Open Ed. Resources Provider Cries Foul Over Attribution for Its Curriculum

Senior Editor

A well-known provider of open education resources is accusing other organizations of using its curriculum without clearly directing schools to its original source material, in a complaint that underscores tensions over the uses and commercialization of the class of free, shareable content.

Open Up Resources, a well-known provider of open materials, says that a group of nonprofit and for-profit curriculum-producers and publishers should make it clear that the openly licensed curriculum they’re using was created by Open Up Resources — and specifically that the material can be downloaded free at openupresources.org.

Open educational resources are materials created on licenses that typically allow them to be freely shared and altered by teachers and other users — and even commercial entities, under some conditions.

The restrictions on the use of open materials vary depending on the type of license. Open Up Resources released its materials on a Creative Commons license known as CC-BY, which allows anyone to share and transform it, even for profit, as long as there is attribution to the source and some other licensing terms are met.

In a statement posted on its website in which it raises its objections, Open Up Resources does not name the companies it believes have run afoul of its license. But one organization that has used Open Up Resources’ curriculum is Illustrative Mathematics, a nonprofit provider of math curriculum at various grade levels. Open Up Resources holds the license to the middle school curriculum used by Illustrative Mathematics. IM has struck a number of deals to provide curriculum and supports with commercial providers.

“While we encourage widespread distribution of our curriculum, we also believe that the attribution requirement of the CC-BY license must be followed by anyone sharing our curriculum or derivatives of our curriculum,” Open Up Resources said. “Major, for-profit publishers are taking our free curriculum, paying for ‘certification’ from a nonprofit in the OER community, and selling the result without making it clear no payment is necessary.”

At least two organizations that have relied on the original versions of Open Up Resources’ materials, Illustrative Mathematics and LearnZillion, says the criticism is off base, and that clear and proper credit it being given to Open Up already.

Direction to Download

Open Up Resources, a nonprofit that began as a 13-state coalition focused on improving curriculum, said it is urging users of those materials–whether print or digital–to look at resources offered by businesses offering versions of its curriculum. If the resources don’t specifically have at the bottom of every page wording that says, “Download for free at openupresources.org,” then other companies are not providing proper attribution, Open Up argues.

Illustrative Mathematics earlier this year forged a deal with one of the biggest companies in the K-12 industry, McGraw-Hill Education, which agreed to build upon and sell a commercial version of IM’s open materials. In a separate agreement, Illustrative Mathematics also formed a partnership with the publisher Kendall Hunt. Kendall Hunt said at the time they would host a free version of IM’s middle and high school curriculum, and sell a print version and professional development.

As part of its arrangements with McGraw-Hill Education and Kendall Hunt, Illustrative Mathematics designates them “IM certified” providers of IM’s curriculum. That means each can make enhancements to the original content only if Illustrative Mathematics approves them and believes they met the curriculum’s goals. Another curriculum provider, LearnZillion, had previously been recognized as an IM-certified provider.

Those deals reflect a shift in the open educational resources community over the past few years, in which organizations of various sizes have sought to commercialize content created on open licenses. One model has been for those organizations to make the original, open content freely accessible for school districts or individual users, but then charge districts and others for enhanced versions, professional development, wrap-around supports, printing, and other services.

Some backers of open educational materials like those revenue models. They say creating revenue streams from wrap-around services helps open resource providers  recoup costs and pay for and refine the materials, which would otherwise require philanthropic or charitable support.

Illustrative Mathematics CEO Lisa O’Masta said in an interview that her organization has received a cease-and-desist letter from Open Up Resources. She said her organization’s materials provide clear attribution to Open Up Resources, already, and she argued that adding the language about downloading materials would create confusion parents and district officials.

“There’s an element of, is that a reasonable request?” O’Masta said, adding: “If the goal is [to provide] attribution, that’s one thing. If the goal is to tell people where you go to seek help, that’s another. That could create confusion.”

The confusion, she said, would come because IM has taken the original curriculum licensed to Open Up Resources and created improved resources with alterations and additional features. The new elements include guidance for teachers on specific activities; support for students with special needs; embedded assessments; and other lessons. A parent, teacher, or other user who leaves Illustrative Mathematics’ classroom resources to download Open Up Resources’ content might get lost, because the content is significantly different, said O’Masta.

(IM has responded to Open Up Resources’ accusations in an online post published Wednesday.)

Ina statement, LearnZillion CEO and Co-founder Eric Westendorf said his organization is following the letter and spirit of open licensing rules.

“LearnZillion has always provided attribution to [Open Up Resources] as the copyright holder of the initial version of the materials,” Westendorf said. “We’ve done so within the guidelines laid out by Creative Commons. We’ve given reasonable attribution to OUR on every digital lesson and every digital page as well as on every one of our print products.”

Kendall Hunt and McGraw-Hill Education have not yet provided comment to EdWeek Market Brief.

Product Support

In an e-mail, Open Up Resources said it has sent cease-and-desist letters to a “group of publishers.” The organization said it hopes that companies it has notified will “come to the table to discuss a plan forward.”

Open Up Resources “takes its intellectual property seriously, especially material licensed CC-BY,” the organization said. That license is “critical to maintaining the promise of Open Educational Resources, and we will do what we can to protect that promise. We have every expectation that publishers in the community will comply with the CC-BY license and address any damage done up to this point once they hear from us.”

Not providing proper attribution to Open Up Resources is “particularly harmful” to the curriculum provider, it said, because it allows other entities to take materials that are created by the organization, and make those materials proprietary. In addition, Open Up Resources says it provides its own support services for its curriculum, including printed versions, PD, and implementation help. Its license, it says, requires that schools know that it provides those support.

“Otherwise, schools will not know the full range of service providers available to them, which is unfair,” Open Up Resources stated. “This is also unfair to OUR, which uses any revenues from support services to reinvest in the OER community and develop new high-quality materials for students and teachers.”

O’Masta said Illustrative Mathematics’ individual partners will have to make their own judgments about how respond to Open Up Resources’ concerns. But those individual companies offer different materials and services, and so their response to Open Up Resources may be different from each other, she said. Her organization supports giving Open Up Resources fair credit–but not if it detracts from parents’ and school districts’ experiences.

Referring to IM and Open Up Resources’, she added, “I would anticipate that two organizations with core missions to support students work this out.”

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