Ed-Tech Software Group Objects to Messages in Feds’ #GoOpen Campaign

Managing Editor

School districts across the country are experimenting with “open” educational resources–and they’re getting strong encouragement from the Obama administration.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts with the #GoOpen initiative continue to rile portions of the commercial education sector, which says the agency is misleading K-12 officials about the true costs of open resources, and about their merits and shortcomings, when compared with commercial products.

The Software and Information Industry Association, in a recent online post, said the campaign—which encourages states and districts to consider open options—wrongly suggests that open resources are invariably linked with districts’ shifts to adopting digital materials, whereas commercial materials are stuck in the print world.

“This will be news to many school districts that have been using commercially developed digital instructional materials for years,” writes Brendan Desetti, the SIIA’s director of education policy.

Federal officials, adds Desetti, imply that “only openly licensed education resources allow for easy maintenance and quick updates whenever learning standards are adjusted or new research is available.”

Backers of open education resources often define them as materials released under licenses that allow for their free use, repurposing, and modification as users see fit. (Supporters of OER also point out that for resources to meet this definition, it’s not enough that resources branded as “open” be free. They must specifically allow for re-use and re-mixing, with minimal restrictions imposed by their creators. The department’s online resources also make a distinction between “free” and “open.”)

The SIIA’s criticism is just one of those put forward by industry to the department’s promotion of open resources. The Association of American Publishers’ K-12 division has also raised concerns about a department proposal to encourage open content through its grant process. Some commercial entities, meanwhile, such as Amazon, Follett, and Microsoft, are taking part in the #GoOpen campaign by integrating their platforms into the Learning Registry, which the department describes as a “digital card catalog” of metadata about open resources.

Desetti, in an interview, pointed to a chart on the #GoOpen initial “launch packet” labeled “Open Versus Free Versus Proprietary Resources, which is originally sourced to the State Educational Technology Directors Association. He says it wrongly suggests that the best vehicle for providing digital content is open resources, and that it mistakenly equates commercial materials with print–when in fact commercial providers are aggressive players in the digital space:

#GoOpen reources

“We want the federal government to give a fair shake to everything that’s out there,” Desetti said in an interview.

But Joseph South, the director of the department’s office of educational technology, said in an interview that the agency’s #GoOpen campaign makes it clear that districts have a range of choices of academic materials—and that open resources are worthy of consideration.

Today, many school officials “simply don’t know about” open resources, South said. “They’re not even considering it when they make their choices.” By contrast, “proprietary providers are fairly adept at making schools aware of their offerings.”

In addition to offering a basic primer on open resources, the department’s #GoOpen site provides K-12 officials with information on steps they should consider if they’re making the leap to open. Those steps include making sure they have the digital infrastructure in place to make the resources work, setting up teams of district staff to lead the project, and creating realistic timelines for making the shift.

If a district abandons commercial materials for a portion of its curriculum, that process of identifying and curating open resources can be a big lift for K-12 systems. We’ve reported on the extensive amount of time and effort that district teachers have been forced to commit to reviewing open materials, when their K-12 systems chose to adopt them. But there was an upside: Teachers and administrators said they gained a much stronger understanding of the curriculum, and they were heavily invested in making sure it made sense for their classroom peers and students.

It’s up to districts to choose digital or print materials, and many will inevitably rely on a mix of both, South said. But one of the advantages of digital content is that teachers can “un-bundle” it —using individual lessons or resources as they see fit.

The department official agreed that adopting open resources can require teachers and other staff to devote much more time to content selection and curation than they otherwise might. “It definitely takes an investment,” he said. But he said a growing number of districts are finding ways to pay teachers for that work. Some of them are redirecting existing money spent on professional development to do so.

“I’m not saying that [the process] is free, but I’m saying that it can be done in a way that’s cost-neutral,” he said.

In fact, South contends, the process of curating open materials doesn’t represent a big departure from schools’ practices today. Many teachers already devote considerable time to reviewing commercial products purchased by their districts and picking and choosing what meets their classroom needs, he argued.

“I’ve not talked to any teacher who takes a textbook and follows it from the first to the last page,” South said. “They’re highly engaged in matching curriculum to their needs.”

We’ll be keeping an eye on how the K-12 market continues to evolve with the growth of open materials—and how providers operating under different business models and licenses adjust to shifting demands from school districts.

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2 thoughts on “Ed-Tech Software Group Objects to Messages in Feds’ #GoOpen Campaign

  1. This is an interesting issue to watch, as both sides are right in their own way. Currently, huge numbers of schools have no clue that open resources exist or how to take proper advantage of them. Unlike commercial materials that are supported by sales teams and robust marketing campaigns and visibility at trade shows, open resources are harder to find. As a result, it seems smart for the Department to make educators aware that open resources exist and are worthy of exploration. On the other hand, industry is correct that the monetary price of licensing a commercial resource is only a small part of its true cost, and that schools using open resources need to budget real time and money for professionals to do the important work of curation and alignment and validation. We should not oversell the benefits (or underestimate the costs) of open resources in order to encourage educators to explore them. They are worth exploring even given their costs. Because it likely does not make sense for each of 15,000+ purchasing institutions to each develop their own expertise in curating open resources, however, we expect organizations to emerge to help schools find, curate, and deliver standards-aligned content that includes a mix of commercial and open resources. One company that we really like in this emerging space is Fishtree. Jefferson Education selected Fishtree earlier this year precisely because we were impressed with their approach to incorporating open resources into an adaptive learning platform.

    Over the coming year we’ll be working closely with Fishtree to better understand how teachers and students interact with a curated mix of commercial and open resource digital materials. Disclosures – I have participated in numerous SIIA boards, working groups, and events, and we have an equity position in Fishtree.

  2. This is an important, and widely misunderstood issue. Too many think that “open” means free, which the article points out correctly that it is not necessarily the case. OER should definitely be part of a curriculum content strategy, but it should not be the entire strategy. The idea of individual districts curating all of their own content via OER for the entire scope of their curricula is not realistic. From my perspective, the #GoOpen Campaign presents a fairly balanced approach to the issue.

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