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Cathy Casserly: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, June 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 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. As such, we recently caught up with Cathy Casserly. Cathy is the Vice President for Innovation and Open Networks and Senior Partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Cathy is also a member of the board of directors at Creative Commons and a longtime leader, strategist and advocate of OER. In our interview with Cathy, we discussed sustainability, challenges to integrating OER in education reform, and the infrastructure role of Creative Commons.

Q: You used to be Director of the Open Educational Resources Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Hewlett has been a huge supporter of OER over the years. How do we expand interest in OER and open education to a broader set of funders? Perhaps more importantly, how can OER initiatives within institutions transition to becoming more sustainable? What do you see as the role of government in OER?

From the funder perspective, we need to continually educate funders to help them understand that openness will aid in their core mission–which is typically to spur innovation and disseminate the knowledge developed within the projects they fund. Oftentimes that knowledge sits within the foundation, or with the program officer, and we don’t have a very reliable system to distribute it to a broader audience. As a result, there’s a lot of that knowledge goes untapped. When foundations begin to use Creative Commons licenses, and to begin to practice openness and transparency to disseminate the knowledge from within the foundation, we’ll see a multiplier effect in the reach and impact of that investment. At this point, some foundations just don’t understand that. Part of what we need to do is to help more foundations understand the role of Creative Commons and the potential for open licensing to add value to their core missions. Foundations can get their feet wet by implementing open licensing on a part of their portfolio they feel comfortable with, and extend this practice to a broader percentage later on.


Cathy Casserly by Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching
/ CC BY

Sustainability has always been a core issue. At Carnegie, we’re trying to design for sustainability and openness from the beginning. Ultimately, for a project to scale in the long term, it has to become self-sustaining in some way. We have some core funding from the Carnegie Foundation itself, and we’re securing funding from outside funders, but this won’t last forever. There will be a point in time where need to figure it out on our own. And, it can be difficult to add sustainability afterward. Today, many more organizations are much more aggressive and thoughtful in thinking about issues of sustainability. In the early days of the OER movement, we were thinking about sustainability, but as a first step we really didn’t know if or how people would use the content. We had a chicken and egg problem because we needed to find out if there was really a thirst for this content. We wanted to know whether people would use it, repurpose it, and reshare it. We’ve heard a resounding “yes” to those questions. But, the OER community is relatively young, and with any new space, some of the issues are tricky to figure out–we’re still trying to understand it.

In terms of government support for open education, I think the government obviously leads the way, certainly in investing a huge amount of public dollars in education. Some of this investment includes many types of materials and learning assets that could be created for less cost, while maintaining the same–if not higher–standards of quality. These open resources would have the added benefit of allowing iteration and continued improvement on them. The federal government, state governments too, are beginning to understand that making investments in educational materials without erecting the traditional boundaries around them is sound practice. By making content systems more permeable, such as by releasing educational resources under Creative Commons licenses, governments empower educators to build on these resources again, so they don’t have to start from scratch. We see this in the open textbook space. Right now, it’s difficult in that the market is shifting, and the publishing industry is fighting. But, at some point we have to realize that we have a new distribution system with the web, and we don’t have to resort to some of the same old models for updating and improving materials. Also, we have a data backend now such that we can begin connect students to materials and learning tools that are complimentary to their needs as an individual learner, whether it be a video, a game, or an ongoing assessment. There are powerful tools we can harness via the web. It’s imperative we do this, and that the government invests in this area too.

Q: In Opening Up Education, you wrote, “the most important obstacles to rapid innovation are not technical…[t]hey have to do with the customs, standard practices, and vested interests of people in the universities and schools and within the markets, such as publishing, that may be forced to change as OER strategies gain more traction.” Since many of the challenges to incorporating OER are social (changing perceptions and practices of teachers and learners) and institutional (traditional school systems are slow to change and risk-averse), how do we approach this set of problems in an effective and scalable way?

In K-12, it’s well recognized that we have a big chasm now between what students do in school and what they do outside of school. Outside of school, students find information, interact with friends, and engage with the world in ways that are very technology-centric. In schools, it looks very much like it did in the 1950s. This is not surprising, because large systems tend to be very inert, so the structural education systems are very inert. Our education systems are not structured to look for innovation, and there needs to be something that is pushing on these systems to get them to integrate innovative ideas. There are pockets of innovation in the K-12 sector, but they’re on the edges. John Seely Brown has talked about the edge influencing and re-shaping the core, and this is beginning to happen within education systems.

In new markets utilizing new technologies, we can disaggregate and unbundle the commoditization of higher education, which has traditionally revolved around the intersection of the tutor (the teacher), the knowledge base (the content or other educational curriculum), and the assessment (the means to certify the knowledge that exists). Emerging models like the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and other online groups have begun to challenge the incumbent system. We realize that many individuals can’t take the time to enroll in a four-year program at a university, or want to have flexible learning anywhere at any time. The system that we have now was structured for a good reason, it’s existed for a very good reason, and it’s been very resistant to change. When there’s pressure on these longstanding institutions, new organizations will pop up, and will begin to pull some of the education market their way because students realize they’re not being served as best as they could, or because they need more alternatives to a traditional degree, or because there’s more demand than there are spaces, allowing breathing room for alternatives to deal with the supply.

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

Creative Commons is the foundation for open education. Without flexible licensing there’s no way to determine which materials are shareable, adaptable, reusable, and localizable. Creative Commons is absolutely an incredible asset and core to the work of open education. It’s critically important that we get a broader group of people understanding the need to adopt Creative Commons licenses. A lot of educators and creators in the education space are creating different types of content and curriculum and want to share them. They think that other people can just pick them up and take them, but they don’t realize they’re most likely locked up under copyright. Teachers go into education because they believe in it, they want to share knowledge, and they like the idea of playing around with other ways of teaching. From individual conversations I’ve had with faculty at MIT, Yale, Harvard, and other universities, the ability for them to have their resources widely shared through open courses/courseware has been an incredibly affirming aspect to why they became an educator in the first place. We really haven’t tapped the depths of this volunteerism yet. What’s encouraging is that students who are now going through our schools of education are digital natives. They’ve grown up in a very different way, and it’s just a matter of time until they create so much pressure on the existing system that it will have to shift. What I’d like to see is that the system be very thoughtful about shifting, so it can serve students well, and equally.

Q: In our interview with the Virginia Department of Education, the respondents reiterated that OER is one component of comprehensive education reform, and that we have to think systematically in the incorporation of OER for it to be implemented into the education system. What are some of the things that OER producers (like open textbook providers) and infrastructure providers (like CC) should keep in mind in order to mesh OER in a smart and effective manner?

OER can’t be a siloed reform effort; it has to become a part of the larger system. The Holy Grail is integrating OER with student assessments, and setting up systems to feed back loops so we can understand how students are learning and what is needed to improve. In this way, we can begin to connect students with the best lessons for them at the right time, and organize individuals into smaller groups to work through different topics–for instance, I might be faster in grasping physics, whereas you might be better in math. We don’t really have a way to differentiate instruction right now, and we won’t really be able to until we have more of an individual assessment system. Such a system can take advantage of the underlying power of technology and openness. We know that courses that use this kind of embedded assessment scaffolds the student’s learning in a very structured way, and the learning outcomes–as best as we can measure them–far surpass courses taught using traditional methods. We need to scale these innovative assessment tools and materials in a systematic way. We need to figure out how to integrate face-to-face teaching and online tools and resources so that we can create better learning communities that pull from the best parts of both worlds.

Q: 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, or predictions?

I think that in the next decade we’ll see a significant shift–online communities will become part of accepted hybrid models for learning. These models will blend what teachers and those with expert knowledge can best contribute to help teaching and learning, scaffold learning for individuals, and utilize the best of what we can harness with technology and the web so students can learn in interesting, animated, and engaging ways. We need to begin to understand and differentiate content, learning styles and education processes to works for individual students based on that student’s prior cognitive and non-cognitive skills. There’s a huge untapped white space in better integrating OER, and we need to think about how to blend the efficiency and effectiveness of open materials.

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