ACT Adds ‘Open’ Education Provider to Its Portfolio

Managing Editor

The major testing provider ACT Inc. has acquired a provider of open educational resources, in a move it says will ramp up its ability to direct academic resources to students whose assessment scores show they need help.

The prominent Iowa-based testing organization’s move is the latest sign of the burgeoning interest among education organizationsbe they commercial, or nonprofit, as ACT isin weaving open resources into their lineup of products.

OpenEd houses a variety of open resources, mostly educational videos, as well as games and homework assignments, and is specifically focused on aligning those resources to standards and student learning objectives. It uses assessments to gauge students’ specific needs and match them to content, and its platform is designed to rate resources on their effectiveness.

K-12 officials have shown a growing appetite for open materials. Critics, including some commercial content providers, cast doubt on the quality of open resources, and say that the process of curating them heaps a burden on educators.

Rich Patz, the CEO of the ACT Assessment Technologies Group, said taking OpenEd into the testing organization’s fold will allow ACT to channel open resources to students who are identified through assessments—mostly classroom-based assessments, “interim” assessments, and end-of-course tests—as struggling academically with academic content, and direct instructional resources tailored to their needs.

OpenEd will be owned by ACT, and, along with Pacific Metrics (an organization ACT acquired in 2014) will be part of the assessment group. Patz was previously chief measurement officer at ACT.

[UPDATE: An important note about defining what’s meant by “open” resources, and where OpenEd resides in that space.

One reader of this post, Douglas Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies LLC, questioned the extent to which it’s right to characterize OpenEd as a truly “open” ed provider, given the resources’ nature. OpenEd, as the company explained to Marketplace K-12, includes a mix of free resources that carry an open license–and other resources created by commercial providers or other content-producers that are also free, but available only for certain limitations, with copyright provisions.

OpenEd’s overall presentation of its content to the public ends up confounding “free-to-access (no-cost) with the freedom to share and modify,” Levin argued in an e-mail. While OpenEd’s service is “interesting and valuable” he said, their “treatment of the intellectual property of educational resources raises many questions.”

Open education resources typically must either 1) reside in the public domain, or 2) be created with a license that allows them to be freely remixed, reused, redistributed, and shared among the members of the public, Cable Green, the director of open education for Creative Commons, explained in an interview. It’s not uncommon these days for sites to have a mix of both truly “open” and restricted material, both for free, said Green, whose nonprofit issues open licenses.

OpenEd said it does not have an estimate of how much of its content was created under an “open” license such as those provided by Creative Commons, as opposed to those with copyright restrictions, the company told Marketplace K-12.

“[W]e have imported the vast majority of quality, K-12 Creative Commons licensed resources out there,” said Ron Drabkin, OpenEd’s vice president of marketing. He added, “we also work with many publishers and encourage them to make their free content Creative Commons-licensed wherever possible.”

The company has worked to label its resources as having Creative Commons licenses, when they have that designation, Drabkin said. Over the next month, OpenEd will be making its database searchable by type of Creative Commons license, he said.]

A number of organizations have sought to incorporate open materials into their portfolios, albeit for very different purposes.

Earlier this year, for instance, an Amazon official revealed that the online retailer is working on a new platform that will allow K-12 schools to upload, manage, and share school resources from a home page not unlike the online giant’s shopping site.

The acquisition is the ACT’s first that is directed at making open-ed resources available, Patz said in an interview.

“Navigating and finding [materials] that are of high quality is a challenge,” said Patz of OpenEd. “That’s what they bring to the space…It’s unlike anything we currently have at ACT.”

When assessments reveal weaknesses in student learning, ACT would be able to tap OpenEd’s materials to meet their needs, he said.

In a statement on the acquisition, Patz cast the move as part of ACT’s effort to “embrace a future in which our work extends beyond the measurement [of] learning outcomes and incorporates scientifically grounded practices that can improve teaching and learning on a daily basis.”

OpenEd, based in the Silicon Valley, does not create content, but instead houses open ed resources and aligns them to the Common Core State Standards and other specific learning goals, said Adam Blum, the company’s CEO.

The organization also gauges students’ learning by giving them quizzes that are “psychometrically sound,” Blum said. Over the years, his organization has been pulled “deeper and deeper” into its assessment work because of demands from K-12 clients, when in fact OpenEd’s primary work is as an “alignment and efficacy” company, Blum said.

OpenEd  takes in revenue not on the open resources it houses, which are freely available, but rather on the assessments to gauge students’ mastery of the open content, which is the “premium” cost, Blum explained. Some other providers of open content follow similar models, in which the content itself is free, but users pay for enhancements to meet more specific needs.

Working with ACT will allow OpenEd “to get to more students and keep focused on our strengths,” Blum said.

UPDATE (May 4): This post has been updated a discussion about the definition of open education resources. I have also clarified Blum’s description of OpenEd’s primary focus on “alignment and efficacy.”


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