

What’s more interesting is that the site is sustaining itself by giving away digital content for free and charging for print materials, such as its Physics flashcards and print versions of its books. There is also an ask for a one-time $25 donation that then gives students an Organic Mechanisms Pocketbook and Advanced Physiology Crosssword Puzzle Book in return as a thank you. From Glyn Moody’s short interview of John Wetzel (which got picked up by techdirt),

“Students need printed study materials, and they get sick of the computer, so I definitely think there is room for creative commons educational content supported by print publications. I think there is an ethic to not holding content hostage to purchases, but I think there are commercial advantages to the open model as well. I don’t doubt that the average customer at WikiPremed has 1000 page views before purchasing anything.

I am sure that if there were registration walls and missing chapters I would have fewer customers.

I’m not getting rich or anything, at this point, but it is working.”

If you’re interested, you can help contribute to the WikiPremed case study.

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