Guest Contributor: Jonathan Mott, Chief Learning Officer
Learning Objects, A Cengage Company

When we set about improving learning, we generally begin with some notion of what we want to be better or different for our students. If our focus is on student achievement, we might invest more in instruction, technology, or materials designed to yield better outcomes. Alternatively, if our primary objective is to lower cost, we might look at ways to reduce institutional investments in a program or we might directly reduce student expenditures by replacing current materials with lower-cost alternatives or OER (free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes).

One of the more complex challenges in learning innovation experimentation comes when we seek to simultaneously test multiple, often seemingly competing hypotheses. In this case – how can we increase student achievement AND lower costs? Fortunately, innovators are increasingly proving it is possible to improve efficacy, quality, and engagement without concomitant drops in affordability and scalability.

Because we know that OER has the potential to lower costs while maintaining other success metrics, at Cengage we are actively developing a variety of innovative OER-based offerings. In January, for example, we announced the launch of MindTap ACE, a digital learning solution that combines high-quality OER with existing Cengage content, aligned with targeted learning goals.

David Wiley (a good friend and former BYU colleague) recently reacted to the MindTap ACE announcement in a post called, “Thoughts on Cengage’s MindTap ACE“. We’re in complete agreement on the fundamental point he made: MindTap ACE utilizes OER but is not itself OER. This is a critically important distinction. There is far too much “openwashing” in the industry, so it is essential to call things what they are. MindTap ACE is a solution that aims to take the best of both worlds – blending both OER and Cengage content, curated around specific learning goals. By delivering these materials via MindTap, we also provide teachers and learners with powerful learning technology, including formative and summative assessments, engaging homework activities, and other tools. The inclusion of OER allows us to offer all of this at a lower price point.

Like other digital learning companies, we are simultaneously focusing on multiple goals. While reducing cost is a pressing concern, we are equally invested in improving learner engagement, the quality of the learning experience, retention, persistence, demonstration of outcomes, and, ultimately, attainment of marketable degrees or credentials. In this broader context, we do not treat OER as an either/or proposition. There is room for innovation to complement available high-quality OER with copyrighted content, services and learning tools designed to improve learning.

Cengage is also experimenting with a variety of innovative learning models through Learning Objects, the Cengage business unit that designs and builds competency-aligned digital learning environments in collaboration with higher education institutions. Because Learning Objects is fundamentally content agnostic, these models include courses and programs built entirely with various combinations of OER, Cengage content, extant institutional content, materials from other publishers, or new custom content. Beginning with the end in mind, the Learning Objects learning engineers collaborate with our institutional partners to identify, curate, design, develop, and deliver the optimal configuration of content and tools to realize learning goals.

In short, we are equally committed to improving affordability, quality, and efficacy. OER is and will continue to play a critical part of our pursuit of these goals. But we will continue to begin and end our learning solutions design process by focusing on all of the improvement goals we have for learners and the various ways we can achieve those goals. This approach will almost always result in hybrid approaches, not “either/ors.”