Amazon eyes up education, plans a free platform for learning materials

Back in 2013, Amazon acquired (and continued to operate) online math instruction company TenMarks to gain a foothold in the online education space. Now it looks like Amazon is taking those learnings to the next level. The e-commerce giant plans to launch a free platform for schools and other educators to upload, manage and share educational materials. Signs indicate that the platform will be based around open educational resources (OER) and will come with a ratings system and interface that will resemble the commercial many of us already know and use.

Earlier this month, Amazon Education quietly opened an “Amazon Education Wait List,” where educators could sign up to get an alert for when a new, free platform opens for business.

“The future of education is open,” the landing page for the wait list reads. “Someday soon, educators everywhere will have free and unlimited access to first-class course materials from a revolutionary platform. Get on the wait list to be notified when the platform is available for all schools and classrooms!”

The development comes at an interesting time, with companies like Apple and Google also sizing up how their own platforms and hardware can play a bigger role in education services (and where they might not). Amazon has made a point of noting that its OER platform will be free and unlimited, but it comes amid a wider education play that is more revenue focused.

The wait list may be linked to another project that Amazon has been quietly promoting called “Amazon Inspire”. The name looks like it was first made public by Amazon in February at the National Conference on Education of the AASA (the U.S. school superintendents’ association), and reported on by Education Week.

At the event, Andrew Joseph, who was the cofounder of TenMarks and is now VP of strategic relations for Amazon Education, described Inspire during a session entitled “Transitioning to OER.” He said the program was already being tested in a closed beta with select school districts and would soon be opening up to more users in the coming months.

Judging by the description, Inspire looks like it may be same service that is being offered by way of the wait list.

We’ve contacted Amazon for more details, but we have not had a reply. For now, what we know are the general points described by Joseph in his presentation:

The Inspire platform is in beta and will be released publicly in the next two to three months. It will include the ability to self-publish learning materials and give schools the ability to upload the entirety of their digital libraries. People will be able to use the interface to manage their own materials as well as use those uploaded by others, with users able to rate and review materials as they go along.

“We’ve made a commitment that we will never charge for this,” Joseph said in his presentation.

It’s not yet clear are how features like the free digital libraries will work in tandem with other Amazon Education products, some of which have a more commercial bent.

These include Whispercast to manage e-books, textbooks and apps (Whispercast coincidentally was given a big education-focused upgrade last year); AWS access; Kindle direct publishing for education; and “School Lists” and Amazon Business to buy supplies; and of course physical products like the Kindle e-reader and the Fire tablet.

But one answer might lie in the basic Amazon site itself.

Joseph, as his talk was reported by EdWeek, described a left pane where users can modify their searches, “much the way shoppers on Amazon today can choose categories to filter their searches.” As with, this would give the company essentially a framework — a dashboard of sorts — covering all of the other services that it offers to the educational community — from e-books to e-book readers.

You can see what might be a preview of the interface on the right side of the photo here:

It’s early days for Inspire, but there are some in the education community already questioning what Amazon’s financial incentives (and therefore long term efficacy) might be for offering an OER platform for free learning materials.

“Textbooks cost too much, and everyone knows it,” writes Audrey Watters (whose Tweet about the Amazon Education wait list is what first caught my attention). “But that inflated price tag is just one of the problems that OER purports to solve.” She notes ‘the ability to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute work’ as key aims. “It remains to be seen if Amazon Inspire will support these activities or if the ‘problem’ that Amazon really seeks to solve here is a stronger foothold in the education market.”

Indeed, Amazon itself is not yet answering this question publicly, either. “Amazon is a big commercial entity and we have to make this sustainable over time,” Joseph said in his presentation. “[But] this piece we have committed to making absolutely free forever.”

Whether this is free or not, the wider e-learning market is massive, and something that Amazon, a bookseller at its heart that already has students and teachers as customers, cannot ignore. One researcher estimates that by 2022, it will be worth $244 billion globally, up from $165 billion in 2014.