EP 14 – The State Of Higher Education Publishing With David Harris (OpenStax)

    Fact checked by Vahe Arabian
    Vahe Arabian

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and… Read more

    Edited by Vahe Arabian
    Vahe Arabian

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and…Read more

    David Harris OpenStax

    Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and...Read more

    David Harris is the Editor In Chief of Open Stax (Rice University). In this episode, we discuss the state of higher education publishing – technological developments and community partnerships used to deliver on-demand learning for students.


    Podcast Transcription

    Vahe Arabian: Welcome to the State of Digital Publishing podcast. State of Digital Publishing is an online publication and community, providing resources, perspectives, collaboration, and news for digital media and publishing professionals in new media and technology. Our aim is to help industry professionals get more time back to work on what really matters, monetizing content and growing reader relationships.

    Stay up to date on the latest news, trends, and best practices in digital publishing.

    Vahe Arabian: In this episode, we take a bit of a different approach. I speak with David Harris, Editor In Chief of OpenStax. They are a higher education publishing company. They focus on education publishing and we speak about how licensing and other factors are impacting their efforts in education and making it more accessible. Let’s begin.

    Vahe Arabian: Hi, David. How are you?

    David Harris: I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me today.

    Vahe Arabian: Thank you for joining us. How have things in OpenStax been recently?

    David Harris: Oh, it’s been a tremendous year. The usage levels are higher than ever. We’re very optimistic about the Fall.

    Vahe Arabian: That’s really exciting. For those people who don’t know, if you can just give a background about yourself and OpenStax?

    David Harris: Sure, absolutely. I’m David Harris. I’m the Editor In Chief for OpenStax. I have a long career in publishing. I’ve worked for the major publishers. I was also the President of an ed-tech company called WebAssign. I started working at OpenStax, well, before it was OpenStax, about seven and a half years ago. OpenStax is a non-profit organization, based out of Rice University in Houston, Texas and our mission is to improve access and learning for students around the world. We’ve developed a library of digital and also available in print, OER, Open Education Resources, textbooks, that are used by many students now.

    Vahe Arabian: That’s interesting. How did Rice University get involved in actually forming OpenStax? Why was it formed within Rice University?

    David Harris: That’s a great question. So, our founder, Rich Baraniuk, is an electrical engineering professor at Rice University and he founded a program called “Connexions” back in 1999. This is even before there were open education resources. He wanted to build a publishing platform that utilized open licenses so that information could be shared widely. That grew substantially until 1999, but it was mostly individual donations of content. What we realized is in order to cross the chasm into the mainstream, especially in education, we needed to produce materials that were very easy to adopt, that met scope and sequence requirements and that’s how OpenStax was born.

    Vahe Arabian: So, is your current content entail lesson modules? Is that what you define as the content currently?

    David Harris: Yes, we do. Basically, and this is really to Rich’s credit, we originally thought if you gave people a platform, they would build up these Legos and then adopt it, but the reality is, is that faculty and educators just don’t have the time to do that. So, if you provide them with 85 – 90% of what they want, very large blocks, so to speak, then they can adapt it to what they need in their classroom. So, it’s really moving from an adapt to adopt model, to an adopt and then adapt model.

    Vahe Arabian: Does that mean that they would adapt the lesson framework offline? Or can they change it as well online, and then adapt it offline. Oh, sorry, offline?

    David Harris: Yeah, this is one of those great questions, where you can say, yes to both. A lot of people will adapt it online. If we’ve done our job editorially, and we meet the scope and sequence, that level of adaptation should actually be minimal. However, there are some people in the community that want do pedagogical reform, like the flip classroom and they may adapt it offline to a greater degree.

    Vahe Arabian: Understood. How are you guys set up editorially to build up the content and ongoing content for OpenStax?

    David Harris: Yeah, so we had to look at this very closely in comparison to the traditional publishing model. One thing about the traditional publishing model is, no one argued against the quality of the curation. The peer review, the scholarship of the authors, et cetera. There we made some changes to the traditional model, in that we don’t do single volumed or projects, because of the schedule arrest. So all of our books, we have a team of authors who work on them. That’s the first phase of it and those authors go through a very rigorous evaluation process and then all of the content is extensively peer-reviewed by the community. Then it’s copyedited, goes through a scientific evocable accuracy check. That process is not inherently that different from what a traditional publisher would do, but it does speed it up having multiple authors. Where we really made significant changes is in the production side of it. We don’t use a traditional program like InDesign. All of the books are designed through meta tagging schemes and produced in CNX style and then we can publish it on our Connexions platform. The way that system works, that allows us to publish PDF, webview, mobile, in a single instance, which saves a lot of time and it also allows editing of those resources, so that we can do update across those different platforms without having to touch multiple files and that really speeds the time to produce these. I remember when I was working at a publishing, to create a traditional introductory textbook, would take, to produce it, anywhere from nine to 12 months. We’ve got that down to three to four months.

    Vahe Arabian: That’s a big difference, yeah. So, you said that there’s a community aspect to it. The way people would peer review it. How do you make sure that you constantly build up your community and have people who are readily engaged?

    David Harris: Right. This is a great question. I don’t think OpenStax could have scaled to the level that we are, we’re serving about 1.5 million students this year across 50% of the institutions in the U.S. for example, without the media. Without using a CRMS. We actually use SalesForce and salesforce.org has been very generous to us. So, we’re able to capture a lot of market data and then get our message out through pardoc e-mail campaigns has enabled us to build quite a community amongst our users and then we also have what are called OpenStax hubs, through a group called OER Commons. Where the community is building resources around OpenStax textbooks, that can amplify the work that we’re doing.  So, I think these two elements have really helped us scale.

    Vahe Arabian: Sorry. Just to repeat the last part, you said that the groups would form around the textbook, is that correct?

    David Harris: Correct. So, for instance, if in these OpenStax hubs, the community has developed, it’s approximately 500 extra resources. These could be PowerPoint slides, assessment items, labs, video activities, etc. They’ve donated them to these hubs. So, what we like to call them are communities of practice and this is something that we think will accelerate over time, and is really very unique to OpenStax and is really a by-product of the open licensing.

    Vahe Arabian: That’s pretty interesting. How do you make sure that you can keep everything updated?

    David Harris: Great question. All of our books are annually updated for two reasons. Number one, in some instances, in some domains, there’s a lot of topical updates you need to do. In other areas, in STEM, there’s no such thing as a perfect textbook, and there’s a rating. So, we work with the authoring teams and the community to identify areas that need to be changed. We change them and update them on an annual basis.

    Vahe Arabian: How do you have enough bandwidth then to cover all the topics that, I guess you have to do resourcing beforehand and have all the planning beforehand?

    David Harris: Correct. So, really it’s a parallel management challenge, rather than a vertical one, in that, we have these teams already in place. They’ve been involved with these projects and we schedule that out during the right now, we have a library of 30 textbooks. So, it’s relatively manageable.

    Vahe Arabian: Okay. I’ll come to future plans after. I won’t jump ahead, at the moment. Let’s take a step back, David. You were given a bit of context around how the education publishing space was back in the day. How it took quite a bit of time to get textbooks out, and I guess digital in general? Can you give a bit of a context for those that don’t know much about your space?

    David Harris: Oh, absolutely. So, we think about the traditional publishing model, and this is actually changed significantly in the last two to three years. You can think of it as a monolithic marketplace, in which there were three or four dominant players and they controlled all the means of creation, production, distribution, and then platform support and that gave them incredible control over pricing.

    David Harris: This became very inefficient over time. So what OpenStax is moving towards and where the entire market is moving towards, is much more of a distributed model. In which, you have different groups partnering together around content development, around app development, et cetera and this drives efficiency.

    So, I don’t need to do everything myself anymore. I can go and partner with other groups. For instance, Cengage Learning is now using our content in some of their platforms and that drives down the cost. We partner with a company called Expert TA in physics, to provide online homework, because we don’t have that capability and that drives down those costs. So, it’s much more of a shared model in this new format and that’s driving efficiency and we’re going to continue to see that accelerate in the market. What this means, in terms of market context, is that this is going forward, have to be willing to give up a little bit of control. That means sharing customers. That means sharing market intelligence. It means sharing, in some cases, revenue. But I think that’s fine, because the more shared responsibility you have, the greater efficiency you can drive.

    Vahe Arabian: So, from a customer point of view though, they don’t see that, that’s why we’re sharing data with, or information from someone else, is that correct? Or would they know that coming from them?

    David Harris: Right. Information sharing in the education space is actually very regulated, through FERPA. So, the only type of information that is shared is anonymized data. I think that’s a really good thing. In terms of the impact on the customer, what does it mean? It means that the customers actually have more choice than they ever had before. You’re no longer locked into a specific author or a specific platform. You can now mix and match what authorship you want with platform, to really meet your curricular goals and that choice is actually very liberating once people discover it.

    Vahe Arabian: For example, if I was going to log in to the OpenStax platform, and I’m going to be accessing the chemistry homework, are they going to see that coming from your partner? Or are they going to see that it’s coming from you? Is it white labeled or is it?

    David Harris: Great question. Let’s use chemistry as an example. If you came into our chemistry, you could go and adopt and use our chemistry textbook. Students can come to our site, they don’t need to register. No passwords required and they could download it for free and have access forever.
    But some people, some faculty in that market, think it’s important to assign homework, gradable homework to support what they doing in lecture and in lab and so, if you go to our site you will see that we have a myriad of platforms that support our chemistry book. So, from chemistry, actually, it would be Sapling, Sapling Learning, which is now part of Macmillan and so, you can assign Sapling. You can assign your homework through Sapling and then they will link and provide resources to OpenStax and so, there it would be of a mixed experience for the student.

    But from a faculty perspective, they’re getting the best of both worlds. They’re getting to benefit from the very low cost at OER. They know their students will have permanent access and then they also get to get the gradable homework option.

    Vahe Arabian: I understand.

    Vahe Arabian: With the contribution as you mentioned, besides partnerships is there content repurposing? Is there another way you can distribute content in the education space?

    David Harris: Oh, absolutely. In fact, this is something that has changed dramatically, really over the last 18 to 24 months. We think of about the OpenStax ecosystem. What I just described was a service partner in that ecosystem. We also have distribution partners.

    We work with indiCo, which is the largest independent distributor of physical textbooks. We also have iBook versions, through the iBookstore. Amazon versions available for free, for Kindle versions, I should say and then, increasingly, over the last year, what have been pushed into the market, are what they call these inclusive access programs. Which are really automatic purchase programs, where the student will go in and when they’re registering for the course, they can subscribe to their digital files. So, OpenStax has worked with Vital Source and Red Shelf, Barnes & Noble and participated in those, what they call, inclusive access models. So, you’ll be able to download your OpenStax resource at the time you register for the course.

    Vahe Arabian: It’s more of a subscription product?

    David Harris: That is. Although with OpenStax you have permanent free access I’ll get you a quote at a permanent subscription model.

    Vahe Arabian: Okay. That makes sense and how do you map out the content distribution whenever you’re going to be updating new textbooks and be expanding to new textbooks? How do you plan that out?

    David Harris: Yes. The distribution model is really driven by where the market is demanding the resource needs to be. Our guiding philosophy on this is anywhere, anytime, on any device, across multiple platforms. So, we pursue strategies that will maximize that core part of our mission.
    When we first started out, we actually, on the redistribution side, we thought: “Oh, maybe we could generate sustainable income through a $4.99 fee of e-distribution.” But students are very smart and they figured out: “You know, we will just go to OpenStax and get it for free.”
    So, we actually liberalized our model and now we want to make it available free on as many platforms as possible and I think that’s a better strategy for us.

    Vahe Arabian: Because that means that you’re going to get more. What does that mean to you, by getting as much people as possible?

    David Harris: Right. As a non-profit, our profit is having greater impact on students and so, if we can make it available for free, in multiple different formats, we have greater reach and greater impact on students’ lives and that’s a real win for us.

    Vahe Arabian: What would have been the case if you was for-profit and you were accountable and with revenue targets and so on.

    David Harris: So, if we were, if I put my old publishing hat on, where we would be different for-profit, then you start to worry about DRM, Digital Rights Management and that is putting digital rights management, even rights is in the word, is putting limits on how people can consume your content. Limits by time, limits by how much you can print it, limits by how you can share it. How you derive your value, because your content has got value and you sell it for a certain price. So, it’s a very different model.
    We want maximum distribution. They want maximum revenue around a controlled distribution strategy.

    Vahe Arabian: Do you look at other industry examples when you’re trying to develop the license? I know now you guys are focusing on one as much platforms as much as distribution, but in terms of distribution are you looking at other examples of industries like Spotify and how they’ve done licensing agreements? Or do you?

    David Harris: Yeah. We.

    Vahe Arabian: Yeah.

    David Harris: Absolutely. We’re very inspired by those types of arrangements. In terms of the licensing, the most frequent analogy we hear is like the Top Hat model. Where they provide a lot of enhancements around open software and that’s really what our ecosystem has done. Is providing enhancements around our base openly licensed content and that’s served well for us, because that also drives our sustainability.

    Vahe Arabian: In terms of trying to deliver different content based on age groups, obviously you’ve got primary then you got secondary. How do you think the technology consumption is? Have you seen any difference in technology consumption? The preference is on types of formats, so based on their analytics and data that you guys gather through your ecosystem?

    David Harris: Yeah. We’re primarily in the post-secondary market and we do have AP. So, there, it’s interesting, the post-secondary market, 90% of our consumption is digital, 10% is print. Which, my understanding is that’s almost, that’s a very high number, for digital. But the students, they really grew up all digital. So it’s less of a surprise. In the AP courses, it’s nearly all digital. We’ve seen very little print and I think that might be an affordability issue.
    As you move down grade bands, that digital interaction that the students has with the content, has to be obviously grade level appropriate and I think more game-like in certain ways. But I’m not an expert in K through eight pedagogy.

    Vahe Arabian: Understood. How have you seen the difference in the digital consumption in the past five to seven years? Or how has it changed the delivery of the content?

    David Harris: It’s probably the biggest surprise, which is counter-intuitive, is when we started this, we had to have a print component to prove that we were real. It’s kind of funny. We would go to conferences and at the time, the publishers had no physical books in their booths to prove that they were modern. We had to have physical books to prove we were real. We always thought that there was a lot of irony in that.

    David Harris: What surprises me is we thought by this point that the print would have completely evaporated. That no one would be using the print. Actually, that’s not the case. There is still a certain segment of the population that need and want print and we say that’s terrific. If that’s the way you want it, you should have it that way.
    I would say, especially in the STEM areas, the use of these resources in assignable course work, that’s also adaptable, that is growing significantly and that’s a trend that we’ll see over time and the question for us is twofold. How do we make that more of an interactive experience for the student, to keep them engaged with the content? One. Two, how do we make that a more purposeful for them, so that we are meeting their specific learning goal?

    Vahe Arabian: Are there specific formats and different ways of engagement that you’re looking at now? That you’re trying to develop?

    David Harris: Yeah, absolutely. Predominantly, on the digital side, is downloading a PDF, today and I think that’s for ease of assignability. We are moving to what we call, a consistent text experience, so that the html 5 webpages are aligned with the numbering scheme of a PDF. Just to make assignability easier for the instructor.
    This is probably unique to us, in that a lot of the projects we produce are in STEM and so problem numbering and section numbering is very important.

    Vahe Arabian: I know you’ve got your distribution with your partners and service managers, but is there any specific promotion, opportunity, outreach or any other initiatives you have to take in order to generate the awareness from a non-profit point of view?

    David Harris: Yeah. Absolutely. Remember, earlier in the conversation, we were talking about this distributive model? And this ecosystem that we have, this is really fueled our growth. OpenStax has approximately 50 ecosystem partners. They provide solutions around OpenStax and when they go out into the market and they speak to faculty, they all talk about one common thing, and that’s OpenStax. That has really helped build awareness and that’s very exciting.

    Vahe Arabian: Yeah, 100%. Like you said, you want make an impact as much as you can to as many people as you can. So, it’s definitely.

    David Harris: Absolutely.

    Vahe Arabian: When OpenStax started, did they just focus on Texas market? Or how did they … How was the rollout strategy?

    David Harris: Really crediting Rich Baraniuk, never thought of this. The best way I would describe his, he thinks globally and act locally. We’ve always thought about global impact and I think that’s what digital does. We’ve never thought about: “Oh, it’s just for this region.”
    The learning of biology or physics is the same in Zimbabwe as it is in Ohio. Obviously, there might be language differences, but the core concepts don’t change, and they transcend many barriers. The exception to that, may be in some humanities area, where you get more cultural impacts on the curricula. But certainly in STEM, it really knows no barriers.

    Vahe Arabian: That’s good to hear. But you have to localize it. So, with that as well, what are you seeing the kind of challenges and opportunities at the moment, with other alternatives out there? Because, for just personally, not being in the education publishing space, I’ve seen a growth in a lot of study notes type of sites where you can get answers to certain material and et cetera. What do you think are some of the challenges and opportunities in your space at the moment?

    David Harris: Right. That’s a great point. I mean, that’s a learning challenge, in that today, if you’re taking a biology course, or a physics course, or a calculus course, you can take your answer, you put it into a Google search engine you’ll take the question and then you will get the answer. That’s a problem, I think everyone in this space has to wrestle with. Because how much does that promote learning? How can we improve learning through search? That’s something that actually we’re looking at right now. It’s a very, very important question.
    In terms of challenges that an OER producer, like OpenStax has, frankly, there’s a debate in the community in regards to OER around demand and supply. There are some who will say: “You know what? There’s enough supply. We just have to generate awareness to drive demand.”
    We don’t take that view. Because we’ve found when you build a high quality demand is there and so, we would argue that we need to still continue to look at this supply side.
    OpenStax has had a great impact, but it’s just beginning. We’ve only had an impact in 30 courses. Now, they’re very highly enrolled, but what about students getting a vocational degree or a nursing degree or a degree in computer science? Why can’t we improve their access to learning resources throughout the entire curriculum?
    We believe that a professionally produced OER will scale rapidly and then it can be adapted locally.
    So, the challenge is, is I think in the market, both for a non-profit and for a for-profit, is the understanding that content can still drive innovation and technology, everybody wants to invest in technology, yes, very important, but those platforms without a good content base, and without a good assessment base, don’t have a lot of value. Except for people who want to build everything themselves.
    I think the challenge is, is to remind people, and investors, and philanthropists, that you still need to invest in content. It’s about and not or.

    Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. How much do you think non-profit, like OpenStax, plays a role in advancing the publishing industry in education, versus a for-profit?

    David Harris: Yeah, it would probably be best to ask them. But I would refer you to an AEI study that show textbook prices increasing really unrelentingly for 40 years. I believe it was 2017, they showed that these prices were actually and this really coincides with the mainstreaming of OER. That there are more high quality OER available today, than there have been in a generation and that has put a dampening on price increasing. In fact, I think they referred to it as the Southwest effect. Where we go, those prices seem to come down. So, I think it’s very much had an impact.
    Let’s use Cengage Learning as an example. Two things that they’ve done this year, they’ve done what they call, OpenNow, which is leveraging open resources within their platforms. They sell that for, I believe, it’s roughly $30 and then they came out with Cengage Unlimited, where you have unlimited access to their library for a year, for I believe, $119.
    These things would have been unthinkable three or four years ago. So I do think that the OER has really driven this conversation. As well as institutions who are looking at ways to make education more affordable for students.
    So, those two factors are significantly driving the market and I think it’s great. It’s benefiting students.

    Vahe Arabian: Are you looking at international examples as well and try to adopt it in your model? Or are they looking more towards how OpenStax are?

    David Harris: We are. And this is a question we get all the time. What are you doing internationally? About 20% of our user base is international. But, frankly, as a relatively small non-profit, we don’t have the bandwidth to really engage this on an international scale.
    We do have pilots going on in the UK. You can think of it almost like a franchise model, where we’re working with a group that is promoting and adapting our resources. Another great example is BC Campus, up in Canada, where they’ve taken our resources and they’ve adapted them to meet and those are doing very well.
    So, I think when we see organizations in those local environments leveraging the license and adapting, I think that’s a good economical way to do this. We’d love to be able to do that in Mexico, for instance.

    Vahe Arabian: I think you hit the nail on the head. So, not licensing is the way to go. With the technology aspect, you mentioned, David, that you know how we spoke about people will just searching the question in Google and finding the answer. How are you limiting that activity from happening? Or what’s some of the innovation behind the technology so that it is within the OER, and not so much distributed or leaked that way?

    David Harris: So, this is. Yeah, this is not an OER specific problem. The publishers face this problem, too. Because all you have to do is just, if you went to survey physics, take the end of chapter, put it into Google. The answer will come up. This is something that I think that the education community has to work with the digital platform groups, like Google and how can we work together to identify learning opportunities in that search? How can these questions be tagged in such a way that they’re identified as challenging for students and then provide them down a path where they can do more thinking.
    These types of conversations are still very nascent. There’s a long way to go here. I guess, from my days at WebAssign, there’s only a certain amount of energy you can put into this. There are some people who always want to game the system and that’s consequences for gaming the system. You might not actually learn the material so well and so you won’t have that lasting knowledge and understanding. There is a price that people are paying already. But I do think that creatively, we need to come up ways to remedy this trying to give students an opportunity to take more responsibility on their learning. This has to be a community solution.

    Vahe Arabian: How big, do you think, on the scale of importance, is this at the moment? Or do you think that.
    I know it’s a community thing, but do you think it would have enough actively involvement from the community if everyone collectively raised that point? Or do you think that is other more impressing issues that you can focus on?

    David Harris: Right. That’s a great question. I’m probably not the best one to answer it. I think it’s question.
    It comes down to a question of the individual learner. What is your goal here? Is it just to get and 100 on the homework? Well, that’s okay. But then you might not be ready for the exams.
    I think it has to be an individual question. And the market needs to come up with some solutions. I still don’t think it rises to the level of the access crisis in education. The affordability crises. That is still top of mind, especially for a group like OpenStax. We’ve got to get them these resources so that they have a chance at success.
    Now, how they manage their education, that’s really on the individual. There’s only so much we can do.

    Vahe Arabian: Mm-hmm, but do you think that there’s, in some of the same people, because when you look at other news properties on sites, they’re all experimenting with subscriptions and paid models. Do you think people are starting to get into the mindset of you need to pay for premium content? Or are you sticking to your guns and trying to make everything free and accessible as possible, David?

    David Harris: So, this is a, what I call, a race to the bottom question. I think there’s many different categories of content. Think of entertainment. Should all entertainment be free? No, absolutely not. But should content that fundamentally hasn’t changed in millennia, like physics or calculus, that you could consider that as a public good, should that be free and accessible? Yes, I think it should be free and accessible.

    David Harris: But then there’s the gray area on providing value around that. Let’s say, homework services, quizzing engines, adaptable personalization. Does that have to be free? No, I don’t think it does. If you want those technological advances to be sustaining, and to be of high quality, and to be reliable, frankly.
    So, I think it’s a continuum. But the basic knowledge in education, I think that is a right for people.

    Vahe Arabian: That’s a very clear answer, thank you for that. I really like that answer.
    David, I know we spoke about some of the initiatives that you’re focusing on, but are you able to provide a top level, even from your team?

    David Harris: Mm-hmm.

    Vahe Arabian: As to what you’re doing in general?

    David Harris: Sure, absolutely.

    Vahe Arabian: For 2018?

    David Harris: Right. I think there’s several major thrusts that we’re working on now. Our founder Rich Baraniuki, is a machine learning expert and so, we have a research team that’s really looking at what are the factors that we can deploy in these resources through online experiences that can drive learning and understanding, so that we can improve learning. That’s a major emphasis of his work and our work. And this is going to take a long time. I like to say it takes patient capital, to figure out what are the optimal ways we can deliver an educational experience to students.
    So, that’s the first major effort. The next major effort as we touched on earlier, is seeking out supporters for building out these libraries, so that they’re much more, so, if you’re a computer science major or a nursing student, you can improve access to educational materials throughout your educational career. That’s the second major thrust and then the third major area is building out continue to work with our ecosystem partners to provide exceptional value and options to faculty and students. So that they have the optimal, the highest value resource, hopefully with the longest possible access periods at the lowest possible prices.
    So, I think those three areas of focus will continue to drive the market and make it much more dynamic.

    Vahe Arabian: You said that you were looking at learning opportunities, so what are some of the more specific, if you can, go into some of the specifics. What are some of the projects that you’re focusing on, on that aspect?

    David Harris: Absolutely. So, this year we’re piloting a program called OpenStax Tutor. This uses machine learning algorithms. It’s in physics, sociology and biology. When a student goes and completes a series of assessments, also activities, what the system is doing is analyzing that student work against the work of his or her peers and then it will make recommendations to those students are based on their performance. Instead of giving an item by item score, it gives a performance forecast with suggestions for additional practice and review.
    These algorithms, as more and more students use the system, get smarter and smarter on their recommendation and so, we can improve our confidence that these interventions will actually help the students.

    Vahe Arabian: How long do you think that you can come to the point where you can say: “Okay, the system that we built is.” I don’t know, maybe you can’t answer to this, this is more, maybe it’s more someone else. Yeah, maybe it’s not yours. What do you think about, there’s a point where you can say, it’s accurate enough where you can use it as a tool for students to understand their answer and their learning needs?

    David Harris: If I had the answer to that question, I’d be able to live on a beautiful island. I think everyone is.
    I think a lot of people, that’s what their chasing in the market now. What are the factors that we can isolate that can really drive learning outcomes? This is going to take a long time. There’s not going to be any magic or silver bullets on this. It’s going to be a combination of technology and practice and we must never forget that teacher faculty agency will play a key role in this.
    I think it’s years off. But we’ll be making gains and that’s what makes the market so exciting and dynamic right now.

    Vahe Arabian: Is that what drives you as a person, and someone who continues to work in this industry, to keep moving forward?

    David Harris: Oh, absolutely. Access, improving learning, and frankly, disrupting that monolithic market that I felt was corrupting, those are the major drivers.

    Vahe Arabian: How do you keep? Because there’s always going to be technology, though. There’s always going to be that aspect where it’s going to keep evolving. So how do you keep, and make sure that you stay ahead then, and keep motivating with your own goals with professional development?

    David Harris: That’s a great question. I think staying in touch with the customer and really understanding their pain points. I’ve done that throughout my career. That keeps you on the straight and narrow and I think it also keeps you practical.
    It’s very easy to, if you divorce yourself from the customer, to get pie-in-the-sky ideas that just won’t work on the ground. I’ve always believed that the customer knows best. They may not know what the solution is, but what problems are and they articulate those very well. The beautiful thing about this market is that the customers are very, very smart.

    Vahe Arabian: What’s one example you can say that you got close to right? Or where you can say:
    “I understood what the customer’s need was at that time and I was able to deliver that solution for them?”

    David Harris: Absolutely. I think in terms of OpenStax as a reference, we talk a lot about faculty workflow and a key thing about that workflow, that OER had not been doing, was what we call, meeting scope and sequence requirements.
    A lot of OER was built and it had what I would call, it’s quirky. It was built for an individual. What we say was, you know what? Across the market, there is a real pain point around access and affordability. That’s also a pain point that I don’t want to have to really fundamentally change the way I’ve been doing my course. There is a rational to my curricula.
    When we looked at this across the board, we saw that there was about an 85% overlap between these courses and so, we built our materials to make sure that we met that need. That’s a great example of meeting pain points and customer needs with an OER solution.

    Vahe Arabian: David, how do you, given that you’re a non-profit, how does the team and the overall organization keep itself accountable on the initiatives and the issues that they may what they set themselves, set yourself, I guess?

    David Harris: Right. You mean, what metrics do we hold ourselves accountable to?

    Vahe Arabian: Correct.

    David Harris: Right. There’s four metrics. I save, actually the most important one for last. The first metric we look at is adoption rates. Where are our resources being adopted? We track that. Faculty have to set up accounts and then they tell us if they’re adopting it.
    The second metric of measurement is the number of students that we’re impacting in those courses. Very important.
    The third metric is a quality metric. What is the readoption rate, one.? Two, what is the errata rate, errata reporting rate that we get? We’re the most transparent, I think, publisher in world regarding errata?
    Then the fourth one, let’s call them learning outcome metrics. What are we doing to help improve retention? What are we doing to help improve DFW, Drop, Fail, Withdraw rates? And then, increasingly, how are we improving learning? Though, that is still very early in the research, that’s something that we’re going to be looking at increasingly over time.

    Vahe Arabian: Does any of this contribute to more funding, or less funding from the university?

    David Harris: In terms of funding, the philanthropists certainly look, we call it venture philanthropy, they certainly look at their social return on investment. So, the metrics are adoption, students impact, students savings, and learning are all very important to us.
    What also important for them is sustainability. They don’t want to have to keep pouring money in to sustain the library. So, that’s something we also take very seriously.

    Vahe Arabian: I’m sure that they, like you said, that it’s reaching a lot more people, so I’m sure that, that’s less of a case.

    David Harris: Yes, absolutely.

    Vahe Arabian: David, just a final point, just want to touch point on offering, lots of people wanting to get into the education space. If you can give them. What advice would you give them to get to the point where you are and finding the right non for-profit as well, to match their goals and needs?

    David Harris: Yeah, I’ve worked in both for-profits and non-profits. Actually in some ways there’s more similarities and differences when comes to career. First thing I would say is, find something that you’re interested in and you have a passion for. Because that will make up for a lot of challenges that you’ll meet on the way. If intellectually engaged in your enterprise and your pursuit, I think you’re going to be much better at it over a long period of time.
    Now that’s the first thing. The second thing for me is, don’t accept authority. A lot of the people in authority, they lose touch and they don’t know. Maybe this is contrarian in me, and if you are close to that market, and you know in your gut that it’s a good idea, pursue it. Don’t worry about authority and you will get market acceptance. I’ve always thought it’s much better to ask for forgiveness than permission and then the third thing, I think it’s just, it’s very important in any career is, do what you say. Walk the walk. Talk the talk. Practice what you preach. Just be very direct and transparent in everything that you do, so people trust you and they know where you stand. It will also make you much more consistent and I think that consistency over time, especially when you’re trying to meet customer needs, really can pay off in huge dividends.
    That would be my career advice. Oh, and have fun. Have a sense of humor.

    Vahe Arabian: David, it seems that you have fun all the time. Just how you speak about the industry. So thank you so much for joining us. May everything turns out all the best for the initiatives this year.

    David Harris: Great and thanks so much for your time, today. I really enjoyed it.

    Vahe Arabian: Thank you for joining us in this episode of State of Digital Publishing podcast. All your thoughts on the higher education publishing scene and the technology used. How do you think the difference will generally be if it was a profit versus non-profit organization?
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