Home 9 Against the Grain 9 v31 #3 Blurring Lines — Considering the Future of Discovery, Access and Business Models in Support of Virtual Reality Content for Scholarly Research and Classroom Learning:  What Can We Learn from the Rise of OER and OA? 

v31 #3 Blurring Lines — Considering the Future of Discovery, Access and Business Models in Support of Virtual Reality Content for Scholarly Research and Classroom Learning:  What Can We Learn from the Rise of OER and OA? 

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments


Column Editor: David Parker  (Senior Director Product Management, ProQuest;  Phone: 201-673-8784) 

The open educational resources (OER) movement began in the years between 1999 and 2002, during which time Rice launched its precursor to OpenStax and UNESCO’S 2002 forum on open courseware coined the term OER.1  Since these early days the pace of growth in adoption of OER, while unsatisfying to some activists, has been, in my view, phenomenal.  Studies, such as Opening the Textbook by Julia E. Seaman and Jeff Seaman from the Babson Survey Research Group,2 reported in 2017 that the OER adoption rate for large enrollment courses was 16.5%.  And when I attended OpenEd 18 this past fall in Niagara Falls, New York, I was astounded by the number of attendees and, most specifically, by the numbers of librarians in formal or informal support roles for OER at their institutions.

Across this 20-year arc from the first open textbook delivered online by Connexions (precursor to OpenStax) to today, commercial providers of textbooks and learning technology have had ample opportunity to respond competitively or to cooperate with the OER movement, yet only Cengage Learning has entered with substance via Cengage Open.  Now (low cost OER-based courses inclusive of Cengage content).  McGraw Hill recently announced the launch of Open Learning Solutions, allowing faculty the opportunity to create course solutions based on McGraw Hill content, OER content and faculty-generated content, but this is an effort aimed at accommodating the OER space rather than embracing it.  As noted, in my view, only Cengage among the major learning technology companies has fully embraced OER.

While Cengage has entered the OER space from the for-profit side of learning technology, no company in the for-profit library and research support services world has developed an OER offering, to include Cengage, the parent company of Gale.  Contrast this with the vigorous and early efforts by for-profit scholarly publishers and aggregators to offer products and services to support open (OA) access digital journal and eBook publishing.  Why have for-profit learning companies and library aggregation companies largely avoided OER, while scholarly journal and book publishers and library aggregators have made OA a core part of their business strategy? 

I raise the question of non-engagement/engagement with OER and OA by the for-profit learning  companies, scholarly publishers and library aggregation companies to examine the possibilities in what I believe will be the next content area that we will need to address in terms of the challenges and opportunities inherent in the meeting of freely available and for fee  media content for the classroom and research: Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality/360 Video and 3D Objects. I use the terms “for free” and “for fee” to indicate the meeting of content and services provided in open formats and restricted access formats, be it OER, OA, or open source software such as holds sway in the learning management system space.  There are three key vantage points from which to view the past regarding OER and OA and the near future in virtual content, they are:

  1. Open (free) content as opposed to for-fee content.  I often refer to this as the (potential) handshake between for-fee and for-free.  
  2. Repositories and common metadata, indexing and search standards.  
  3. The production of scholarly content versus the production of content intended to support curriculum/learning.  

Open content as opposed to for-fee content:  As noted above, OER content has developed largely independent of participation by or with the cooperation of for-profit learning companies, with Cengage Learning as the notable exception.  The OER community has struggled with the creation of computer-based and algorithmically generated homework and test item material and this has created an opening for for-profit start-ups to provide support for OER textbooks.  This movement precipitated the increasing focus of OpenStax, on “lowering” the cost to students versus eliminating all student costs,3 but the OER purists will tell you the desired end-game is zero-cost-to-the-student, although somebody always pays.  Along with homework and testing solutions, other players in the for-profit world have entered the OER space to offer adaptive learning solutions tied to popular OER textbooks.  But in this many-billions-of-dollars market for learning content and services, the in-roads of for-profits into the “business space” of OER is a blip in the total annual revenue generated in education.  Contrast this with the participation of for-profit journal and book publishers in the scholarly space of open access. Notwithstanding more recent efforts, particularly out of Europe with Plan-S,4 to reduce the role of for-profit publishers in the delivery of OA scholarly content, the for profits have played a significant role in contributing to the various access models that define how OA research is brought to the scholar;  primarily through hybrid OA journals and book publishing models and the author-processing-charge (APC). Activists and thought leaders at the forefront of the OA movement, much like the leading thinkers in the OER space, do not view the pace of growth in converting scholarly output to OA as having moved at sufficient pace, but from where I sit as a commentator on broad trends impacting the library, OA has made huge strides. 

The central question I pose is, what circumstances contributed to the decision by the large textbook and learning companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill to avoid or lightly engage with OER, versus the effort of the large scholarly publishing companies like Elsevier, Wiley and Taylor and Francis in playing such a significant role in OA?  There are obvious observations, such as the role of the grant funding model for research, which drives investments across the institution, the integrated place of the journal publisher in the entire research publishing process and the cache of publishing in a top-tier journal.  In the end, the researcher simply wants to be published in the best journal, regardless of the access model, and this certainly aided extant journal publishers in remaining relevant as the OA model grew in reach. Or, on the OER side, the rapid growth of creative commons licensing options combined with self-publishing platforms, which encouraged faculty authorship and content sharing for newly created text.  But the central observation remains, which is both OA and OER evolved with the intention of widening access and reducing or eliminating costs. On one side the for-profits engaged with reasonable success (at least so far …) and on the other the for-profits refused to enter and have seen drag on market share. What does this bode for the creators and publishers of virtual reality assets to support curriculum and research?

Repositories and common metadata, indexing and search standards:  Open access scholarly journals and eBook publishers have conformed to the same metadata and indexing standards as their “non-open” forerunners and have, from the beginning, sought to be discoverable in and across all library discovery systems (albeit with mixed success), knowledge bases and principal aggregations.  This is to make plain that there has been no significant degradation in the researcher’s access to open access materials as she conducts her search and discovery practice. Of course, open access publishing has increased the appearance of marginal content, but publishers have not been immune to this problem and self-publishing has, in general, inured all readers to a heightened degree of awareness about quality.  In other words, subpar content is not a specific phenomenon of the open access movement. OER, in quite the opposite manner of what we have witnessed with OA in terms of discovery and access, which conformed to no standards of practice, developed multiple metadata and indexing standards as multiple aggregations for access emerged. If the reader wants to put this statement to the test, I suggest searching “physics” at three of the more prominent OER aggregations: The Open Textbook Library, MERLOT and SUNY OASIS.  The result sets are wildly different, and the facets presented to the searcher are entirely dissimilar.  Why is it, for example, that the most widely used, widely searched OER physics textbook is not at the top of each search?  My intention is not to suggest that the search experience for scholarly OA output is entirely orderly and the search experience for OER is absolute chaos, but there is a striking difference in terms of consistent output and confidence in results.  That OA and for-fee journal content can generally be discovered in a single search in most library discovery layers contrasts markedly from the difficulty of discovering OER and for-fee textbooks in a single search. OA publishing emerged in a context of structure and known taxonomy, yet so did OER, that is the syllabus and university curriculum, but OER and for-fee textbooks have never “played” together nicely.  There is a rigor inherent in the effort of the for-profit players who helped define the evolution of indexing and metadata standards for OA that one notes missing in the OER movement in which the for-profit learning companies have not participated. OER has grown up with all the positive hallmarks of a social movement: activism, participation, advocacy and the power of word-of-mouth; however, this has meant the sacrifice of indexing and metadata and curation/aggregation standards.  How will discovery and access to virtual reality content evolve with for free and for fee content amassing to support the learner and the researcher given what we have seen with OA and OER?  

The production of scholarly content versus the production of content intended to support curriculum/learning:  OA scholarly journals and eBooks exist to support the secondary source research requirements of scholars, be they college freshmen or post-doc fellows.  OER textbooks and other learning content exist to support curriculum. Virtual reality content will be deployed and proliferate across both the learning and the research use case.  Leading edge researchers in archaeology, for example, will develop highly specific and evolved 3D models to share and revise among other scholars around the world, and they will do so in conjunction with their journal publications, such as we see from The Journal of Visualized Experiments – JoVE.  And faculty teaching basic anatomy and physiology will increasingly deploy 3D models of organs rather than using static physical or text-book based models.  At present, 360 video, virtual reality video and 3D objects, delivered via browser and accessible with a smart phone and inexpensive attachable devices, is in its infancy on campus, but the use case is growing.  At Alexander Street/ProQuest, in anticipation of this growing use case, we recently launched 360 and VR capabilities in our video player and licensed a body of short form virtual reality documentaries.  Augmented reality (AR) content that requires special software and hardware appears to be on a further frontier but is also where much of the research and scholarly innovation is happening.  There are many for-profit companies creating VR and 3D content to support curriculum in fields across science, medicine and the humanities. And there are foundations, non-profits, universities and faculty and students working in maker spaces, labs and creative spaces building virtual reality content for the classroom and the workplace; much of this will be open and freely available and some will be created with the intention of commercializing.  We will see, again as with OA and OER, a coming together of the for-free and the for-fee with virtual content. 

Summary:  The future of virtual reality content in the university use cases of research and learning will need to resolve the handshake between for fee and for free content.  This will need to happen in a structure of metadata and indexing that supports efficient search and discovery and it will need to be done with an eye toward simultaneously representing content for learning and content for research, but with an understanding of the unique dimensions of use inherent in these two distinct university-centered and university-supported practices.  If we do not achieve a common indexing and metadata structure for virtual reality content and deliver access to for-free and for-fee content in a unified discovery environment, faculty will be plagued by the limitations inherent in the current landscape of OER.  

The for-profit sector will be a vibrant source of innovation, producing content, software and hardware in the virtual reality realm, and this will all need to co-exist with the invaluable contribution of content, software and possibly even hardware from the not-for-profit sector as virtual reality content scales.  As a collective body in support of the university library, we need to take on board the successes and the lessons-to-be-learned that the OER and OA movements have contributed to our understanding of publishing and aggregation models, metadata, indexing, discovery and business models that support open and for-fee content.  From the world of OA scholarly output, we take the example of developing new access models built firmly on existing researcher workflows and systems and tools for curation, aggregation and discovery, so that we might see a reduced access barrier between for fee and for free virtual reality content. From the space of OER we must take on board the power of community to innovate in favor of access that reduces and/or eliminates barriers, so that the independent producer of virtual reality content can create and disseminate meaningfully alongside the commercial producer.  

As a columnist and observer of large trends and movements impacting the university library, I cannot predict how access to virtual reality content will evolve, as is obvious from the focus in this column on observations and questions.  But I feel certain the library will have its place and that librarians, in particular, will be among the key protagonists answering the questions I have raised.  


  1. Open Educational Resources.  (2019, March 7).  Retrieved April 8, 2019 from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources.
  2. Seaman J. E. and Seaman J. (2018). Freeing the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2018. Babson Park: Babson Survey Research Group.
  3. Open Stax Partners. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from, https://openstax.org/partners.
  4. Kelly E.  (2018, September 4). EU and national funders launch plan for free and immediate open access to journals.  Science Business.



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