Startup Hopes to Shake Up Textbook Market By Encouraging a Mix-and-Match of Courseware
A new startup wants to shake up the textbook market by making it easier for professors to adopt courseware created at colleges and universities rather than by commercial textbook publishers. It’s solution: Create a new marketplace where instructors can find them.
A key premise of the Lexington, Mass.-based company, called Argos Education, is that the way textbooks are created and revised is due for a reset. Namely, it wants to help build an open-source system that lets professors piece together online course materials from a variety of sources, and also offer their own materials for sale to colleagues around the world.
Co-founder Micheal Feldstein believes that creating a common, open-source platform to distribute courseware can help make the materials cheaper for students and help professors continually refine their teaching.
“Universities should be buying and selling courseware from each other,” says Feldstein, a longtime edtech consultant who also runs the popular blog eLiterate.
Argos is calling its courseware platform and marketplace Sojourner, and the goal is to make it a hub for professors and students to create, assign and use digital course materials, in a way that allows for rich analytics for professors, showing them how their students are using materials.
“You can think about it as almost an Amazon-like self-publishing system plus Amazon Kindle store plus Amazon Kindle reader software for courseware,” said Feldstein. “You can create the content, you can sell it, you can adapt it, you can give it away.”
When authors chose to sell content, Argos will take a cut of the revenue.
The platform will be built on open-source software and materials that universities have already developed—mainly a combination of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative’s platform, called Torus, and online materials from Arizona State University’s Center for Education Through eXploration, called ETX. Leaders of the two projects have agreed to team up to jointly build a next-generation courseware platform, as well as a set of standards, that will be the basis of Sojourner.
“One of the ongoing challenges in the adaptive courseware space is we haven’t been able to find a functioning marketplace,” says Norman Bier, director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon. “Argos is ... going to be layering on a service. They’re trying to build a marketplace for adaptive courseware.”
In many ways, Carnegie Mellon’s OLI project pioneered the model of adaptive courseware, creating software that guides a student through academic material and alters what it shows each student next based on how well the student has done so far. In a recent blog post, Feldstein notes that OLI launched a whole new market segment for textbooks, inspiring commercial publishers, including Pearson, Cengage and Wiley, to build their own courseware products that are now growing in adoption.
Since the pandemic, Carnegie Mellon has seen an uptick in people using OLI courseware. The past academic year saw 82,000 enrollments, compared to 55,000 the year before, says Bier. But a marketplace could help further boost that, he adds.
For its part, ASU’s ETX project has taken a slightly different approach it calls guided experiences or “immersive, interactive virtual field trips,” according to its website. For years the ASU group built these adaptive experiences on a commercial platform sold by Smart Sparrow. But last year Pearson acquired the assets of Smart Sparrow, leading ASU to look for an alternative platform to deliver its offerings, which had also been growing in use.
The system will also pull in some OER textbook material developed by OpenStax, a low-cost publisher at Rice University.
Feldstein argues that creating a shared, open-source platform can lead to insights on how to improve adaptive courseware and virtual experiences, and even how to improve teaching practices. Right now, he adds, the Sojourner platform does not easily compare to any existing tools.
“It’s not just another new product, it’s an entirely different ecosystem,” he told EdSurge. He gave the example of a professor who wants to adopt a popular biology textbook, but doesn’t plan to assign one chapter of it. “So I tell students, ’Don't read chapter 9, follow this link and read this part that I’ve written, and then follow this link to this quiz that I wrote and then go watch this video at Colorado State University,’” said Feldstein. “I have to go through all those acrobatics just because I don’t like chapter 9. I have no way to knit them all together.”
Traditional publishers have no incentive to solve this problem, Feldstein argues, because their business models are based around keeping students and professors inside their systems of proprietary content. “That’s the way that their DNA is wired,” he says. “And as long as that’s your fundamental business then you can’t create an environment that can fix that problem.”
Argos has already landed some venture funding. The company received $250,000 in backing from WGU Labs, plus some in-kind services to help with efficacy research, market research and outreach support.
It’s not the first time that someone has tried a marketplace for courseware, notes Stephen Downes, a national expert in online learning technology who runs the long-running OLDaily newsletter.
And some past efforts by publishers to let professors customize textbooks have not had large uptakes, since some may be happy enough to use links on their syllabus or on learning management system to various materials they assign, even if that is a little clunky.
Feldstein does bring a focus on improving the quality of teaching through a process sometimes referred to as learning engineering, which aims to encourage instructors to use data from courseware and other tools to continuously improve their teaching. For the past few years he’s run a nonprofit called the Empirical Educator Project to convene various players in edtech and higher ed to further that effort. That project is continuing, and it held a virtual meeting this week.