McGraw-Hill Education Strikes Far-Reaching Deal With Open Education Curriculum Provider

Managing Editor

This post has been updated

McGraw-Hill Education has reached a deal to build upon and sell a commercial version of a popular curriculum developed by an open educational resources provider, in a deal that marks a potentially major shift in open materials’ role in the K-12 marketplace.

The giant education company recently finalized a partnership with Illustrative Mathematics, an organization that has created an open middle grades math curriculum, with high school to come.

In a separate agreement, Illustrative Mathematics has also formed a partnership with a smaller publisher, Kendall Hunt, which will host a free, online version of IM’s middle and high school curriculum.

Kendall Hunt will also sell a print version and professional development tied to the curriculum.

Open educational resources are materials created on licenses that allow educators and the public to freely share and modify as they see fit.

Over the past decade, they have grown more popular among educators who see them as a way to pick and choose and assemble their own classroom resources, independent of big, all-in-one curriculum sold to districts by commercial publishers.

But some open educational resources are created on licenses that allow them to be adapted for commercial purposes, as long as attribution goes to the original authors. Advocates of that approach–though it also has its critics–say it creates a flow of revenue that open-resource publishers need to sustain and improve their products, and an alternative to rely on outside sources, such as philanthropy.

Illustrative Mathematics’ curriculum was created on a license – issued by the organization Creative Commons and known as CCBY – that allows for that commercialization.

OER to Get Big Distribution

Illustrative Mathematics CEO Lisa O’Masta said in an interview that the partnership with McGraw-Hill Education benefits both organizations.

It will give McGraw-Hill Education, a company with a history that traces back more than a century and one of most recognizable businesses in K-12 schools, a high-quality math curriculum that has already won the confidence of educators around the country.

And it will greatly increase Illustrative Mathematics’ ability to introduce its math content to new school districts, by tapping into McGraw-Hill Education’s vast sales and distribution network.

“Our goal is to create a world where users know, use, and enjoy mathematics,” O’Masta said in an interview. The partnership with McGraw-Hill Education hands her company “the broadest distribution as possible” for its curriculum.

McGraw-Hill Education, she added, “brings the footprint and the ability to reach districts we might not be able to reach otherwise.”

As part of the new partnership, McGraw-Hill Education and Kendall Hunt, will be “IM certified” providers of Illustrative Mathematics’ curriculum. That means each can only make enhancements to the original content if Illustrative Mathematics approves them and believes they met the curriculum’s goals, O’Masta said.

(Another curriculum provider, LearnZillion, had previously been recognized as an IM-certified provider.)

‘Risen to the Top’

McGraw-Hill Education, Kendall Hunt, and LearnZillion will all be offering middle-school versions of the IM curriculum, which was released in 2017. They will also be providing high school math materials this year for implementation in the fall. Elementary school curriculum is in the works, O’Masta said.

For K-12 users who don’t want to pay for a commercial version of the curriculum, free versions of the IM curriculum will still be available, O’Masta said. One free version will be Kendall Hunt’s digital documents, which users can also change as they see fit.

Users can also access a free version of IM’s middle school curriculum developed by another organization, Open Up Resources. Open Up Resources, not IM, owns the license to the middle school curriculum, so individuals and organizations that use those resources will have to attribute them to Open Up, O’Masta said. (IM holds the license for the high school materials.)

Rich Heater, the vice president of new ventures for McGraw-Hill Education, said the most appealing part of the new partnership is bringing Illustrative Mathematics’ curriculum into his company’s constellation of secondary math products.

McGraw-Hill Education officials have been admirers of the curriculum, which was developed by University of Arizona professor William McCallum, for years, said Heater. McCallum, one of the lead writers of the common-core standards, is president and chairman of IM’s board.

The origins of the curriculum as an open educational resource, and any appeal that might have for educators, was less of a factor than the opportunity to work cooperatively with Illustrative Mathematics’ team, said the McGraw-Hill Education official.

“It’s really about the curriculum itself,” Heater said. “It has risen to the top.”

At the same time, because an open, free version of the curriculum will continue to be available to educators, he said, “the onus is on us to really think about what is the value we’re adding.”

O’Masta had ties to McGraw-Hill Education, having served as a vice-president there earlier in her career.

Doug Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, LLC, said for-profit companies’ commitment to investing in maintaining, improving, and distributing open educational resources is “promising and important” and creates viable paths for financially sustaining those materials.

Yet whether those commercial arrangements end up broadening educators’ options for using OER, or limiting them, remains to be seen, he cautioned.

For-profit companies’ blessing of open resources marks a turnabout for many of those businesses, which have “heretofore been critical of the quality of OER,” Levin observed.

It’s encouraging, he said, that Illustrative Mathematics is licensing its brand and engagement as part of the new commercial deals–and vowing to keep a measure of quality control over its partners’ products.

What’s unclear is whether K-12 communities will still want to engage with Illustrative Mathematics’ free, original, non-commercial curriculum–so that they can alter and share it as they see fit, said Levin. Making sure that those non-commercial options remain viable to the K-12 community, he said, should be a priority for IM and other open providers, he said.

Educators “should not feel unduly locked into the new distributions, and they should be able to avail themselves of the ability to personalize, revise, remix, and republish,” argued Levin in an e-mail.

And it’s a good idea for advocates of open resources to continue to examine the nuances of commercial deals with a skeptical eye, he suggested.

“The history of openness in other contexts suggests that competitors to open do not always act in good faith even when it appears otherwise,” Levin said. “This takes many forms, but the adage ’embrace, extend, extinguish’ is instructive.”

Lisa Petrides, the CEO of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, said partnerships like Illustrative Mathematics’ are still very much in “experimental stages.”

The risk with commercial companies latching onto open content is that more and more material gets enclosed within proprietary systems, limiting its availability and leaving educators “empty-handed,” said Petrides.

Petrides, whose nonprofit organization has created libraries of open materials, questions how moving content into the commercial space will pay off for K-12 communities.

A lot of open content to date is produced by nonprofits working with philanthropic funding, she pointed out. The question is whether that work “ends up simply becoming the R&D for commercial publishers—which doesn’t seem right,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves, how do we feel about that? Who pays? Who benefits? And ultimately, does it get teaching and learning to a better place?”

O’Masta countered that the free and shareable versions of IM’s curriculum–not only Kendall Hunt’s, but others–would continue to thrive. The CCBY license will spark sharing and re-use, she said.

“It’s R and D for the world,” said O’Masta said. “That world includes teachers, schools, districts, nonprofits, and, yes, commercial providers.”

McGraw-Hill Education is still considering how it will enhance Illustrative Mathematics curriculum, said Heater. But he said the global publisher’s goal will be to fashion services and support for the curriculum that offer “differentiated, data-driven instruction.” That could be accomplished by creating links between the curriculum with McGraw-Hill Education’s proprietary learning and assessment platform ALEKS, and through other means, Heater said.

Kendall Hunt, an Iowa-based publisher with a heavy focus on STEM subjects, will be the only company that is IM-certified to distribute a free version of the curriculum. The digital version will be free.

The company will charge users for print versions of the curriculum, and for professional development.

Not a ‘Fad’

The opportunity to work with Illustrative Mathematics and take a big step into open educational resources was intriguing for Kendall Hunt, said Charley Cook, the company’s  vice president for K-12 education.

His organization is trying to “meet our customers where they are,” and many of it customers are exploring open resources, he said.

Working with a curriculum developed on an open license is a “dynamic opportunity,” Cook said. “We don’t think open educational resources are a fad. We think they will continue to become more popular.”

Illustrative Mathematics will share in the revenue that comes to both McGraw-Hill Education and Kendall Hunt, and that money will give IM the ability to keep improving its curriculum, O’Masta said.

Some backers of open educational resources are wary of commercial companies’ involvement with those materials. One worry is that for-profit companies will capitalize on the popularity of the OER brand among educators, and undermine the ability of educators to use them with few restrictions.

But O’Masta said that taken together, IM’s partnerships with McGraw-Hill Education, Kendall Hunt, and LearnZillion will “give districts a choice of user experiences,” with the curriculum, in print and digital, free and paid form.

“If the mission of OER is to get great materials to school districts, and organizations like McGraw-Hill represent [a large majority] of  where school materials are purchased, it would be irresponsible of us to just hold it back,” she said. “This is completely in line with the mission of OER–which is about the widespread distribution of great materials that can continue to evolve and be made better.”

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This post was updated with comments from Levin, Petrides, and O’Masta.


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