By Alastair Horne | @PressFuturist
‘A Long-Term Play’The launch of any new initiative by Amazon can prompts speculation in the publishing industry as to precisely whose lunch the firm is planning next to consume.
So do publishers have anything to fear from Amazon Inspire, the company’s new, free marketplace for educational materials?
The program is characterized by the company as “a free service for the search, discovery, and sharing of digital educational resources.” Teased in March, and formally announced last month, Amazon Inspire is an online marketplace in which teachers can find free educational content, such as lesson plans and worksheets.
Currently in beta, the site looks much like Amazon’s standard sales pages, with teachers able to refine their searches using 10 criteria that include subject, grade, type and format of resource, as well as a gauge as to how long the material might take students to complete. Educators can also grade resources and review them.
Most of the content available is created and shared by practicing teachers, but some is drawn from organizations that have chosen to partner with Amazon, such as Washington’s museum of news and journalism, the Newseum, which has made available lesson plans, interactive tools, and some primary source materials.
“Inspire is a stalking horse to build a database of material on the K-12 professional community.”Joseph Esposito
This isn’t Amazon’s first attempt to move into the educational content market. In 2013, it acquired math startup TenMarks, a provider of what the company describes as “curriculum resources” and “data-driven insights.” Some of the TenMarks team are involved in this new venture, including CEO Rohit Agarwal, who now is General Manager of Amazon Education.
To get a sense for how this new venture might affect educational publishers, Publishing Perspectives spoke to two specialists with more than 20 years’ experience in and around the education, publishing, and technology sectors.
Jon Williamson is the newly-installed Global Product Strategy Director for Cambridge University Press’ education division, while Joseph Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and software industries, and a regular contributor to the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s Scholarly Kitchen blog.
‘The Sharing of Individual Resources’
Both Williamson and Esposito stress that the sort of education content marketplace Amazon is offering is far from new.
Esposito notes similarities with the Teachers Pay Teachers website, which enables teachers to upload and be paid for educational resources they’ve created. It reports having paid out $200 million to its contributors in the decade since it was founded.
Cambridge’s Williamson similarly draws parallels with the Times Education Supplement’s TES Resources site, which he says “has had a limited impact on publishers” since it tends more often to supplement rather than to replace publisher resources.
“What we’ve always provided as publishers is this sort of Kitemarking of the quality of the resources that we’re publishing.”Jon Williamson
“It’s enabled teachers,” he says, “to find teaching resources that support an immediate requirement, or a topic that’s come up outside the resources that they have.”
It’s for that reason that Williamson says he’s similarly doubtful about the initial impact of Inspire. Like the TES Resources site, he says, “it’s enabling the sharing of individual resources” whereas publishers are providing “full-service offerings to schools that cover all the requirements that they need, [services] that are curated and quality-assured, and mapped to the curriculum and so covering all the learning requirements that a school has.”
Where Amazon may create a new threat, Williamson says, is in improving discovery.
“There’s a huge amount of resources available online,” he says, “and you could do all your teaching with resources you found for nothing on the Internet. But you can’t physically manage it because it’s hard to discover pertinent resources, and that’s something that the Amazon approach might fix.”
The fact that Amazon Inspire has adopted the Learning Registry approach to tagging and resource discovery means that it “will probably be providing one of the largest bodies of content into that system,” Williamson says, could have interesting consequences for “the wider approach to individual learning object discovery, which is still not a very mature market. It’s still something that even publishers don’t do brilliantly at the moment.”
To be truly effective, he says, Amazon will also need to find a way to ensure the quality of the content it’s sharing: “You won’t know how good that resource is until you’ve used it,” he says. “What we’ve always provided as publishers is this sort of Kitemarking of the quality of the resources that we’re publishing.”
Esposito agrees, saying he doubts that Amazon’s entry into this market will have an immediate effect on publishers.
“This is a long-term play,” he says. “Inspire doesn’t really target educational publishers initially. The real target is Teachers Pay Teachers.”
Amazon’s reputation precedes it, he says.“You wouldn’t be writing about this if Amazon weren’t behind it, and we can count on Amazon doing a brilliant job.”
Bringing its trademark qualities of scale and execution to the sector, the company “is about to professionalize these services,” Esposito says, using them “to build a community of K-12 teachers, and the question is how they monetize that at a later time.”
For Esposito, the answer to that question is likely to involve data: “Inspire is a stalking horse to build a database of material on the K-12 professional community.”
‘It will pay for itself’
“It’s very plausible if something there is doing very well, or is very popular, that a publisher would identify the author and try to talk to them.”Jon Williamson
Williamson says he suspects that Amazon’s long-term plan to make money from Inspire revolves around physical materials. Although the company has stated that it will never charge for the service, “They’ve also said that it will be sustainable,” he says, “so it will pay for itself.” Which means, he says, that “Their business model is probably more about serving ancillary products around the free resources. If you’re interested in a resource about science and there are practical elements to the lesson, you might be offered a bundle of the things you need in order to deliver that lesson: batteries, wires, lightbulbs, and that sort of thing.”
He’s more doubtful, he says, about the suggestion that Amazon might curate this “enormous bank of content” to create “a full-service scheme” that would compete with publishers directly, on the grounds that “it’s unlikely to be consistent, to have the ease of delivery of a publisher-created scheme.”
If publishers act sensibly, Williamson says, “making investments in data and analytics and making sure that they move on from static content publishing to dynamic, personalised learning environments,” then they should remain “a few steps ahead” of Amazon and their “masses of content creators.”
Asked whether publishers might end up using Inspire to source new authors from those masses, Esposito says, “It’s not about authors.”
Williamson, on the other hand, says, “It’s always good to identify new talent, new content, and new types of working, so it’s likely that publishers will monitor what are at the top of the ranking. It’s very plausible if something there is doing very well, or is very popular, that a publisher would identify the author and try to talk to them, or look at similar approaches. That’s often been the way. It’ll be another tool we have to monitor what’s happening in the market.”
‘The Cost of Doing Business’
“Any unmoderated online forum will have copyright issues. It’s part of the cost of doing business.”Joseph Esposito
Whatever its potential, Inspire has already encountered some teething troubles: Natasha Singer at The New York Times reported late last month that some items had been removed from the site because of copyright concerns. The situation was awkward in that two of these, created by authors from Teachers Pay Teachers, had been featured on a promotional screenshot shared with journalists.
Esposito says this is hardly unexpected: “Any unmoderated online forum will have copyright issues. It’s part of the cost of doing business.”
Williamson goes further, noting that this may be a systemic problem for the service.
“A large proportion of the teacher-generated resources,” he says, “will have copyright issues around them. They’ll be taking photographs and images from the web. They’ll be taking images from films and books that are popular, to inspire their children, the kind of stuff that you use in the classroom on a day-to-day basis is not the kind of stuff you can put into a service like that.
“So it’s something that Amazon are going to have to look at very carefully, and it seems that they don’t have the mechanisms in place at the moment to do that.”