Education Opinion

Open Licensing and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual Schools

By Justin Reich — October 06, 2013 3 min read
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File this under: Small Victories.

Loyal readers will recall that last year I wrote a series of scintillating articles (Part IV, with links to I-III), which garnered tens of views, on open licensing and virtual schools. In the series, I argued that virtual schools could be good things, but at present they are mostly very low quality. I think educational systems would be well-served if students had access to a high-quality virtual school option, particularly for students with medical issues, pyschological issues, artistic or athletic careers, or other unusual circumstances. I have grave concerns about many of the virtual schools that have opened across the country to this point.

In the past week, hedge funder manager, charter school champion, and Teach For America alum Whitney Tilson recently used his fund to take a major short position on K12, inc., the largest provider of virtual schools. He has a 100 slide presentation arguing that K12’s rapid growth has been accompanied by abysmal performance, and he expects that eventually states will stop authorizing new K12 schools and will revoke charters from existing schools. When one of the champions of choice shorts an option for schooling, that gives you some sense of the state of the field.

So if you are an authorizer of virtual schools, the question becomes, how do you use an application process to select for schools that are likely to serve students well and select against schools that are going to perform poorly? In Massachusetts, that concern is particularly vivid given we have just passed a virtual school authorization law, and that our first virtual school (created before the recent law) had the second lowest progress scores in the state.

I had one specific suggestion for that process: require in the application process that schools indicate whether or not they are planning on using and creating openly licensed materials in their curriculum. If you have a school that has a commitment to Open Education Resources, that suggests they have a commitment not just to improving learning for their student body, but from students across Massachusetts and across the world. It suggests that civic purpose will never be put ahead of corporate profits, as Tilson argues is the case with K12.

So I shared these ideas here in this space, with some folks in our legislature, and with some officials at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. I volunteered to serve on the state Digital Learning Advisory Council. I volunteered to conduct reviews for virtual school applications, as I have for charter school applications in the past. (I was extremely impressed with the DESE officials that I worked with in the virtual school application review. We reviewed an application submitted by the existing virtual school in Mass., and by a recent statute we had to renew it’s charter under the new statewide virtual school guidelines. Despite the fact that they outcome was pre-ordained, the folks at the state office did an extremely thorough and contientious review of the application.)

And the fruits of all of this citizen activism: on page 23 of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School application we find:

Describe any plans the school has for using open educational resources (OER) or other Creative Commons-licensed resources, as well as any plans for creating resources that will be shared broadly with the education community.

Like I said, small victory. But a step in the right direction is a step, and I’m hoping that one of the six entities applying to start a virtual school in Massachusetts in this next application cycle with be able to distinguish themselves with a commitment first and foremost to improving education with their own students and with students around the world.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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