March 19, 2018

Coursera, Publisher Pilot Offers Licensed Content to MOOC Students

Beginning May 8, instructors providing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) via Coursera will have the option to supplement their video lectures with content from major academic publishers Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE Publications,and Wiley, at no cost to their students.

And that’s just the beginning: “Coursera is also actively discussing pilot agreements and related alliances with Springer and additional publishers,” the company said in a statement.

This could be a sea change for both MOOCs and publishers’ business models. Heretofore, while a few licenses had been granted, most MOOC instructors were relying on open access or public domain resources for readings. The massive audience for MOOCs means that even a relatively small percentage of conversions to paying customers could add up to big dollars in publishers’ pockets. And since MOOC students are likely not already purchasing academic content, they represent an untapped market rather than cannibalizing existing sales channels.

Chegg textbook for Coursera

While each publisher’s agreement with Coursera was negotiated independently and hence will be somewhat different, the basics are probably similar, Michele Sordi, SAGE’s Vice President of Editorial, told LJ.

Those basics include:

  • Students will be able to access content via a DRM-protected eTextbook reader application from Chegg. Both the content and the software will be available free of charge, according to Chegg communications manager Angela Pontarolo. The app was created using HTML5, so it can be used on any connected device. (It does not yet have accessibility features for the blind or print disabled.)
  • Students will only be able to access content for the duration of the course. If they want to keep it, they have to buy it. Premium content, which could include study tools, labs, videos, etc., will also be available for purchase.
  • Professors have to ask for the content they want, and they’re not guaranteed to get it. “It’s not like publishers are saying, here is all our content, come and take what you want,” Sordi said. “And that’s as it should be. Everyone wants it to be successful. We have lot of different constituencies to satisfy. A conservative approach in the beginning is better.”
    SAGE is not planning to create a list of available, green-lighted titles in advance. Professors will request a particular textbook, and then SAGE will check with its author for approval. If approval is granted, the company will work with the instructor on a case by case basis to determine whether the whole text will be made available, or what Sordi called “a special kind of Coursera edition custom digital version.” In the latter case, again, students would be given the option to purchase the full text. Though the process is labor intensive, Sordi said the few universities already offering MOOCs makes it practical. “We’re still talking about a relatively small subset,” she explained.
    Wiley has already chosen its first title: Susan Spilka, Wiley’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, told LJ that portions of Matter & Interactions, a physics text by Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood, would be used in a MOOC from the Georgia Institute of Technology.Pam Snow, Senior Vice President, Director of Strategic Customer Partnerships, Cengage Learning, told LJ that Cengage has already selected three titles to participate in the pilot as well.
  • Not only is the content free to students, it’s free to Coursera, too. Though this may well be different for future, monetized or credit-bearing courses, for now, there’s no money changing hands, at least directly. As for indirectly, “there’s certainly a possibility that it will drive additional print or digital sales,” Sordi told LJ, but “that’s not what’s driving this pilot. We’re not banking on that.”
  • So what is SAGE getting out of this, if not money? Information, for one: Sordi says the publishers will be given anonymous/aggregated data on how the students use their etexts. “I think there is going to be another level of much more research-based analytics …that is a huge reason why we’re participating in this pilot, learning analytics and how we can improve our content both for affordability and to help students complete courses and do better.”
    (Unlike etextbook competitor CourseSmart, Chegg’s Pontarolo says the statistics shared with professors “are completely anonymous so no student information is shared,” as well.)
    Wiley’s Spilka agrees: “what we’re getting out of this is the chance to sell the textbooks—and I think there will be sales out of it—and also the chance to get the data, which is really important. And the benefit [to students]; people then see the value.”
    The pilot also gives SAGE and other publishers the ability to help shape the conversation. “Publishers, until now, have been kind of on the outside looking in [at MOOCs].  We just thought this was a great way for us to learn by having a seat at the table,” Sordi said. “You can only help guide it if you’re inside,” she added.
  • The pilot will run for one year (at least, SAGE’s will). But at this point, says Sordi, it’s hard to say what a success that would warrant continuation or expansion would look like. “What we learn in this pilot can inform the next steps that we want to take,” she explained. Coursera agrees; when asked about assessment, Iz Conroy, a spokesperson for Coursera, told LJ, “At this point, there are no formal goals or a timeline for these pilots.” Oxford University Press’ John Challice shared his own evaluation criteria for the pilot:”We’ll be looking at reach (how many eyeballs looked at it, and specifically which parts of it); reported benefit (how many people found it useful, and why); and product sell-through at the end (how many people were willing to pay an incremental amount to purchase the whole work in a permanent form (print or digital).”
  • It’s not exclusive. SAGE is already in discussions with other MOOC providers, and Spilka says, “we don’t have any other agreements but are definitely open to partnerships.”
  •  Libraries can’t preserve the licensed readings along with the MOOC. For those academic libraries that are beginning to preserve their faculty members’ MOOCs, there is no provision, at least in SAGE’s and Cengage’s cases and this first iteration, for libraries to preserve the assigned readings along with them. For Wiley materials, Spilka said, “how that is going to work with libraries I imagine will be worked out over the course of the pilot.”

Kevin Smith, Director, Copyright and Scholarly Communication, Duke University Libraries, told LJ, “I am sure that some Duke faculty will take advantage of the availability of works from these publishers.  But, as I am sure you know, faculty members are very selective about the books they use to teach, so the level of uptake will depend on what is available and what courses Duke is offering at a particular time.  We also teach some courses that do not employ the traditional ‘single textbook for a semester’ model and instead use selections from multiple trade academic books; it remains to be seen how those instructors will benefit.”

“In general I expect that this pilot will reduce the workload for clearance to some degree, especially in those cases where we have sought permission to use illustrative material from textbooks in instructors’ lecture slides.  But much of our work has involved a wider variety of materials, including from popular culture as well as academia; our faculty are very creative with their pedagogy. So I think we will still do lots of case-by-case permission requests.”

“Finally, I am very hopeful that this initiative will improve the educational experience of our MOOC participants.  It should, at least, reduce the time that some students have to spend tracking down materials for some courses.  And I also hope that this approach – essentially an open access “freemium” model – will increase awareness amongst our faculty MOOC instructors about the benefits of open access across the spectrum of scholarly works.”

“I’m not surprised that Coursera has been pursuing publisher relationships, “Merrilee Proffitt, Senior Program Officer, OCLC Research, told LJ, emphasizing that her comments don’t represent OCLC’s official position. “I do think that it will make it easier to include some content in courses, but it’s important to note that the publishers are acting as entrepreneurs and hoping for revenue downstream. It’s also important to note that the publishers are not giving away the store, but are making some content available to a limited number of people on a time bounded basis. I wouldn’t characterize this as a game changer, but it is an interesting development.”



Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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