Meeting District Needs

‘Open Educational Resources’ Promoted in U.S. Senate Proposal

By Michelle R. Davis & Sean Cavanagh — May 19, 2015 6 min read
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Federal lawmakers want to encourage schools to consider using free, modifiable learning resources for students before investing in costly textbooks and curricula.

A move in the U.S. Senate to promote schools’ use of open educational resources, if enacted by Congress and ultimately embraced by schools, could have a major impact on the development of curricula and on the companies that provide content to schools, some education experts say.

The latest Senate version of the main federal law on K-12 education includes new wording to encourage the use of open education resources—alternatives to proprietary products created by commercial companies—through grants that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would make available to states.

“That little provision has potential for quite a large impact,” said Douglas A. Levin, an Arlington, Va.-based consultant and analyst on educational technology issues. “If and when this passes, the question is whether this will be just a bureaucratic requirement or whether it will be enforced and prioritized.”

The influence of such language on both schools and the education business community may ultimately depend on who is in the White House next, Mr. Levin added.

A handful of states are already pursuing and promoting the use of open educational resources, or OER, often with a focus on digital materials. But publishers and ed-tech companies are looking closely to determine how the language incorporated into the pending Senate bill to reauthorize the ESEA could affect their bottom lines.

The bipartisan amendment to the proposed Senate rewrite of the law is meant to encourage schools “to use and share open educational resources to disseminate best practices and provide an alternative to costly textbooks,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement to Education Week.

Sen. Hatch—whose state has taken a lead role in encouraging the use of open resources—and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., sponsored the amendment, which was approved by a voice vote April 16. The overall bill awaits a vote of the full chamber.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives’ revision of the ESEA appears to be in a holding pattern, and leaders of the chamber have yet to schedule it for a floor vote.

The new wording in the Senate version says that applicants for some grants to states must, among other provisions, provide “an assurance that [they] will consider making content widely available through open educational resources when making purchasing decisions with funds.”

Another section encourages state grant applicants to “provide tools and processes to support the creation, modification, and distribution of open educational resources.”

Publishers’ Doubts

Commercial publishers sometimes cast doubt on the quality and value of open resources, and question how easily such resources can be integrated into instructional materials used by most schools. They argue that it’s not easy for schools to rely on open materials because educators end up having to devote many hours trying to sort through them to find the curricula and lessons that meet their needs.

Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association, said the relationship between his members and the emerging interest in open educational resources varies widely and “continues to evolve.”

“Many content publishers are providing tools and mechanisms for educators to integrate OER in with the publisher’s content to support the instructional needs of teachers and the needs of students,” he said.

U.S. Senate Support

A bipartisan amendment to the U.S. Senate version of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act encourages states to consider open educational resources before purchasing textbooks and curriculum. The amendment features the following language:

• For state applying for technology grants to strengthen state and local infrastructure and to support professional development around digital learning, one of the criteria considered is: “An assurance that the state educational agency will consider making content widely available through open educational resources when making purchasing decisions with funds received under this part.”

• State grant applicants are encouraged to “provide tools and processes to support the creation, modification, and distribution of open educational resources.”

Source: Education Week

Because the ESEA language only suggests districts consider open resources, and doesn’t compel that such materials take the place of commercial products, Mr. Schneiderman said his organization is comfortable with the wording.

“OER may have a place in this discussion, but it shouldn’t be mandated,” he said.

The Senate’s inclusion of language on open educational resources heartened TJ Bliss, a program officer for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has made significant investments in supporting open content.

Federal policymakers are responding to the interest that states and districts have shown in open materials because of their potential to reduce costs and provide teachers with content specifically tailored to their needs, he said.

“It signals that OER is a nonpartisan issue,” said Mr. Bliss. “People are starting to pay attention to OER because it can solve problems that people care about.”

(The Hewlett Foundation also provides support for Education Week‘s coverage of efforts to provide students with “deeper learning.”)

In February, the U.S. House also approved an amendment—sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.—that would make it clear that federal funds through the House ESEA proposal could be used to support “open-access textbooks and open educational resources.” However, the House ESEA reauthorization bill has not been brought to a vote by the chamber.

The current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, does not include language directly supporting open resources, noted Mr. Levin, the ed-tech consultant. He said there’s an obvious reason for that omission: Open educational resources hadn’t really come into focus as a defined concept at the time the measure was approved by Congress in 2001, and then signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

Since then, advocates for open resources have pushed unsuccessfully for the concept’s inclusion in a number of federal education proposals, said Mr. Levin, who supported those efforts. One victory, he pointed out, came in language included in the federal guidance for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—the Obama administration’s major economic-stimulus measure—that emphasized how recipients of funding could spend it on educational technology.

Driving Competition

The new Senate language calls additional attention to the possibility that open resources could be a benefit—both financially and educationally—for schools, Mr. Levin said.

“This is not going to magically create open educational resources that are aligned to standards, high-quality, and interactive,” he said. But if those types of resources are available, “a statement and assurance like this will dramatically increase the odds that it will get adopted and used.”

Plus, the landscape for open educational resources is shifting. An increasing number of states are collecting and reviewing open-resource materials.

And the K-12 OER Collaborative, a coalition of a dozen states and several nonprofit organizations, is working to develop the kind of high-quality open materials that federal lawmakers want states and districts to evaluate before purchasing expensive curricula and textbooks, said Jennifer Wolfe, the project director for the collaborative. She is a partner at the Learning Accelerator, a Cupertino, Calif.-based organization helping to finance the effort.

The collaborative currently has 10 vendors developing open educational materials, she said.

“We find this [Senate language] a good sign,” Ms. Wolfe said. “We’re going to have high-quality OER for districts to consider, and this will bring more awareness to the marketplace that OER is a good option in terms of equity and quality, and cost savings.”

Education companies are starting to think differently about open materials, too, said James D. Giovannini, the executive director of the Park Ridge, Ill.-based Education Industry Association. Mr. Giovannini approves of the flexibility that states would be given by the new Senate language to choose or not choose free and open educational resources. But he added that companies also need to be receptive to the idea.

“If companies embrace it, it will drive competition and quality, and they’ll still find a way to earn a profit,” he said. “Those ed-tech companies truly on the cutting edge will understand how to function in the OER world.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as U.S. Senate Proposal Puts Spotlight On Open Educational Resources


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