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:
“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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