Big ‘Open’ Educational Resources Provider Joins Forces With Microsoft

Senior Editor

A leading provider of “open” educational resources has secured a potentially huge platform for reaching K-12 schools by striking a partnership with Microsoft to deliver its curriculum through the tech giant’s classroom products.

The nonprofit Open Up Resources will integrate its curriculum, which is created on an open license, into Microsoft’s Office 365 for Education, a classroom productivity suite that is available for free to schools. The deal was announced today.

Open educational resources are based on licenses that allow users to alter, repurpose and distribute those resources as the users see fit.

Open Up Resources—the developers of one such set of materials—has sought to battle commercial providers for contracts from K-12 districts.

The organization’s curriculum will be woven into the Microsoft apps OneNote and Forms, both of which are featured in 365. OneNote is a tool used for classroom collaboration, so teachers and students can take notes, make annotations, and work together. Forms allows for assessment and analytics through dashboards.

School users will be able to access OpenUp Resources through a customized version of 365 with the curriculum embedded, according to Microsoft.

Many K-12 districts and individual teachers have turned to open educational resources in recent years, saying the materials offer more flexibility than the instructional resources sold by traditional publishers. One of the main questions about open materials is whether they can be sustained and improved over time, given that they are offered for free, and are typically not supported by a stream of revenue.

Open Up Resources has sought to break through those barriers and compete with publishers head-to-head for K-12 district contracts. The nonprofit, which is led by Larry Singer, a former Pearson executive, offers its open curriculum for free, online. But it raises money by selling wrap-around services such as professional development and printed versions of its materials to districts. That revenue feeds the organization’s operations and the development of its academic materials.

Big Step Into Curriculum for Microsoft

While the announcement of the agreement between the two companies is being made this week, the curriculum integration with Microsoft is being marketed to schools over the summer for the coming academic year, said Mike Tholfsen, the principal product manager for Microsoft Education, in an interview.

Open Up Resources currently offers a middle school math curriculum. It also recently partnered with the organization EL Education to develop a grades K-5 English/language arts curriculum, which Open Up said will soon be available as an open educational resource. A high school math curriculum is set for release in 2019, and Open Up says it will release three more open educational curricula in English/language arts next year, too.

Both Open Up Resources’ math curriculum and EL Education’s curriculum have received strong ratings from EdReports, an independent organization that reviews the quality of instructional materials.

While Microsoft’s OneNote has been used to deliver curriculum and content previously, the arrangement with Open Up Resources is a very different venture and much larger in scale, said Tholfsen.

“We’re a platform, but we also care a lot about learning outcomes, which they also do. So we thought it was a great way for our two companies to work together,” Tholfsen explained. Microsoft is already working on integrating EL Education curriculum into its platform, too, he said.

The company sees the venture as “really powerful,” because it gives Microsoft’s users access to “really high-quality, standards-based curriculum.”

Some advocates of open educational resources worry that when commercial companies fold those materials into their proprietary platforms, it risks undermining the true openness of them—particularly if users are restricted in their ability to modify or share content as they see fit.

But Tholfsen said there would be “no limitation” on the Open Up Resources content offered through Microsoft 365. Teachers can already do curriculum manipulation through OneNote, and that will continue and expand through the new deal, he said. Teachers will be able to integrate the content on OneNote with many other learning management and student information systems. The platform can also be used on any device, he noted, and any web browser.

Microsoft’s view is, “if you don’t like this math lesson, go to town,” he said. “Make your own. Make it better.”

Sales and Engineering

Singer, the CEO of Open Up Resources, said the partnership has clear “mutual benefits” for his organization and Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash.-based giant will gain access to a high-quality curriculum that will add value to its platform for K-12 users around the country, he said.

Open Up Resources, for its part, will win by having its product touted by Microsoft’s vast sales force in schools around the country. To date, Open Up Resources tends to be marketed to curriculum and instruction administrators in K-12 systems, Singer said. Working with Microsoft opens doors for the curriculum provider to reach IT and digital leadership, too.

In addition, the curriculum organization will gain from having the curriculum delivered through an established, widely available, and free product in Microsoft 365, he said. That means “it doesn’t require districts to shell out money” to add it.

Open Up Resources is already benefitting from Microsoft’s technological capability, Singer added. The work that Microsoft’s team of engineers is doing to enhance Open Up Resources’ digital curricula is worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to his organization, he said.

By integrating with OneNote, Singer said, Open Up Resources will gain access to new online translation tools, assessments, analytics, and “personalization” of lessons for students.

“OneNote really demonstrates all that can be added (to curriculum) through a digital environment,” Singer said.

To accomplish everything that Open Up Resources wants with curriculum, “you need a high-quality digital environment. And now we have it.”

Will Schools See a Payoff?

The deal with Microsoft will presumably help Open Up Resources clear a number of barriers that vex many providers of open materials, said Doug Levin, the president of the consulting organization EdTech Strategies LLC.

One is that many of those resources are simply “hard to find,” partly because they don’t have the marketing behind them to get noticed and taken up by schools, he said. Another hurdle is that many open materials haven’t been integrated with digital platforms that can enhance them.

Open resources are competing in “a very tough sales and marketing environment,” in trying to widespread use in districts, Levin said, and in some cases it may be “increasingly difficult to not have a relationship with one of the big tech players.”

But Levin also had questions about how schools will benefit from the arrangement between Microsoft and Open Up Resources. It’s common for big tech companies to make sudden shifts in business strategy for their K-12 products, which can leave partners and users “high and dry,” he said. It’s difficult to predict whether any such shift could unsettle the work of Microsoft and Open Up Resources, he said.

Levin was one of the authors of the CARE Framework, an online document that makes a case for how organizations and individuals can be “good stewards” of open educational resources. One of its arguments is that open resource providers make sure any such material “can be released and used beyond the course and platform in which it was created or delivered.”

Along those lines, Levin questioned how easily the curriculum that teachers work on and revise through OneNote will be shared and improved in a “feedback loop”—including with teachers who may not be Microsoft users.

Another author of the CARE document, Lisa Petrides, the CEO of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, said there was potential to help teachers through the platform.

“Any distribution mechanism that will make OER available to more teachers and students is a good thing,” Petrides said.

But like Levin, she said the usefulness of an open curriculum through OneNote will hinge on the broad exchange of feedback and revisions among teachers over time – including teachers outside the platform, said Petrides, whose nonprofit organization is an open resources provider.

Open Up Resources officials say the new arrangement will promote broad collaboration of resources, both within OneNote and outside of it.

Teachers who make changes to the curriculum can easily share a “notebook” with their edits among other OneNote users, the organization said. They will do that by providing a OneNote link to the new notebook, which can also be edited, Open Up Resources officials say.

And for non-OneNote users, Microsoft is allowing teachers to export the content of notebooks in editable formats, such as Word, giving it to other teachers. Those teachers can make their own changes.

“Thus, teachers can easily share derivative versions as they wish,” Open Up Resources officials said in an e-mail.

Other Curriculum Could Be Added

The content that Open Up Resources is providing to Microsoft is not being given to the company exclusively, the open resources provider added. Because the content is provided on an open license, others can use it as they see fit. And Open Up says it has given its content to other entities, too.

But as part of the arrangement, Open Up Resources has devoted significant staff time in helping Microsoft integrate the curriculum into One Note. Open Up is also promoting OneNote to districts looking to use its curriculum. (It also supports integration of the curriculum into learning management systems, through Common Cartridge files.)

“We chose Microsoft as a partner very carefully, because of the benefits of the collaboration to schools,” the organization said, adding: “Open Up won’t have the impetus and/or resources to work with every platform in K–12. As other platforms look to distribute the content, we will continue to make careful partnership choices, so that we offer the best options to schools, and those most aligned with our mission.”

Tholfsen, of Microsoft, said that going forward it’s possible Microsoft could add other curriculum resources to the mix.

“There are no arrangements about only using their curriculum vs. anyone else,” he said in a follow-up e-mail. “The overall collaboration is fully open, both ways.”

The two organizations’ plans have the potential to greatly benefit K-12 communities by increasing access to open education resources – and by defusing criticism of those materials — said Cable Green, the director of open education at Creative Commons.

The arrangement will give educators access to open resources through a delivery platform, OneNote, that many districts already have access to, he said.
Microsoft’s use of a curriculum that has drawn strong reviews from EdReports is also important, argued Green, whose organization provides open licenses.

“OER has been around now for roughly 15 years, and for a long time people have criticized [that material by saying] because it’s free, it must be low quality,” Green said. But Open Up Resources’ has been given an imprimatur of quality, and Microsoft will reap the benefits of workig with what is regarded as a “top OER provider.”

This post has been updated with comments about the deal between Microsoft and Open Up Resources. Michele Molnar contributed to this report.

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