open education and policy

CC Talks With: Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, July 27th, 2011

Sir John Daniel has been working in open education from its earliest days. “Openness is in my genes,” he says. Sir John is President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, or COL. COL is an intergovernmental organization comprised of 54 member states. The overarching focus area for COL is “learning for development.” It aims to help its member nations—especially developing countries—use technology and develop new approaches to expand and approve learning at all levels. Sir John’s first interaction at COL happened over 20 years ago, when he chaired its planning committee. At that time, he was president of Canada’s Laurentian University. He went from there to lead the Open University in the UK, and then served as head of Education at UNESCO. Sir John’s colleague, Dr. Venkataraman Balaji, is Director of Technology and Knowledge Management, and led the efforts in crafting COL’s recent Open Educational Resources policy.

What were the primary motivations in developing an OER policy at COL? What hurdles (legal, social, cultural) did you have to overcome, both within the organization and among the member states?

We’re in the open business, so it made sense to communicate a formal open policy prominently on our website. It really wasn’t a problem, and there were few hurdles inside COL. We drafted the policy, it went through a few iterations within our staff, and then we adopted it. That said, we should be clear that we didn’t take this policy to the member states for review. We’re a small organization, and we do not have a general assembly of our membership. So, we didn’t have to wade through the politics of getting all the states to sign on. However, we didn’t develop the OER policy just pat ourselves on our back. We want to show the world that supporting open education is how we all should behave these days.

The work of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) is very important, but to the outside observer it is sometimes not apparent what IGOs do. What does COL do to “encourage and support governments and institutions to establish supportive policy frameworks to introduce practices relating to OER”?

If I may be so bold, I think your question reflects an American bias. The United States and other large, powerful countries tend to operate bilaterally. Smaller countries prefer the facilitative, collaborative approach of working via intergovernmental organizations. UNESCO is the extreme example, where 193 countries operate democratically, and everyone’s voice is at least in principle equal. When I worked at UNESCO, I was surprised how seriously the member states took the recommendations that were developed. They trust that sort of process more than directives that come at them bilaterally.

In general, the IGO process aims to get countries to work together to do things they cannot do separately. One example is a virtual university for small states within the Commonwealth. Since two-thirds of the 54 member states are nations with populations of 2 million or less, they have fewer resources to spend on content creation. You can imagine when the dot com boom came along the small states were worried how they could come to terms with all the potential benefits (and address the challenges) of this rapidly changing digital, networked world. So their ministers of education looked at the challenge and said, “if we can’t crack it individually, why not crack it collectively?” COL helped them start a ‘virtual university’, which is not a new institution but a collaborative network where countries and institutions can work together to produce course materials as OER that they can all adapt and use. This virtual university has developed curriculum in various areas, such as a diploma in sustainable agriculture for small states. You can imagine that agricultural practices in a place like the atolls of the Maldives are very different than agriculture in the volcanic islands of Dominica. However, developing a vanilla version of the curriculum and then allowing each region to tailor the resources to the specifics of their own agricultural ecosystem has proved much more efficient than each state starting from scratch. A condition of participating in the virtual university is that anything you create must be released as OER.

COL has chosen the CC BY-SA license for its own materials. Can you describe how the organization decided upon this license for its resources?

Well, our policy simply says COL will release its own materials under the most feasible open license, which includes the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. We understand why MIT OCW adopted a noncommercial license for its materials—they were the first to do it and didn’t know what was going to happen. But now, we encourage people to not use noncommercial if they can avoid it, and we follow our own recommendation. It wasn’t until Dr. Balaji arrived that we were able to sort through the legal and technical challenges that COL, as an intergovernmental organization, faced in adopting an open license.

Many of the COL member states are located in the global south. How does an OER policy affect global south states differently than the global north?

I’m exaggerating quite a bit here, but we’ve observed that in the north people are more focused on producing OER and that in the south people are more focused on how they can use OER. Just a few months ago I was at the Open Courseware Conference in Boston. Perhaps three-fourths of the presentations there focused on producing OER, while only a small number were about re-purposing and reusing OER content. This has to change for the OER movement to take off.

In the south, there’s a cautious attitude of “there’s lots of stuff available, why not use it?” We’ve been encouraging the north to take a more universal approach and think multidirectionally. This is why we’re delighted that a school like the University of Michigan is using OER from Malawi and Ghana in its medical programs. Why should the University of Michigan create OERs about tropical diseases when there are folks that live in the tropics that can do it better? So, we encourage people to see OER production and use as a multi-directional flow.

Can you discuss the goals and outcomes of the Taking OER beyond the OER community project, organized by COL and UNESCO. What’s next?

This project has a long history, and really goes back all the way to the origin of the term Open Educational Resources. But more recently, in 2009 UNESCO hosted a world conference on higher education. That event didn’t ruffle feathers in the north so much, but influenced thinking in the south. It reiterated the importance of open distance learning, ICTs, and particularly emphasized the global sharing of OER to expand quality higher education. COL picked up the work with UNESCO. We realized that unless there is a much wider appreciation of what OER is, it’s not going anywhere. And as the name of the project implies, our goal was to advocate to those outside of the already-established open education community. We held six face-to-face workshops in Africa and Asia. These were mainly aimed at university presidents, quality assurance groups, and those interested in open distance learning.

Last December we held a policy forum at UNESCO in Paris to pull these threads together. We decided there that it would be helpful to develop a set of OER guidelines targeted at key stakeholder groups. These included governments, higher education institutions, teacher and student groups, quality assurance agencies, and qualification bodies. We’ve been iterating on these guidelines since then, and they are now being distributed for wide consultation. In October of this year there will be another policy forum where the OER guidelines for higher education will be put into final form. We hope to unveil these recommendations at the UNESCO general conference in November alongside an OER platform UNESCO will also be launching at that time.

Over the winter, we wish to conduct a rather extensive survey of governments around the world to find out where they are on policies related to OER, open access, open formats, and other related topics. Surveying governments is not an easy task, especially when they don’t always understand the questions you are asking. But, if all goes well, those survey results will be pulled together, to the end of working toward an update to the Cape Town Open Education Declaration. There’s a desire for COL and UNESCO to mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of the term “Open Educational Resources” with a conference in June 2012 at which countries can sign an updated declaration.

What do you predict will be the impact of the COL OER policy, and what would you like to see come out of this? What can you recommend to other IGOs that are beginning to think about developing an open education policy?

My advice is to just do it and don’t get too fussed about the license at the beginning. We hope that our small organization, which seems to have an influence larger than its size, will be the grain of sand in the oyster for other IGOs. UNESCO is working to get on the right page; given their name it would seem peculiar if they are not more in the ‘open’ business. But I understand the problem with large organizations. When you look at UNESCO, you’ve got general assemblies with lots of people that don’t like things unless they’re invented there. For example, everyone in the world wants for there to be standardization in electrical sockets, as long as the standard that is adopted is the one they use. Those organizations interested in adopting an open policy should start small, and work their way through the problems as they go. If you try to make your entire back catalog available, you’ll be lost. Those big intergovernmental organizations should say, “from now on, we’re going to be as open as we can be.” An important thing is to adopt the philosophy of openness.

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CC Talks With: Pete Forsyth and the Wikimedia Public Policy Initiative: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, June 6th, 2011

Pete Forsyth lives and breathes wikis. He is owner and lead consultant at Wiki Strategies, and has extensive experience in working within online peer production communities, specifically the production of open educational resources (OER) using wiki-based web sites like Wikipedia. Forsyth was the Wikimedia Foundation’s first Public Outreach Officer and key architect of the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative, an innovative pilot project to support university faculty and students in the use of Wikipedia as a teaching and learning tool. With more than 17 million articles in over 270 languages, Wikipedia is the Wikimedia Foundation’s largest and most visible project.

Wikimedia Foundation Pete Forsyth
By Lane Hartwell CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wiki as a Vehicle for Self-learning

Forsyth became interested in wikis in Oregon, where he was an editor and community organizer for Wikipedia. While he had long been interested in Open Source Software, he didn’t know how to code. “Wikipedia was a natural entry point for me,” he says, “because you don’t have to be a computer programmer to contribute.”

Forsyth spent five years creating and revising Oregon-related content on Wikipedia, and during this time a group of similarly-minded people came together to form a wiki project in the Portland area. “Portland is home of the wiki,” notes Forsyth, referring to its invention in 1994 by Ward Cunningham.

The participants in the Oregon wiki project helped each other navigate their way around Wikipedia, mastered the art of good reference, and pieced together a better sense of the history of the state. Being in that group allowed Forsyth to explore intellectual pursuits he might not have explored if Wikipedia wasn’t there as a vehicle to nurture them. “The process was in its own way every bit as educational as the college degree I earned,” he said.

The Public Policy Initiative: Open Content, Open Practices

The Public Policy Initiative (PPI) is designed to engage professors in public policy programs at universities across the U.S. to work with their students and the Wikimedia community to improve articles on the English-language Wikipedia as part of their course curriculum. Forsyth notes that the PPI aligns with a set of Wikimedia’s long term goals: it cultivates more Wikipedians, champions subject matter experts, and works toward improving the diversity of its contributor base. He says that the public policy arena has been an exemplary pilot initiative because it is such an interdisciplinary field. “Public policy cuts across so many areas, such as law, economics, and philosophy,” says Forsyth, “and keeping this project open to people with different kinds of backgrounds was an important design consideration.”

The characterization of Wikipedia as an open educational resource platform is at once completely obvious and also a departure from many of the traditional OER delivery mechanisms. While Forsyth agrees that Wikipedia is as valuable an open educational resource as any encyclopedia, he thinks that open educational practices (OEP) is where the value of the Public Policy Initiative really shines. He believes that the really transformative outcome enabled by the technical and legal innovation of wikis and open licensing is the process of being able to collaborate with a broad group of people quickly and seamlessly. “By participating in that kind of community,” says Forsyth, “the student is learning skills from the process itself, rather than extracting information from a particular resource.”

Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia sites represent the largest collection of CC licensed works on the web. Forsyth believes that a project like the PPI–and Wikipedia itself–couldn’t exist without easy-to-understand open licensing. “Users clarifying their intent to work openly is the most important thing,” he says. “The existence of Creative Commons opens up a new avenue for individuals and organizations to do things in the public interest.”

Forsyth thinks that Creative Commons should attempt to provide more clarity about the consequences to using different CC licenses. “I’m not excited about the noncommercial condition,” he admits. “It all boils down to clarity, and attaching a noncommercial condition onto content immediately creates exceptions to that clarity.” He notes that many people new to open licensing are initially drawn to the more restrictive licenses, but don’t realize until later that the content they are licensing is incompatible with Wikipedia or other projects they’d like to engage with.

Public Policy Initiative Ambassadors

In addition to partnering with interested faculty, the Public Policy Initiative involves members of both the university (via campus ambassadors) and the Wikimedia community (via online ambassadors) to provide assistance and guidance. Bonnie Mccallum volunteers as a campus ambassador for a participating class at Montana State University, where she is a web services technician at the University Library. Mccallum, who had no previous experience in creating or editing Wikipedia articles, teamed up with Mike Cline, a seasoned Wikipedian, to assist Professor Kristin Ruppel in her course on Federal Indian Law and Policy. While Mccallum and Cline worked as on-site campus ambassadors, various distributed online ambassadors helped mentor students on the ins and outs of editing Wikipedia.

WikiP-MSU-Boz-1-v2
By McMormor (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

“There was relatively little available on Wikipedia about the content taught in the course,” said Mccallum. Professor Ruppel had the graduate students create a new article around the general topic of the course, stepping through the process of publishing and defending their articles on Wikipedia. The undergraduate students were responsible for editing articles that were already on Wikipedia. One example of an article worked on by the students is the Native American Languages Act of 1990.

Mccallum notes that Professor Ruppel believes participation in the PPI is a more worthwhile writing exercise for her students than cranking out a term paper. Ruppel feels that her students had to learn how to collaborate and communicate in a neutral voice, and learn how to monitor issues and discuss changes with other editors. Mccallum said she’ll be continuing work with the PPI next year, and was excited that there were so many women participating in the project. There are a few things that she’d like to change for next year. She notes that some of the students got hung up on the technical issues around editing wikis, so they’ll be structuring that course module differently next time around.

Mccallum proudly recounts a story passed on by one of the older students in the course, who has a child in middle school. The child’s teacher discouraged her students from using Wikipedia at all. However, after the boy had gone back to the teacher and showed her how his mom was using and contributing to Wikipedia in her graduate school course at MSU, the teacher softened her position. According to Mccallum, those ‘it might not be so bad after all’ moments seem to become more common as teachers learn about the varied uses for teaching via Wikipedia.

Public Policy Initiative as a Bridge

Sometimes open source projects find it difficult to break into the mainstream, especially within the traditional higher education space. Forsyth says that one reason why the PPI has been initially successful in getting buy-in from faculty is because they tailored the project to the existing goals of the educators. He says that working with existing incentive systems as much as possible and providing support to faculty is an important baseline to making the project successful. Also bubbling around recently is the idea that a condition of tenure might be participating in an online community or contributing to a collaborative project like Wikipedia, in addition to the traditional publishing venues. “It will be a gradual shift,” says Forsyth, “but the reality today is that both teachers and students need to possess the cultural fluency and information literacy skills to engage online.” He thinks that these traits will come to represent a set of important skills that students will need to master in any field. “I believe that in time, tenure processes will come to reflect that.”

The Future

Forsyth thinks the Public Policy Initiative is well on its way. “Professors are the experts in educating their students, and with a little nudge and some support, they can do great things with a tool like Wikipedia,” he says. So far, the PPI has turned out to be an enlightening exercise and productive process. As it’s seed funding winds down this September, the Public Policy Initiative will continue to transition from a staff-led to a volunteer-led project. The PPI aims to expand its reach of the Ambassador program to work with faculty and students in other countries, languages, and topic areas.

Forsyth is continuing his involvement in leveraging wikis within the education space, working to start the Center for Open Learning and Teaching (COLT), to be hosted at the University of Mississippi. The center will support the study and implementation of effective and open Internet-based learning practices in formal education. “As institutions of learning are engaging with concept of OER and online learning communities, they’re going to want to figure out how to update their practices, reap the efficiency benefits of ‘open,’ and stay relevant as education evolves,” says Forsyth. He notes that the goals of COLT include 1) setting up a cohort-based research network investigating open, online collaboration in education; and 2) establishing a teaching and learning center that would partially fund faculty salaries to explore OER and open collaborative practices in their classrooms and share what they’ve learned.

Forsyth believes that teaching and learning has very suddenly changed in only a few years. “The education system used to exist in a world in which information was scarce and access to information was hard to come by,” he says. “Now, learning something about any topic is easy, and universities no longer have a monopoly on how we educate ourselves.” Forsyth thinks that libraries, museums, governments, and news outlets still provide great value, but they’re gradually waking up to the idea that they now have to compete. He thinks that these changes should be viewed as an exciting opportunity, not something to be disregarded because they challenge the status quo. “We need universities to embrace the changing landscape, not erect walls trying to protect the role they’re used to playing.”

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CC Talks With: Paul Stacey from BCcampus: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, March 28th, 2011


Paul Stacey by BCcampus / CC BY

Paul Stacey is the Director of Communications, Stakeholder and Academic Relations at BCcampus. Headquartered in Vancouver, BCcampus provides services in support of educational technology and online learning to British Columbia’s 25 public colleges and universities, their students, faculty and administrators. The BC Ministry of Advanced Education provides funding for curriculum development. In 2003 they shifted funds to support a new thematic direction—online learning. Through this shift in priorities, BCcampus saw the opportunity to connect to the rising open education space, seeing interesting examples of other OER projects like MIT OpenCourseware and Connexions. Paul supports the strategic development of for-credit online curricula, in the form of OER, via partnerships among BC’s public post secondary institutions. He also helps coordinate a range of open online communities that support academic growth and faculty development in BC and beyond.

Foundation-funded vs. publicly-funded OER

Last year, Paul presented a paper called Foundation Funded OER vs. Tax Payer Funded OER–A Tale of Two Mandates at the Open Ed Conference in Barcelona. In that presentation he compared the goals and attributes of foundation-funded and publicly-funded OER projects. Private philanthropic foundations have provided the largest investments in OER over the last 10 years, but there are increasing examples of taxpayer-funded OER policies. Stacey observes that foundation and public sector goals are similar in wanting to expand access to education, but the means by which they do this differs. “The foundation’s primary responsibility is to the founder, while a government ministry’s primary responsibility is to its tax-paying citizens,” says Paul. While foundations often have global and humanitarian mandates and goals, government ministries, on the other hand, tend to be more geographically local to a specific nation, province, or state. They focus on providing a public service that benefits all citizens of that region rather than the entire world. “Public sector support for OER often has economic efficiency goals more than humanitarian ones,” says Paul. With public sector funding so tight, government bodies want to leverage its money in the most effective ways possible, and provide access to education to as many members of its public as possible. The ongoing question for OER is, can it do both?

Paul notes other differences between foundation-funded and publicly-funded OER. Foundation grants have primarily gone to single prestigious institutions and have been used for publishing existing lectures, course notes, and learning activities associated with campus-based classroom activity. Foundation grants have a defined start and end date and are generally not provided for ongoing operations. Government Ministries have primarily invested in OER for formal credit-based academic purposes that fulfill the education access, societal, and labor market needs of their region. Government grants are given, not to single prestigious institutions, but to collaborative partnerships of schools and institutions in their jurisdiction, often for development of new curricula intended for online delivery. Government Ministries oftentimes concern themselves with both start-up and ongoing operations funding.

A spectrum of licenses: To choose or not to choose?

Paul has constructed an interesting chart that plots various OER projects with their associated licensing terms.

Stacey notes that foundation-funded OER projects generally require a single Creative Commons license (usually CC BY or CC BY-NC-SA). But, for publicly-funded OER, there are usually more license options available. One recommendation Paul makes is for OER projects to offer a range of licensing options along the “open” continuum. “Multiple options provide greater buy-in and lower the threshold for OER participation,” suggests Paul. He concedes that there are downsides to permitting individual projects to choose their own license: a variety of licenses make remixing and adapting OER more complex, and can create interoperability issues and siloed content. While he’s noticed that no OER project places content into the public domain, Paul thinks that this approach could be tested.

BC Commons and suggestions for Creative Commons

Stacey says that Creative Commons has played a central role in making OER possible in the first place. The current licensing solution used by BCcampus intuitions, BC Commons, is modeled on Creative Commons. The BC Commons license is different than CC licenses. Where the Creative Commons licenses are applicable worldwide, the BC Commons license is applied to content for use and sharing between institutions, faculty and students affiliated with the BC public post-secondary system. BCcampus adopted the BC Commons license to support educators gradual entry into the waters of openness. “If you say to a faculty member that you want them to share their resources with everyone, they worry that they might lose control of the integrity of the resources they create,” says Paul. “Even with the BC Commons license, these concerns do not go away entirely, but fears are mitigated because the sharing is contained within the province.” Stacey thinks that the more convincing reason for rallying around the BC Commons license is the local collaboration generated by its use. “When you create a license that supports local sharing, it creates a local commons,” says Paul. The local ties among educators are oftentimes much stronger than ties outside of the community. And, BCcampus actively cultivates partnerships to encourage multiple institutions to work together on developing content—“we collectively develop and collectively reuse the resources,” says Paul.

Paul offered several recommendations for Creative Commons:

  • Develop a tracking piece of code embedded in each CC license that reports back to the OER creator on reuse. We know from social media that seeing use is a motivator for doing more.
  • Encourage CC licensing choice along the open continuum and make it simple for people to start with one license and then transition or migrate a resource to more open licenses along the continuum as they get comfortable with sharing.
  • Work with those trying to create regional versions of CC licenses, (like we’ve done in BC with the BC Commons license), to craft the regional license to be as similar to CC as possible. In our experience its been crucial to complement global sharing choices with local regional ones.
  • Refine the decisions associated with CC license choices. Attribution, commercial/non-commercial, derivatives, and share alike go a long way but could be complemented with other decision-making points specific to OER.
  • Consider adding metadata fields to the CC license to allow the creator to add additional information about the resource including their interest in collaborating with others on improving and modifying it.
  • Work with national, state and other public sector institutions and organizations to incorporate Creative Commons license options into education policy that governs IP and copyright so that educators have CC choices built into their agreements.
  • Continue work with software companies that develop applications used to create and deliver educational resources to incorporate CC licenses as default options within the application.

Future of OER

Stacey speculates that while government Ministries have yet to be convinced that making all their publicly funded educational resources open to the world is in the best interests of its citizens, he predicts that this will eventually prove to be the case. “Foundations and public sector entities will work together to define the OER value proposition in a way that meets both sets of mandates and goals and is mutually beneficial regionally and globally,” says Paul.

Paul thinks that both foundation and public sector funding will increasingly look to achieve a formal learning outcome where credit is associated with OER,” he says. OER will be help spur other changes in our education system too, and continue to affect the dynamics of the teaching/learning environment. Stacey predicts: “Student-to-student and network-based learning will generate global OER education networks that will eventually prove to provide a better education than is currently available through existing traditional education providers.” Stacey reinforces the need to include students in the OER creation process, as they are the primary beneficiaries of open learning materials. “We’ve tended to see students as consumers of OER,” says Paul, “but I believe students will ultimately produce more OER than educators.” He predicts that someday students will get credit for producing course content OER. But, the demand for well-trained and credentialed educators isn’t going away. The role of a teacher will continue to evolve. Lecturing is out. Facilitating, mentoring, connecting students together in ways most productive for their learning is in. And critically important is the need for professionals to take on the role of assembling OER into sensible curriculum, and delivering it in a way that allows for ongoing assessment to take place.

Stacey believes there’s no one-size-fits-all vision for the future of OER. Open education can be transformative in a variety of ways, and it should be able to fit alongside more traditional environments too. He thinks it’s exciting to imagine the various possibilities, and has described one vision for how this might look as the University of Open. He also points to the work Wayne Mackintosh is leading around an OER University. Paul thinks that a quality education is a shared aspiration for everyone around the world. “We’re seeing OER change education from something defined by scarcity to something based on an idea of plenty,” he says. “OER, together with the ability to form global learning networks, makes education for all an attainable goal.”

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CC Talks With: The Right to Research Coalition’s Nick Shockey: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, January 20th, 2011

Nick Shockey is the Director of the Right to Research Coalition (R2RC) and the Director of Student Advocacy at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).  The R2RC is an international alliance of 31 graduate and undergraduate student organizations, representing nearly 7 million students, that promotes an open scholarly publishing system based on the belief that no student should be denied access to the research they need for their education because their institution cannot afford the often high cost of scholarly journals. We spoke to Nick about similarities in the open access and open educational resources movements, the worldwide student movement in support of access to scholarly research, and the benefits of adopting Creative Commons tools for open access literature.

Nick Shockey
Nick Shockey by Right To Research Coalition / CC BY

“It all started in a hotel room in Paris,” explains Shockey, who while studying abroad at Oxford and on a brief trip to France happened to catch a CNN special about MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) program. Nick was immediately impressed by the idea of OCW, and upon his return to Trinity University campaigned to get his school to implement a similar program. For a number of reasons, OCW didn’t catch on at Trinity, but the experience Shockey gained in advocating for it provided him with two crucial pieces that led to his work at SPARC: a deep interest in opening up the tools of education, and an introduction to Diane Graves, Trinity’s University Librarian and then SPARC Steering Committee member. Shockey began advocating for open access to research at Trinity, and convinced the student government to pass a resolution supporting the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), as well as a later resolution endorsing the Student Statement on the Right to Research. The statement calls for students, researchers, universities, and research funders to make academic research openly available to all. These principles formed the foundation for what was to become the Right to Research Coalition.

Growth of R2RC

In the summer after Shockey moved to Washington D.C., he was able to add new signatories to the Student Statement on the Right to Research, including the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) and the National Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students. It soon became clear that a larger impact could be made by organizing as a coalition that actively advocated for and educated students about open access, and Nick joined SPARC full time to lead the Right to Research Coalition.

R2RC has grown to include 31 member organizations and now represents nearly 7 million students worldwide. “The incredible diversity of our membership speaks to how important access to research is to students,” says Shockey. R2RC’s members range in size from groups with less than a hundred students to organizations with more than a million. But Nick notes that all the member groups have two things in common: they believe students should have the benefit of the full scholarly record (not just the fraction they or their institution can afford), and they recognize that the Internet has made unfettered access possible by driving down the marginal cost to distribute knowledge virtually to zero.

Federal open access advocacy

SPARC and the Right to Research Coalition have been supportive of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), a law which would require 11 U.S. government agencies with annual output research expenditures over $100 million to make manuscripts of journal articles stemming from research funded by that agency publicly available via the Internet. While FRPAA didn’t pass in 2010, Shockey’s very happy with the remarkable progress made, which culminated last year in the Congressional hearing on the issue of public access to federally funded research. Shockey, colleague Julia Mortyakova, and R2RC members have been advocating in support of FRPAA in various ways, such as letter-writing campaigns and in-person office visits. Shockey estimates his membership has reached out to well over two hundred Congressional offices.

Student support for OA around the world

Shockey describes that the current situation of limited access to academic research is a widespread problem that affects students all around the world. But, he explains that the real difference isn’t between the United States and the rest of the world, but between the developed and the developing world. “Paying $30 for access to one article is expensive even for many researchers in the U.S.,” says Nick, “but when you realize that $30 is an entire average month’s wage in Malawi, you can see the huge disparities in access faced by huge swaths of people around the world.”

At the end of last summer, R2RC began a concerted effort to expand their coalition to incorporate international student groups, and launched their Access Around the World blog series to feature stories and activities from students across the globe. In fall 2010, Shockey pitched the importance for student access to scholarly research to the European Medical Students’ Association’s General Assembly in Athens and the European Students’ Conference in Berlin. “The students understood the issue right away and have gotten involved immediately,” says Nick. The President of the European Medical Students’ Association has already made a presentation on Open Access and the R2RC at a major international medical conference, and just this month, the coalition welcomed the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA), the world’s largest medical student organization, which operates in 97 countries around the world.

Access is crippled by cost; OA enables novel downstream benefits

The high cost to users to access academic journals and educational materials is a criticism shared by advocates of open access (OA) and open educational resources (OER). Scholarly journal prices have increased at 200% the level of inflation, similar to that of college textbook prices. Shockey believes that the that the greatest value of open access is to help knock down the prohibitive barriers that high prices pose to individual users. “A singe U.S. university we studied spent about $900,000 for only 96 journal subscriptions–and that was at a well-funded school,” says Shockey. “At less wealthy institutions, or those in the developing world, the price barriers often prove insurmountable. Students and researchers must make do with what their school can afford rather than what they need.”

Nick explains that through open access, the entire scholarly record could be available for anyone to read and build upon, leading to innumerable public benefits.  But he’s most excited by the uses of open access scholarship we can’t even think of at the moment. “Lawrence Lessig points out that the real ‘secret sauce’ of the Internet is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to innovate on it,” says Shockey, “and I believe open access will finally bring this ability to academic research.” Nick describes a world of open access in which researchers will not only be able to read any article, but also be permitted to perform semantic text mining to uncover trends no one person could discover and connect together. But for this promise to be fulfilled, he reinforces that researchers need access to the entire scholarly record, not just a selected subset, and the rights necessary to reuse these articles in new and interesting ways.

Open access and Creative Commons

Shockey explained that Creative Commons plays a crucial role within the OA movement by providing a standard suite of prepackaged open content licenses. “To make an obvious point,” he said, “very few researchers are also copyright lawyers, and the CC licenses make it simple for scholars and journals to make their articles openly available. CC also helps prevents a patchwork system where it’s unclear which uses are allowed and which are not.”  Nick notes that this sort of ambiguity can be very harmful–particularly to reuse of content, so it’s important that the open access community leverages CC to ensure access and communicate rights.

Shockey says that the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license has become the gold standard for open access journals. In general, scholars want recognition for their work, and the CC BY license ensures attribution to the author while allowing anyone to read, download, copy, print, distribute, and reuse their work without restriction. Shockey notes that several studies have shown a strong increase in article views and citations when an article is made openly available. “This makes intuitive sense,” Nick says. “If an article is available for more people to read and build upon, it’s unsurprising that it will also tend to be cited more often. Given the importance of citation counts in academic advancement, the citation increase can be an important benefit that flows from open licensing.”

OA support via the university

Open access (and increasingly, OER) initiatives at universities have been promoted in part through the university library. For example, at some schools librarians help educate faculty and students about the options available to them for scholarly publishing, including administering the Scholar’s Copyright Addendum. Shockey thinks that the library is a natural central organizing venue for OA and OER work, and meshes well with the library’s fundamental mission to provide their community with access to the educational resources they need.  Nick also noted that libraries are perfectly positioned to play an OA/OER organizing role because they are one of the only institutions that reaches every department and every member of the campus community. Shockey said that some libraries have already taken the lead by supporting initiatives such as the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE), which sets aside money to pay for the publication fees that some open access journals charge, in order to help transition to an open model.

OA and OER working together

Open access advocates argue that access to scholarly literature should not be limited to scientists and academics, but available to patients, parents, students at all levels, entrepreneurs, and others. Shockey believes that since the OA and OER movements are both working to enable free access to the tools of education, it’s important to explore the ways in which these movements can work together. Even though the R2RC is centered on open access, it’s begun to weave OER into its messaging alongside open data and open science. Nick thinks it’s important for R2RC members to see the larger network in which they work. “When we hit roadblocks in one area,” said Shockey, “there are often opportunities in others, and advancing one of these pieces (be it OA, OER, open data, open video, etc) opens the door for further progress in other areas. Furthermore, once you’ve convinced someone about one of these issues, be it a friend, colleague, or the U.S. Congress, it’s much easier to engage them on the others.”

Shockey is optimistic with regard to the future of the student open access movement, but stresses the need to move ahead with the clear vision that advancements in education, science, and scholarship require access to raw research materials. “We must always remember what it is we’re fighting for,” said Shockey, “academic research is the raw material upon which not only education but also scientific and scholarly advancement depend. When we allow these crucial resources to be locked away, it hinders the entire mission of the Academy – student learning suffers, scholarly research is impeded, and scientific discoveries are slowed.” Nick says that widespread open access promises to benefit science and scholarship in radical ways that are almost unimaginable today. “Open access will improve how we teach, learn, and solve problems in ways that are impossible within a closed system.”

While there are many ways to get involved with the Open Access movement, Shockey stressed that the most important was simply to learn about this issue of access to research and start conversations with friends, colleagues, mentors, and students to raise awareness.  The R2RC website has an individual version of their Student Statement on the Right to Research open for anyone to sign, as well as a host of other education and advocacy resources for those interested in Open Access.

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CC Talks With: Jeff Mao and Bob McIntire from the Maine Department of Education: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, December 8th, 2010

Maine has been a leader in adopting educational technology in support of its students. In 2002, through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), the state began providing laptops to all students in grades 7-8 in a one-to-one laptop program. In 2009, Maine expanded the project to high school students. The one-to-one laptops paved the way for open education initiatives like Vital Signs, empowering students to conduct their own field research in collaboration with local scientists, and make that research available online. Recently, Maine has been engaged in some interesting and innovative projects around OER as a result of federal grant funds. For this installment of our series on open education and policy, we spoke with Jeff Mao and Bob McIntire from the Maine Department of Education. Jeff is Learning Technology Policy Director at MLTI, and Bob works for the Department’s Adult & Community Education team.

One part of the $700 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was dedicated to creating technology-rich classrooms. This funding was distributed through the existing No Child Left Behind Title IID program. With their one-to-one student laptop program, Maine was already ahead of the game with regard to technology in the classroom, so they decided to focus the ARRA funding on OER projects. “We wanted to create something that had a longer shelf life,” said Bob. Maine’s grants were broken into two initiatives: research to identify and annotate high quality OERs, and the creation of professional development models using OER.

Curate metadata, don’t stockpile resources

Maine is a “non-adoption” state, which means that teachers at the local level determine the educational resources they wish to use in their classrooms. Most other states adopt educational materials at the state level. For instance, for a class like 9th grade world history, states will approve multiple textbook titles from multiple publishers, and schools will be able to choose from among the state approved list. Since it’s up to local teachers to determine which educational resources are good for their teaching, part of the Maine OER grants is devoted to researching the rough process that teachers step through when evaluating content. MLTI has been working on a type of educational registry. This registry will be a website that can house the metadata teachers collect around the resources they wish to use. This website–still in development–will help teachers to be able to find, catalog, categorize, and add other informative data to quality resources. Perhaps as important, it will allow teachers to share with others what they did with the content, whether the material worked (or bombed), and other sorts of useful descriptive information. Right now the team is using the social bookmarking service delicious to add metadata to high quality OERs that they find online. This project is coordinated by the Maine Support Network, a professional development and technical assistance provider, and all the resources are linked through one delicious site at http://www.delicious.com/syntiromsn.

Weaning teachers off of printed textbooks

Jeff talked about a way to restructure the traditional textbook adoption cycle that would result with an end product of 100% OER. Currently, the Maine textbook adoption process goes something like this: After six years of using the same textbook, teachers realize their turn is coming up to place an order for a new textbook. In the springtime, they call publishers and ask for demo copies of new books to potentially be used the following fall. Teachers peruse the books sent to them, and settle for the one that is the least flawed. Teachers use the book for five and half years, after which the process repeats itself. Jeff hopes this inefficient process can be changed. He suggests that rather than waiting until the final year to seek out new, pre-packaged educational materials, why not spend the interim years seeking out individual learning objects to replace every piece of their static textbooks?

Such a process could work to improve some of the content that teachers don’t like (and don’t use) in their traditional textbooks. And, through this iterative, piecemeal process, they can share their illustrative discoveries (and dead ends too) with other teachers. The Department itself could pitch in providing the tools, software, and other infrastructure to help teachers keep track of which resources have been reviewed, replaced, or modified. Jeff thinks that enabling teachers to operate in a constant revision mode is a better way to structure the acquisition of teaching and learning materials, rather than reviewing textbooks only once every five or six years.

As most open educational resources are digital, Jeff said there’s an increasing need to be able to deal with strictly digital materials. Digital materials can be leveraged better because Maine students and teachers already have the laptops to access and manipulate the content (which can’t be done with physical books), digital materials can help integrate other best-of types of technology and interactive pedagogy into their lessons, and digital materials helps set up the conditions to support embedded assessment mechanisms.

Share your process as OER; everything is miscellaneous

Maine hopes its work on OER can be used by other states and communities, considering the research and resources will be produced using federal dollars. They will publish their process and offer the resources they create as OER itself online. Jeff said, “the more we can demonstrate this process is effective, the better it speaks to the efficacy of OER.” And, publishing information about resources and processes should be something natural to share. “If a teacher expends six hours finding a great OER for teaching students polynomials,” said Jeff, “it just needs to be done once.” But at the same time, with the diversity of resources available online–and with clear rights statements through the use of Creative Commons–variations on the sets of resources can be nearly infinite. Teachers can have their own educational “iMixes,” just as iTunes users create playlists of their favorite music.

The future classroom

As Maine continues its work on OER research and professional development, Jeff and Bob offer a vision of a classroom where students gather in small groups, talking, exploring and building projects and investigating ideas together. There is no lecturing, and open educational resources integrate with classroom instruction seamlessly. As most kids are naturally inclined to try to find information online, teachers can guide students in using high quality, adaptable OER. Jeff also suggests that we should be investing time and effort into more direct support for students, building or extending the tools being built for teachers, and proactively including students in the resource evaluation and review process.

The success of Maine and others’ OER projects is not assured. Dwindling budgets will remain an ongoing challenge, and while there’s been some recognition of OER in policy initiatives such as the National Education Technology Plan, Jeff and Bob question whether current budget woes will derail national and state efforts for change. Teachers are increasingly overburdened, and the development and support for a hands-on process like Maine’s requires ongoing teacher participation, feedback, and practice.

In the long run, Jeff thinks that OER will challenge the educational content industry in much the same way that the music industry was challenged by–and eventually succumbed to–Apple’s “buy-whatever-you-want” model of music distribution, where users could break apart the album format and simply purchase the songs they wish. Jeff predicts that the textbook industry will be forced to break apart their offerings too, and sell individual chapters or lessons, where before they offered only packaged content to a captured education audience. And Jeff says the benefits apply to publishers too–“If they sell you Chapter 1 and it’s really good,” he said, “maybe you’ll want to buy the whole book.”

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CC Talks With: Flat World Knowledge’s Eric Frank: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, November 4th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through the development and support of businesses that levage openly licensed content in support of education. Eric Frank is Founder and President of Flat World Knowledge, a commercial publisher of openly-licensed college textbooks. We spoke with Eric about faculty perceptions of open textbooks, customization enabled by open licensing, and the future of “free online and affordable offline” business models.


Eric Frank by Flat World Knowledge / CC BY

Why did you start Flat World Knowledge and how did you decide to approach this business using open content?

My co-founder Jeff Shelstad and I come out of a long history in textbook publishing. We left a major textbook publisher because of what we perceived as exceedingly-high dissatisfaction levels among the primary constituents in that market—students, faculty and authors. These groups were scratching their heads wondering if the print-based business model was going to be able to serve them going forward. When we began thinking about how to build a new business model, we didn’t actually know that much about open educational resources and open licensing. We started to bake a business model based on bringing prices down and increasing access for students; giving faculty more control over the teaching and learning experience; and providing a healthier and more sustainable income stream for authors. And then we started to meet people in the open community. We spoke to Open Education scholar and advocate David Wiley (and Flat World’s Chief Openness Officer) who said, “It’s funny, you sound a lot like me, except we use different words.” This pushed us a little bit further. Ultimately, through a very pragmatic approach to solving real problems that customers were facing, we arrived at this open textbook model.

The cost of textbooks is something that’s very tangible to students. Flat World Knowledge recently released information that 800 colleges will utilize Flat World open textbooks this fall semester, saving 150,000 students $12 million in textbook expenses. And, the Student PIRGs’ recent report A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability found that adopting open textbooks could reduce textbook costs by 80%–to $184 per year, compared to the average of $900. Beyond the important outreach on cost savings, what are the primary questions you hear from faculty and students around “open”?

For the most part, when the average faculty member hears “open textbook,” it means nothing to them. In some cases, it has a positive connotation, and in other cases, it’s negative. When it’s negative, the primarily concern is one of basic quality and sustainability. Faculty question the entities making these open textbooks, and wonder whether the textbooks could be worth their salt if they’re available for free under an open license. And of course, they confuse ‘free’ and ‘open’ all the time. “If it’s free,” educators say, “It can’t be good. What author would ever do that?” Sometimes we see the opposite problem, such as when people know a little something about the publishing ecosystem and say, “It’s too good to be true.”

Through our marketing programs, we spend a lot of time educating faculty that we are a professional publisher, and that we focus on well-known scholars and successful textbook authors. We start by talking about what’s not different from the traditional approach: we sign experienced authors to write textbooks for us, and we develop the books by providing editorial resources, peer reviewing, and investment. The end product is a high-quality textbook and teaching package. There’s a real focus and emphasis on quality. What we change is how we distribute, how we price, and how we earn our revenue. We walk faculty through this process and let them know that ‘open’ is just about loosening copyright restrictions so that they can do more with the textbooks. We explain that free access is about getting their students onto a level playing field. We explain that affordable choices is about making sure students get the format and price that works for them. Once faculty understand these things and are reassured that we have a quality process in place, and that we are a real and sustainable enterprise that will be around to support them in the future, then it all starts to come together. We have to overcome either a total void of knowledge, which we prefer, or some other baggage that they carry into the conversation.

Customizability of digital textbooks is a key feature of Flat World Knowledge, enabled by the open license. How do teachers and students use this feature? And, how is Flat World’s approach to remix different than other platforms and services that allow some adaptability of content without actually using open content as the base?

Of course, the license itself carries its own rights and permissions. People are able to do a lot more with open content than they can with all rights reserved materials. We keep building out our technology platform so that it ultimately enables faculty to take full advantage of that open license—to do all the things that educators might want to do to improve the quality of the material for their own purposes. Today, the most popular customization is relatively simple. For example, educators reorganize the table of contents by dragging and dropping textbook chapters into the right order for their class, and delete a few things they don’t cover. This is easy and helps them match the book to their syllabus.

Then you move into exploring other areas. For example, instructors may want to make the textbook more pedagogically aligned with their teaching style. In that case, a teacher might integrate a short case study and a series of questions alongside the textbook content. Teachers may want to make the references and examples more relevant to their students by using the names of local companies. Timeliness is certainly important—something happens in the world and educators want to be able to integrate it into their teaching materials.

Educators have different teaching styles and approaches too. An adopter of one of our economics textbooks swapped out some models for other economic models that he prefers to use. An adopter at the University of New Hampshire added several chapters on sustainability and corporate social responsibility into an introduction to business book. Now, he’s teaching the course through his prism and from his perspective. These are the kinds of things that people want to be able to do. The critical thing for us is to make the platform easy to use so that customizing a book is as effortless as opening up a Word document, making some changes, saving it, and delivering it to students.

Regarding how our approach differs from other platforms and services because we begin with openly-licensed content, at one level, the ability to take something and modify it is largely a technology question. We go further, and allow people to edit text at the word level. You don’t see this sort of framework in other services because most of the time you’re dealing with the all rights reserved mentality. Most authors sign up to write traditional textbooks with the understanding that, “This is my work and you can’t do stuff with it.” I think the first big difference is when the author says, “I want people to be able to do stuff with this.” Having authors enter into a different publishing relationship by using open licenses allows us to go much further with the platform. That said, there’s nothing really stopping another company from doing this with some kind of unique user license.

We see other benefits of open access when we think about outputs. You might be able to go onto a publisher’s site and make modifications to a text, and maybe even integrate something that’s openly-licensed on the Web. But ultimately, it’s going to get subsumed into the all rights reserved framework, and won’t propagate forward, so no one else can change it. And generally, these digital services are expensive and access expires after a few months, so the user no longer can get to the content. Things like digital rights management and charging high prices for print materials are fundamentally business model decisions around dissemination, but they’re important.

I think the other big difference is what can happen away from the Flat World Knowledge site. Somebody could arguably come in and take our content and do something with it somewhere else. We’re not locking it down and saying, “The only thing you can do is work with the content on our site, and only use our technology.” We happen to make it easy to do this sort of thing on the Flat World site, but the open license allows others to use the content away from the original website. This leads to many more options that aren’t possible with content that is all rights reserved or served under a very unique license.

Flat World Knowledge licenses its textbooks under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. What were the considerations in choosing this license? How do you see the role of Creative Commons in open textbook and open education?

One of my pet peeves about this community that we’re a part of is the frequent and sometimes contentious debates over licensing. The principle of enabling a range of licenses recognizes that copyright holders have different objectives for their creations. I have my objectives and you have yours, so we may choose different licenses to reach those objectives. That’s perfectly fine. This is the way the world should be. For us, the choice of a license was very much predicated on building a sustainable commercial model around open. We invest fairly heavily with financial resources, time, and intellectual capital to make these textbooks and related products something that we think can dominate in the marketplace. If we didn’t use the non-commercial condition, in our view, we’d be making all the investment and then someone else could sell the content at a dramatically lower price because they didn’t make the initial and ongoing investment. The non-commercial condition is the piece of the model that enables us to give users far more rights, to provide free points of access, and protect our ability to commercialize the investment we made. The ShareAlike clause ensures that this protection continues forward.

Our decision to use this license also relates to authors. The sustainability and financial success argument starts with the people who have the most value in the market: the authors who create the books. Our discussions with authors always include a financial component. They want to know how we are going to capitalize on this venture. Authors want to do good, but they also want to earn income and be fairly compensated. When we explain our model and how the licensing works, they feel very comfortable.

Last month Hal Plotkin released the paper Free to Learn: An Open Educational Resources Policy Development Guidebook for Community College Governance Officials. That document suggests that community colleges are uniquely positioned to both take advantage of OER opportunities and to become pioneers in teaching through the creative and cost-effective use of OER, including through the adoption of open textbooks. How are Flat World’s approaches different in working with universities as opposed to community colleges? What are the differences in terms of the benefits and challenges to faculty, students, and administration within each institution?

This is a great question, but it’s a little hard to answer, because we must consider another variable—the book itself. Sometimes a book is aimed at a community college course and demographic, and sometimes it’s aimed at a four-year research university. For example, our Exploring Business book has a big community college market, while our Introduction to Economic Analysis title out of Caltech has very much a top-50, Ph.D.-granting institution market. So, this confuses things a little bit. That said, I think it’s fair to say that there is generally a correlation between where the financial pain is greatest (which tends to be at community colleges and state institutions) and where the faculty are closest to that pain (where teaching is their primary emphasis, and they spend more time with students). This is where we see the greatest pull for this solution. There’s less of a pull from wealthier demographics and/or with faculty who spend more time doing research than teaching. While there’s more ideological and intellectual understanding of the value of sharing on the research side, pragmatically, the financial pain tends to be on the community college side.

In the recent First Monday article, A sustainable future for open textbooks: The Flat World Knowledge story, Hilton and Wiley suggest that in testing Flat World’s textbook model (“free online and affordable offline”), nearly 40% of students still purchased a print copy of the textbook. And Nicole Allen mentioned in our interview with her that the research of the Student PIRGs shows that “students are willing to purchase formats they value even in the presence of a free alternative.” So, print materials are not going away overnight, as long as the resources can be tailored in ways that teachers and students want to use them. But, as powerful digital technologies offer so many new ways to interact with educational content, how do you foresee the distant (or near) future in which print-on-demand may no longer be a core part of your business model?

We agree with the findings in those reports that print is going away more slowly than pundits proclaimed it would. We’re totally committed to what I think of as platform agnosticism. We never want to be in a position of having to guess which technologies or trends will win or lose. Part of our solution was to build a very dynamic publishing engine which could take a book—which is really a series of database objects and computer code that gets pulled together—and transform it through computer software programs to a certain file format. Today, one format goes to a print-on-demand vendor to make a physical book; another is an ePub file to be downloaded to an iPad or other mobile device; another is a .mobi file for a Kindle. We can afford to be on the leading edge and make formats available that may have low penetration today. And if they grow faster, we’ll be there with a salable format for those devices that will proliferate.

The most important improvement we can make to learning outcomes across our society right now is access. People sometimes ask me, “Isn’t the textbook itself a dead paradigm?” I tell them no, because billions of dollars per year are spent on textbooks. Right now you could create a really killer learning product, and I could take the one that’s already being used by millions of people and make it much more accessible. Enabling greater access is going to have much bigger short-term impact. Going forward, improvements in learning outcomes beyond access will come from things that aren’t content. They will come from experiences—whether it’s an assessment I take and get immediate feedback to inform a specific learning path, or whether it’s a social learning experience in which I’m dropped into a community of learners with a challenge and we draw upon each other to come up with solutions. Content supports those things, but isn’t as important in some ways as the experience.

Our view of the world is to get into the market where there’s pain today, establish a large base of users, and then keep evolving the product to be an increasingly better learning tool. That will inevitably take the form of integrating more unique services that can’t be copied. That’s the long-term goal for us, and probably critical for any business operating in the digital medium, to be financially successful. Kevin Kelly, the technology writer and founding executive editor of Wired, said it best: “When copies are super abundant, they become worthless. When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.” I believe that.

What does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of open textbooks and OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, and predictions?

I don’t worry too much because if we keep our finger on the pulse of what people want to do, we’ll figure it out. One potential danger is the expense of providing this abundance of integrated tools, formats and options for users. It’s easy to imagine the expense of systems that incorporate things like an assessment engine built on adaptive learning and artificial intelligence to guide users to the best resource, all the while connecting them to other users to foster a richer learning experience. This has the potential to be very expensive, and ratchets up the imperative for players in the open community to help figure it out.

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CC Talks With: Student PIRGs’ Nicole Allen: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, October 14th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. Nicole Allen is the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) Campaign Director for Make Textbooks Affordable. In our interview, Nicole discussed the Student PIRGs approach to advocacy and education with regard to open textbooks, their latest report on college textbook affordability, and the necessary role of CC and related groups to raise awareness about open licensing in the academic community.

Can you briefly describe the history of your involvement in Student PIRGs and the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign?


Nicole Allen / CC BY

As a lifelong environmental activist, I originally got involved with the PIRGs in college on a campaign to stop water pollution. But I was compelled to make higher education advocacy my career after Congress cut $12 billion federal student aid to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy during my senior year. I first worked as an organizer with WashPIRG (the “PIRG” in Washington state), and after passing a state law mandating textbook price disclosure, I took over as head of the Student PIRGs’ Make Textbooks Affordable campaign in 2007. Since then, I have worked with students across the country to run the campaign and conducted research and advocacy at the federal level (including work on legislation that reversed the cuts to student aid!).

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) passed in 2008, and a provision relating to textbook affordability and access to pricing information recently went into effect. Furthermore, bills supporting the development of open textbooks have been introduced in both the House and Senate. What would you say are the primary characteristics of an open textbook? How does the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign relate to open education?

We’re excited how rapidly open textbooks are gaining momentum, and the HEOA price disclosure law will help accelerate the pace. When we talk about open textbooks, we mean college texts that have been published online under an open license that allows free digital access, low-cost printing and customization by instructors. In most ways, open textbooks are quite similar to the texts seen on bookshelves today – they have a table of contents, exercises, and they’re written by expert authors. In most cases, they even can be printed to look exactly like any other textbook. The big difference is the open license, which enables a wide variety of affordable textbook formats, including free web-based versions, printable PDFs, and printed and bound hard copies for $20-40 (traditional textbooks usually cost $100-200!). Increasingly, more innovative formats such as audio and e-reader versions are becoming available. Another notable difference is that open textbooks can be customized. Instructors can remove the chapters they don’t plan to cover, or they can add in other materials, homework questions or annotations.

Our goal is to get more open textbooks adopted in place of expensive traditional textbooks, so we think of ourselves as part of the “transition team” for open education. We’re getting more professors to use OER as textbooks, the format they feel most comfortable with, which will pave the way for future exploration of more innovative forms of open course materials. So far, it’s been going well. Since 2008, we’ve generated more than 2,500 signatures on a faculty Statement of Intent to consider using open textbooks and more than 500 news stories citing open textbooks as a potential solution. Early this year, we launched a student marketing force consisting of hundreds of grassroots activists on a mission to promote the top open textbooks directly to professors. Already, at least 50 professors we’ve contacted have switched to open textbooks, and we hope to continue this trend throughout the rest of the school year.

The textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge offers free online access to textbooks under a Creative Commons license, and charges a modest amount for printed copies and supplemental materials. What are some things to consider to ensure the sustainability of such new publishing models? What are some of the primary benefits for professors and students in using open textbooks?

Our experience in the field has been that many professors are concerned that students fall behind on reading and homework because they haven’t purchased the text (it’s true – our recent study found that about 10% of any given class hasn’t bought the book). Furthermore, professors are frustrated that publishers unnecessarily revise textbooks to undermine used book sales, creating extra work to keep syllabi and homework questions up to date. Open textbooks offer relief from both of these problems, because the text is accessible free online or at a low-cost in print, and it always remains open even if a new edition comes out. Open textbooks also offer the increasingly attractive benefit of customization, so that instructors can tailor the text to their class.

The benefits for students are obvious. Our latest report, A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability, found that using open textbooks could reduce costs 80% – that’s $184 per year, compared to the current average of $900!  But cost isn’t the only advantage. In our survey, student preferences were split 75% for print and 25% for digital, and two out of five said they’d be comfortable using both. Students listed readability, convenience and cost as their top factors in choosing a format, although there was no consensus on which format represented these qualities best. Given such variance in student preferences, open textbooks are a far more effective solution than conventional options like rentals and e-books, since students can choose from a wide variety of affordable options.

This raises an important question: if open textbooks are free online, why would students buy anything at all?  Actually, our research shows that students are willing to purchase formats they value even in the presence of a free alternative: more than half of the students we surveyed said they would rather buy a reasonably priced print copy than use the book free online. Student spending on optional products could be the foundation of sustainable models, such as the model used by Flat World Knowledge.

College professors want to use the best textbook available, regardless of price. The Making Textbooks Affordable campaign supports the adoption and use of open textbooks, and encourages faculty to sign a statement indicating their intent “to include open textbooks in their search for the most appropriate course materials, and declare declare their preference to adopt an open textbook in place of an expensive, commercial textbook, if the open textbook is the best option.” What can the OER community do to make it easier for faculty to discover and adopt open textbooks? How do we continue to address the issue of quality?

Open textbooks are available for dozens of common college subjects, but the challenge is making professors aware of them. Despite nearly universal willingness to consider more affordable options, we’ve found that instructors typically hear about textbooks through publisher marketing efforts, not by seeking books out themselves. Therefore, simply posting open textbooks online is not enough; they need active promotion. We encourage the rest of the open education community to join our efforts to get the word out to professors.

As for quality, I think the issue is different for open textbooks than other OER. Quality is inherently subjective, so it is challenging to establish on a large scale. However, there is already a notion of what is “high quality” for traditional texts, so it’s less abstract for open textbooks. Since most of today’s professors will use traditional standards, creating high quality textbooks is a matter of developing models that can emulate (and hopefully improve upon) the outcomes of traditional peer review and classroom testing. Great examples are Flat World Knowledge, which follows the standard publishing process to the letter, and Writing Spaces, which uses a peer review system similar to scholarly journals. Likewise, demonstrating quality is a matter of vetting books with respect to traditional textbooks through institutions, organizations and adopters. For example, both College Open Textbooks and our own Open Textbook Catalog offer editorial reviews of open textbooks. Traditional concepts like publisher branding and author reputation are important too.

How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the open textbook and open education? How can CC help?

Open licensing is the essence OER. It gives authors the confidence to grant worldwide access to their works while still reserving some of their rights. It enables instructors to customize and expand OER to better meet student needs. And it allows students to choose from a wide range of affordable textbook formats. We are grateful to Creative Commons for everything it has done already to create, promote and defend open licenses.

Sharing and customizing course materials (legally) is a foreign concept in academe. We can gloss over the details in the short term by emphasizing affordability, but a deeper understanding of open licensing will be necessary to broaden the use of OER beyond open textbooks. Therefore, we encourage CC to expand its educational and awareness efforts in the academic community, particularly among faculty.

Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, predictions?

I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of OER’s potential to transform teaching and learning. Although the pedagogical benefits are virtually limitless, we come from the consumer perspective. To us, OER means choice, and the ideal learning environment is one where students can take part in shaping their own experience as the “consumers” of higher education.

As for the future, I think the next few years are going to be a turning point. On one hand, we have the growing momentum of open textbooks and other OER. On the other, we have the traditional publishing industry, which has begun to diversify its offerings to include e-books, e-readers and even programs that imitate OER in a non-open environment like DynamicBooks and Create. It is imperative that the open education community help open textbooks gain a foothold before the market settles for less effective solutions. To do that, we need to call on government, foundations and institutions to fund the supply-side, and we need to fuel demand by actively promoting open textbook adoption.

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CC Talks With: The Open University’s Patrick McAndrew: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, September 27th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. Patrick McAndrew is Associate Director (Learning & Teaching) at The Open University’s (OU) Institute of Educational Technology, Co-director of OLnet, the OER Initiative with Carnegie Mellon University, and affiliated with OpenLearn, OU’s OER portal. We talked with Patrick about OER research, the use of open social tools for collaboration around OER, and the role of CC as a flexible yet straightforward mechanism for communicating rights.

How did you come to be involved with open education projects? How do the initiatives you work on fit together?

I joined the Open University just over 10 years ago coming into the Institute of Educational Technology. The Open University has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and a key part of the University’s approach has always been to innovate in the way we think about helping people learn. In the past these innovations have been in the use of media such as broadcast television and methods to support distance learning; now they often focus on the online connections that can be made. The definition of openness has changed from one which focussed on low barriers to student entry, such as no need for prior qualifications, to allowing much more flexible study and free access. In 2005 we started working with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to see if we could release some of our own content, openly and for free. This became OpenLearn, launched in October 2006. Within OpenLearn, not only is open content made available, but it also uses an open learning environment that allows others to contribute. As part of OpenLearn I led a research strand looking at the various impacts OER were having on Open University activities and on users. That research focus has resonated with reflections across the wider OER movement as it matures so that, with Carnegie Mellon University, we are now supported as OLnet by the Hewlett Foundation to gather research findings and evidence across global activity in OER.


Patrick McAndrew, courtesy OER10 / CC BY-SA

Part of what the OLnet project aims to do is establish an evidence base and research framework for the emerging OER field. What are the most valuable research questions to investigate?

We set out in the OLnet proposal issues of design, reach, and the cycle that brings open content into use for learning. These remain key elements, but we have also gone through a process of reflecting on our findings from year one and seeing how the environment has changed. We have expanded the focus areas to policy, design, approaches to learning, the impact of content, and the tools that help support research. Candace Thille (co-director of OLnet) made a very useful observation that we were watching OER move from an end it itself to being a means to an end. The potential impact of openness is significant, so we are paying more attention to the way it can act as a change engine and influence individuals, institutions, and policy. Many of our questions can be phrased in two parts, first as “What is the evidence … ?”, such as “What is the evidence that OER can help learning systems change?” The second element is “What conclusions can we draw about …?” This can challenge us as researchers where it is natural to find balancing arguments, but is an important part of helping the future direction for OER. Overlying this is the idea of different contexts, an aspect that OLnet is in a good position to contribute to through its international OLnet Fellows.

The Open University and OLnet develop and champion the use of open social networking and knowledge sharing tools such as Cloudworks and Cohere. What do these open source tools do, and who is the intended audience? How do they support teaching and learning via OER?

For OLnet these tools have come to the fore in helping us carry out and reflect on research in OER. In Cloudworks we have an open social platform that provides a base for discussion, asking questions and supporting events. It has been very effective in giving more impact to what are otherwise local and often transient events. It was developed at The Open University but can be used by anyone, with OLnet’s own use being just one strand. Cohere is a Web tool to enhance collaborative learning, sense-making and critical thinking. Cohere helps reasoning and is designed to help us cope with the challenge I mentioned above of drawing some conclusions while also knowing that there are arguments for and against. Cohere allows these situations to be visualised and explored in a collaborative way. In its current state of development, I think it is a tool for researchers, but its usability and the models for its use are developing rapidly. Similar to a previous knowledge mapping tool, Compendium, Cohere could well find a role for learners, especially in presenting arguments. Compendium was released as part of OpenLearn and is now used informally by learners to build connections and also in a simplified version by learners on some of The Open University’s own courses.

How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the OER movement? How can CC help?

Creative Commons has helped enormously. At the simplest level in OpenLearn we had originally put aside £100,000 for legal fees in writing a viable licence, none of that was needed as we adopted CC. Having a licence that is accepted across the world matters very much in the education system as people are trying to do the right thing, which can mean a reluctance to use free systems unless they are also clearly open systems. CC makes it easy to be clear. The CC licence also gave us a good way to work with our third party providers – we did not want to just strip out that content, but they also did not want to enable anyone to build a free rival to their content. This was a case where the varied licences of CC helped, in particular the non-commercial clause. Challenges do remain about compatibility though; at one stage it looked like incorporating a variety of licenses would get in the way, but guidance about compatibility and a layer of commonsense is helping. CC assists by tracking the take up in education and has also set up a good area for sharing information about the use of CC in education. OLnet was looking at how to attract such a community, and the presence and impact of CC achieved that for us.

OpenLearn’s 2008 research report highlighted a thesis of OER scholar and advocate David Wiley–“the sustainability of OpenLearn will be achieved by making OER part of the normal fabric of the University’s business, whether that is around teaching and learning, research and/or business and community engagement activities.” How does OpenLearn see its role in relation to the broader Open University?

OpenLearn is being sustained and is continuing now without direct external funding as we increasingly embed and integrate it into the University’s way of operating. OpenLearn itself now comprises three related sites, while we also use other channels such as YouTube and specialist sites for very specific OER work. As such OpenLearn has a broader scope around all open media work that encompasses other outward looking activities such as reflecting the research of the University, the links that we have with broadcast television and the very successful use of iTunesU (where incidentally The Open University now has more downloads than any other university). OpenLearn’s role through Explore and LearningSpace is primarily as a route to Open University outputs and continues to support the communities around it. But it has another important role as a catalyst for activity involving others. OpenLearn has also been the spark for a range of other major grant funded activities, notably OLnet, SCORE (Support Centre for Open Resources in Education), OPAL (Open Education Quality Initiative), SocialLearn, as well as many other smaller projects linking to OpenLearn’s LabSpace.

Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, predictions?

The power of OER lies in its openness; this gives it great flexibility so that material that we might release in the Moodle based OpenLearn environment can be used on WordPress or Slideshare or YouTube or whatever. What we do at the moment certainly is helping people–oftentimes some of the most disadvantaged–learn. However, there is a larger opportunity to build an environment that helps to track what people are trying to accomplish in their learning, assist them to link up with others, and share the evidence of their learning. Some of this is being looked at in a companion project, SocialLearn, for use inside The Open University. But again, in an open world we should not be expecting only one solution.

One possible worry is that education will close down around its existing models. However, the world has changed in that there is no controlling interest that can stop open content having an impact in some form. The hope is that the flexibility gained from openness will assist so many projects, as it has with the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA), by adopting an “everything in the middle” philosophy to sharing that helps address real needs for education. These sorts of predictions are always difficult. I suppose a fairly safe one is that the Internet will become a stronger base for learning without costs, and that a sense of achievement and advancement can grow alongside a sense of distraction!

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CC Talks With: Open High School of Utah’s DeLaina Tonks: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, August 23rd, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. DeLaina Tonks is the Director of the Open High School of Utah (OHSU). The Open High School of Utah is “an online charter high school that is 100% committed to the use of open educational resources,” and the curriculum is fully aligned with the Utah State Core Curriculum. We talked with DeLaina about how OER can help customize student instruction, OHSU’s innovative and collaborative approach to teacher training and professional development, and the ongoing awareness, logistics, and incentive structures that are needed for OER production and sharing to increase. The Open High School of Utah begins its second year of operation today.


Photo courtesy DeLaina Tonks / CC BY-NC

Can you briefly describe the history of the Open High School of Utah, and how the school’s mission relates to the mission of open education?

The Open High School of Utah was founded by Dr. David Wiley and approved for charter by the Utah State Office of Education in 2007. OHSU completed its inaugural year with 125 9th grade students, and on August 23rd, 2010, we will add 125 10th graders for the 2010-2011 school year. By 2013 OHSU will offer 9th-12th grade courses to potentially 1500 students.

The Open High School of Utah is putting the focus where it should be – on the student. Our mission is to facilitate lifelong success by meeting the needs of the 21st century learner through individualized, student-centered instruction, innovative technology, service learning, and personal responsibility. OHSU is a public charter school designed to meet the needs of the 21st century student. As an online school, we combine state of the art curriculum with strategic one-on-one instruction. Our methods can be described as “one-on-one tutoring for every student in every subject”. Instruction is individualized allowing students to work at their pace. Our delivery of education is structured to provide maximum flexibility that is student-centered; responsive to the needs of each learner, eliminating the negative aspects of a one-size-fits-all system. Our technology sets us apart.  It is data-driven, providing real time information that instantaneously tracks the student and their performance. Unique to OHSU is our commitment to share the curriculum we have developed as an open educational resource. All of these elements combined make the Open High School of Utah the future of education. We are the face of innovation.

The objective behind creating open content is to create free and simple access to knowledge and information through collaboration and innovation. The OHSU mission dovetails nicely with that of open education because we are among the first, if not the first, secondary school to create our own OER curriculum and share it worldwide. We are thrilled that there are already multiple international groups eagerly awaiting the release of our first batch of courses on August 25, 2010, most notably CORE China Open Resources for Education.

OHSU champions individualized instruction for its students, using technology and data-driven, realtime assessment tools. And, the OHSU curriculum content is comprised of Open Educational Resources. What are the efficiencies and pedagogical advantages of using OER within this system? Can you give a specific example of how a teacher will utilize an OER to build a lesson for a student, and how technology tools can return data to see if the student is hitting the learning benchmarks for that particular lesson?

The simple fact that our curriculum is housed online in such a data-rich environment provides us with invaluable, real-time information that allows us to best meet learner needs. Students who are fairly impatient digital natives, growing up in the video-game era of instant gratification don’t have the patience to wait for a week, or even three days, to have an assessment graded and returned. In a bricks and mortar setting the work flow might look something like this: Day One: the teacher makes copies of the test, pass it out, the students take it during their 50-90 minute class, and turn it in. Day Two: the teacher grades the tests and enters them into a gradebook (electronic or hardcopy). Day Three: the teacher hands tests back to the students when they come to class.

The virtual arena presents a much more efficient model: Day One: Students work through online activities, take the assessment, portions are computer-graded giving almost instantaneous real-time scores, others are quickly hand-graded for balance and the student is notified of their complete grade in a very short timeframe. Instant feedback enhances performance.

Pedagogically, OER makes it possible to customize instruction. Special education is an area where OER and technology are critical to the success of our students. We have the ability to create mp3 files of our OER text so that aural learners or students with reading disabilities have an alternate way to receive the information. The use of open resources also makes it possible to very easily modify the curriculum to meet student needs. One of our ninth grade students reads at a third grade level, so our special education teacher reworks the existing higher-level curriculum so that her student can understand it better.

All of our curriculum is standards-aligned, down to a granular level of test questions and lessons. The real-time data allows teachers to look at the collective test results broken down by question to see which ones are missed most often. Teachers are trained to then assess the test question itself. Is it confusing? Can it be clarified? If the test question is valid, the teacher can quickly find the content where that particular standard was taught. Is the content confusing? Can additional clarifying information be added? Is another practice activity warranted to make sure students understand the concept? Within 30 minutes the teacher will have improved the curriculum by first using data to target weaknesses in the open content, and by then finding or creating additional resources to assist in boosting student comprehension, retention and ultimately understanding.

Teachers also look at individual scores and pinpoint where each student could use some additional instruction. If it becomes obvious that a certain student is struggling with factoring, which is in turn affecting their overall math grade, the teacher will videoconference and provide one-on-one tutoring. Teachers also create personalized screencasts/videos that the student can have access to view as many times as is necessary to master the area of weakness. On the next assessment, the teacher can compare scores for questions tied to factoring and see if there has been improvement. Having this type of data at their fingertips, coupled with adaptable open educational resources equals meeting individual learner needs.

The OHSU curriculum is aligned with Utah state standards “to ensure the highest quality educational experience.” This is an important consideration for the growth of open education, because if OER does not align with standards, it will most likely be used less. Utah will be adopting the Common Core State Standards. What are the challenges to implementing content standards and aligning OER with these standards?

These are the instructions our curriculum writers are given prior to gathering, organizing and creating open educational resources:

  • The Open High School of Utah curriculum is 1) standards-based and 2) built from OER.
  • Each course is based on the Utah State Core Standards which are the foundation that the content is built upon. Courses are organized into 18 weeks, which each week addressing specific objectives. When building a course, lesson content is built, aligned to the standards, from available OER or self-created materials. OER versions of OHSU courses will be released to the public and must be built on content that conforms to OER guidelines.
  • Objectives should be assigned to each unit, folder, content page, assignment, assessment, and individual questions. By doing this, we will be able to have accurate data to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction and course materials, allowing us to adapt, evolve and improve the curriculum over time.

We have discovered that the most effective way to ensure standards alignment is to use them as the organizing principle or framework for the course. Teachers can then gather existing OER materials, organize them accordingly and fill in any gaps with teacher created materials. The greatest challenge our curriculum writers face is wading through the available OER and determining which content to use in order to create a cohesive course.

OHSU is committed to sharing the curriculum and resources it’s developed, to be usable by anyone at anytime. The first round of course materials will be published in August 2010. Is there a specific open content license that the materials will be offered under? What sorts of considerations were taken into account when deciding on a content license for the OHSU OER materials?

Course materials produced by the Open High School of Utah are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Open educational resources produced by other individuals or organizations that are embedded in Open High School of Utah course materials may be licensed under a different open license, so we notify potential users to please confirm the license status of any third-party resources before revising or remixing them.

We are thrilled that Creative Commons exists and provides a way to license content outside of a one-size-fits-all copyright system. CC licenses are adaptable to any particular situation, especially important for the Open High School of Utah since we gather content from so many different sources prior to arranging and compiling it as our own. A major consideration in choosing to CC license our curriculum is that our philosophies on sharing and collaboration are so closely intertwined.

Many teachers receive confusing information about whether they are able to share the educational resources they create. A Utah Administrative Rule clarifies that teachers are allowed to share curriculum materials under open licenses, specifically Creative Commons licenses. Can this rule be used as a model for other states, and what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to teachers sharing curriculum content?

Conceptually this appears to be a good administrative rule to have in place, and could be a step in the right direction. The practical application is more difficult to implement, however. On a granular level the challenges become several fold:

  • Awareness: educating superintendents, administrators and faculty on the intricacies of when and how to use the Creative Commons licenses
  • Logistics: creating a repository or streamlined method of cataloging, and distributing OER content once it is CC licensed, otherwise multiple filing cabinets and hard drives contain countless licensable lesson plans that never see the light of day
  • Motivation: cultivating intrinsic motivation for teachers to share their resources with fellow teachers outside of their department, school, and district

As a teacher, I was continually told to be very careful with regard to copyright laws, that whatever I produced as a teacher actually belonged to the school since it was being created with taxpayer dollars, and that I was allowed to distribute within the department but not throughout the school or district. This type of territorial behavior in our schools is counterproductive to what schools should be doing; educating children, not fighting over fiefdoms. Time will tell if the Utah Administrative Rule has the type of impact I would hope it could have, were it followed by every educator in the state.

Obviously, the faculty at OHSU are familiar with creating and sharing OER. What professional development or training do OHSU faculty go through to learn best practices for use of OER? In your opinion, what are the major hurdles teachers outside of OHSU face in incorporating OER in their teaching?

At the Open High School of Utah, we are continuously focused on improving the process for creating our OER content as evidenced by these three phases–

Advance Preparation and Teacher Expectations: We started out hiring subject matter experts and instructional designers to build curriculum for OHSU, and throughout the process determined that a critical element was missing; that of teacher input and guidance. We invest a lot of time and effort in auditioning teachers to create curriculum for us, and have instituted an extensive process to ensure that we have the very best fit available. We post the position, gather resumes, and invite teachers to progress to the second phase of the interview process which consists of building a lesson for us from open educational resources. We supply them with two pages of resources and websites, give them a week and see what they can come up with. Those who are unwilling to put in the time and effort self-terminate from the eligible pool of applicants and we end up with 5-6 terrific lesson plans to choose from. At that point we interview the top three, based on answers to written questions and the lesson plan itself. The process is very open and transparent because we essentially ask them to prove that they can create OER lessons by doing just that. We then hire the teacher who possesses a personality that translates well in the online arena, who has proven that he/she is capable of OER lesson creation, and is dedicated to supporting the vision and mission of the Open High School of Utah.

New Teacher Training: Once a teacher is officially hired to create content for the Open High School of Utah, we provide an intensive two-day training on curriculum design, OER, tech tips and tools and answer any questions they may have. There is a great deal of unplanned collaboration that comes out of this training and it allows teachers to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing ideas.

Ongoing Professional Development: In addition, we provide ongoing support from our curriculum director, who combs through every page created to ensure consistency in design and formatting, appropriate use of OER, and alignment to state standards. The curriculum director serves as an invaluable resource to guide our teachers through the OER creation process. At every faculty meeting we highlight the work of one or two teachers as they take us on a walkthrough of their virtual course. They share new resources, technology they have incorporated, and anecdotal experiences of how students are reacting to the course material. In addition, each teacher is enrolled as a student in every other teacher’s course so they can view the curriculum on their own and gain insights and ideas to incorporate into their own classes. In this online setting, the openness and transparency of viewing everyone’s curriculum creates a collaborative setting so the collective result is better than anything an individual teacher can come up with on his/her own. The old adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats” holds true for the faculty of the Open High School of Utah.

Outside of the Open High School of Utah, especially in the virtual setting, much of the curriculum is designed by corporations and delivered part and parcel to the students with little to no input from the teachers. A textbook publisher in Texas is designing curriculum for students in Indiana, and the people closest to their students, the teachers, have very little local control to customize the curriculum to meet the needs of their learners. That said, in a brick and mortar setting, good teachers find or create supplemental content on a regular basis, but are either unaware that they are able to license their work, or don’t have a common repository in which to share their work outside of their department.

How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the OER movement? How can CC help?

The mission of Creative Commons, to increase sharing and improve collaboration, is powerful for all of the right reasons. It hearkens back to the things we learned in Kindergarten about sharing and playing nice with others. The best part about Creative Commons is the breadth of licensing options available to educators in all arenas, and how nicely they dovetail with open-source curriculum, giving us the ability to select the license that best fits our needs. The challenge becomes increasing awareness, helping educators to understand how best to use Creative Commons and why it is important, and providing a forum in which to publish. The Open High School of Utah is doing its part by releasing several courses at the end of this month, all appropriately CC licensed, of course, which will draw attention to the merits of Creative Commons licensing. Keep up the good work!

Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, predictions?

This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Open High School of Utah! Every student’s educational experience can be customized to best fit their needs, turning the one-size-fits-all, teach-to-the-middle education system on its head. For example, at OHSU if a student is struggling with factoring, the teacher creates an additional, personalized screencast highlighting specifically where the student is going wrong, complete with suggestions and examples on how to fix the problem. The online delivery allows the curriculum to be housed in the cloud, freeing up teacher hours to work with students in a one-on-one setting, giving them what they need, when they need it, so they can move on. This teaching model coupled with the use of OER can produce amazing results that will hopefully reignite the passion for learning that we all possessed in Kindergarten.

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CC Talks With: Curriki’s Christine Mytko: Open Education and Policy

Jane Park, August 5th, 2010


Photo by Christine Mytko / CC BY-NC

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to a new Education landing page and our OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. We recently had the chance to talk to Christine Mytko, who is advancing OER at the local levels through her work as a K-12 educator and the lead science reviewer at Curriki. As a teacher, Christine brings a unique perspective to the conversation around open education and policy, and gives us important insight into how teachers on the ground are thinking about copyright and using Creative Commons and OER.

You are a teacher and the lead science reviewer at Curriki, which is known as the “next generation wiki” for K-12 education. Can you briefly describe who you are, your current roles, and what led to them? What would you say is Curriki’s mission, and how is it helping teachers like yourself?

For most of my teaching career, I have been a middle school science teacher in public schools. When I moved to the Bay Area three years ago, I was fortunate to find a job that combines both of my passions –  science and technology. I currently serve as the K – 5 science specialist and middle school technology teacher at a small independent school in Berkeley, CA.

In 2007, I interviewed for part-time work at Curriki. Like many teachers, I was looking to supplement my income. What I found was a community of educators committed to creating, collaborating on, and sharing open-source materials. As part of the Curriki Review Team, I am responsible for reviewing submitted science materials and providing a public score and feedback for the contributor. I also help out with other projects as needed. Currently, I am working with another Bay Area Chemistry teacher to revise and submit an open source Chemistry digital textbook as part of the California Learning Resource Network’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative.

As stated on its main page, Curriki’s mission is to “provide free, high-quality curricula and education resources to teachers, students and parents around the world.”  Its name, somewhat recognizably, is a play on the words “curriculum” and “wiki.” The Curriki repository does have many curriculum options, from lesson plans to full courses, available in various subject areas, educational levels, and languages. Curriki offers other resources, too, including textbooks, multimedia, and opportunities for community and collaborative groups.

All Curriki content is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), planting it firmly in the OER space. Do you know why Curriki chose CC BY for all of its materials? If not, what do you see CC BY enabling that other licenses or “all-rights-reserved” content might not?

Contributors of Curriki content do have the option to select either public domain or a variety of CC licensing, but the default License Deed is CC-BY. I honestly don’t know specifically why Curriki chose this, but I must say it as an excellent decision. CC-BY gives educators the power to remix, share and distribute materials as needed to be timely and maximally relevant to their own curriculum.

The flexibility afforded by a CC-BY license allows for materials to be adapted quickly. I hear that a typical textbook revision works on a 7-year cycle. Curriki materials can be updated and “published” in a matter of seconds and the community can correct any content errors just as quickly. Many topics, especially in science and technology, are changing so quickly that education can no longer afford to wait for proprietary materials to go through their lengthy cycles of publication.

Currently, California and Texas are the biggest purchasers of traditional “all-rights reserved” textbooks, and publishers strive to meet these states’ requirements. Educators in other states (and countries) are forced to work within these proprietary constraints. However, OER [initiatives] such as Curriki allow teachers to freely adapt materials to best fit their pedagogical and cultural needs. Furthermore, by creating or uploading such materials onto a public repository, teachers will no longer need to work in isolation, continuously “re-inventing the wheel.”  As relevant materials are freely shared among communities of educators, individual time spent on adapting proprietary materials will decrease, allowing educators to spend more of their precious time on other important areas of teaching.

Describe a class- or school-wide project where you have integrated CC licensing and/or OER. What challenges have you or your students come across while searching for or using resources on the web? How would you translate this experience for teachers looking to mark up their own resources correctly for OER search and discovery? What do teachers need to know?

In my technology classes, I now require all incorporated media to be Creative Commons, Public Domain or No Copyright. At first, after having free rein in Google Images for years, my students felt very limited in their choices. But after discussing the reasons behind copyright and copyright alternatives, many students understood the importance of respecting rights reserved.

There are so many excellent resources to help teachers and students use Creative Commons in their classrooms. The Creative Commons search page, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr CC group, and Google Advanced Search all are wonderful tools for finding alternatively copyrighted images. Websites such as Jamendo are great for finding CC music.

The language was a challenge at first for my middle school students. Although there are only six main CC licenses, my students got bogged down with terms such as “Attribution” and “No Derivatives.”  It didn’t help that Google uses slightly different terminology (“reuse” and “reuse with modification”) in their license search filter. But the kids quickly became comfortable with the terms and procedures and, within a few class periods, they easily accessed and properly used “some rights reserved” media. Of course, I have the kids assign rights to their own work, which reinforces the licenses, and gives students the opportunity to think carefully about which rights are important to them.

As far as marking up my own resources for OER search and discovery, I am still learning about the process myself. In fact, prior to my work with Curriki, I was hesitant to “release” my work as open source. I had put so much time and effort into certain materials, I didn’t see the point of just giving them away on the Internet. However, the last few years, I have come to recognize the benefits of open source materials and have begun to post some of my formally guarded resources on Curriki as CC-BY; and I now freely share my new material. Now that I am more comfortable using and creating open source materials on my own and with my students, I hope to move on to work with other teachers.

What are the most common confusions or concerns of teachers when it comes to sharing their teaching materials? Do you think the average K-12 teacher is aware of open licensing alternatives, like Creative Commons? What are the various school or institutional policies for teachers sharing their materials?

I am certain that the average teacher is NOT aware of open licensing alternatives. In fact, many teachers I know still operate on the guiding principle of CASE – Copy And Steal Everything.  I don’t believe teachers are lazy or purposely deceitful for using materials in this way; anyone who has taught in a classroom knows how much there is to do in an incredibly short amount of time. Sometimes, copying an (often copyrighted) activity and tossing it in your colleague’s box is merely survival. Even those teachers who are aware of copyright will often claim “fair use.”  The problem is that teachers often overestimate their protections and privileges under fair use. And there is little training in copyright and fair use, let alone Creative Commons and OER. Not only is an average K – 12 teacher unaware of his or her responsibilities, he or she often does not know the rights and options available to him or her in sharing his or her own work.

There are a variety of roadblocks preventing teachers from sharing their own work. First of all, since creating curriculum takes so much time, many teachers are unwilling to share lessons because they feel the product belongs to them. Other teachers may feel that their work isn’t good enough to share. And even if teachers overcome these psychological blocks, there are still the technical issues revolving around how will they share their work as open source. None of the schools I have worked with had any sort of policies on, or time set aside for, sharing materials. In talking with my colleagues, they found a similar lack of school policy. Even in the rare case in which there was some sort of policy, teachers often selectively ignored it. Currently, most teachers do not have the access, training, and support necessary to confidently participate in the OER movement.

Curriki has been doing some work to tie their resources to state education standards (http://www.curriki.org/xwiki/bin/view/Main/BrowseStandards). Can you describe a little of that process to us? What are some of the benefits and challenges to including this information? How useful is it?

This work is not part of my professional duties at Curriki, however, I can speak to the process on a personal note as a teacher and Curriki member. Right now, when you visit a resource, you will see four tabs – Content, Information, Standards, and Comments. Choosing the Standards tab allows a user to view currently aligned standards, as well as gives the option to “Align to [additional] Standards.”  The process itself is very intuitive; the user clicks through a series of menus and applies standards as he or she deems appropriate.

The biggest benefit will certainly be the convenience of browsing for resources by standard through the aforementioned jump page. The biggest challenge is to align all of the existing and future resources in the repository. Curriki is depending largely on the community to gather momentum for this process. Right now, in its infancy, only about half of the states have standards-aligned resources to browse, and even those collections are far from complete across subject areas and educational levels. Of course, members of Curriki are always welcome to browse unaligned resources by subject, educational level, or other criteria by using Curriki’s Advanced Search.

There has been a lot of OER talk at the state and federal policy levels, especially surrounding open textbooks. What do you think is the future of the textbook for the K-12 classroom? How would you like to see this reflected in policy?

I, like many educators, feel that the reign of the textbook is coming to an end. As a science teacher, I have rarely depended on a textbook for curriculum, and rely more heavily on both online materials and self-created materials. OER allow me to take better advantage of creating and sharing work within a collaborative community. While science and technology lend themselves to early adoption of the open source philosophy, I believe other subjects will soon follow.

Textbooks will not be able to maintain their current stronghold in K–12 schools. A recent New York Times article points out that “[e]ven the traditional textbook publishers agree that the days of tweaking a few pages in a book just to sell a new edition are coming to an end.”  Textbooks are expensive and quickly become outdated. Printed errors are not correctable until the next edition comes out. In contrast, OER are inexpensive or free, constantly updated, and easily correctable. I would love to see the money saved by choosing inexpensive OER over pricey textbooks used for supplementary materials and teacher training. Or even better, districts can use that money to set aside release time and pay teachers to meet, collaborate and create OER content.

Lastly, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts—worries, hopes, predictions?

A successful learning environment is relevant, engaging, challenging, and flexible. OER material is current, as well as easily, and legally, adaptable to meet the needs of various learners. An OER community can provide a teacher with materials and support in meeting the needs of his or her particular student population. Resources that are freely shared end up saving others countless hours of redundant individual work and frees teachers from stagnating in a proprietary curriculum.

Schools are beginning to recognize the cost savings of abandoning the current textbook model, and I predict that publishers will adapt as the market demands of them. I hope that schools begin to recognize that teachers are a valuable resource and skilled professionals, and deserve to be compensated for their time spent developing curriculum. I hope districts begin to create policies and provide support to encourage teachers to share the materials they create.

Ideally, the classroom should be a place where students are not merely passive consumers of resources and media, but rather active collaborators, synthesizers and publishers of their own work. I hope that, from a young age, students will be held accountable for using others’ work in an appropriate way, and encouraged to share their own work as open source with some rights reserved, rather than falling back on the default of full copyright, or worse, not sharing at all. I want my students and colleagues to understand that, by sharing materials, they are contributing to a collection of materials that will benefit learners far beyond the walls of their own classroom. This is a significant shift in current educational philosophy, but sites like Curriki are a great step in facilitating a move in the right direction.

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