Special Report

Lesson-Sharing Sites Raise Issues of Ownership, Use

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 28, 2015 9 min read
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Say you’re a teacher and you’ve created a bang-up lesson on how to teach fractions on the number line. Everyone in the faculty room loves it. Fellow teachers are begging for copies. Your principal suggests you post it online for others to use.

Perhaps no recent technology advancement offers as much promise for teacher professional development as lesson-sharing sites that facilitate the exchange of such resources. On those sites, many of which were launched to support teachers’ work with the Common Core State Standards, it’s possible to get near-instantaneous feedback from peers, to network with like-minded colleagues, and to find literally millions of instructional ideas.

But increasingly, experts warn there are a few catches to the eminently sensible idea of online lesson exchange. Hidden in the often-skipped fine print outlining terms and conditions, the sites have vastly different approaches to protecting and disseminating the content that teachers create—and that they may consider their intellectual property.

Some lesson-sharing sites, for example, grant the companies that run them sweeping rights to use, modify, and even sell teacher-generated content; others leave much more control in the hands of teachers.

And some ed-tech experts caution that there’s an even more basic concern about the phenomenon of lesson sharing: Under the strictest interpretation, copyright laws make teachers’ work products the property of their school district, not their own to share in the first place.

Now, concerns about those laws are starting to collide with the push for shared online educational resources created by teachers.

A Burgeoning Market

As any teacher worth his or her salt knows, a good lesson is valuable currency. All the more so in the common-core era, in which lesson sharing has boomed, partly because of shared academic expectations across states and partly because of the inadequacies of even supposedly updated curricula, say teachers who frequent the sites.

“I think it really grew out of the common core being this mysterious thing. A lot of us end up having to create our own materials,” said Amber Chandler, a middle school teacher in the Hamburg, N.Y., school district who has reviewed content for the website Share My Lesson and has contributed some 200 resources of her own. “When I started sharing more of mine, I knew it was common-core-aligned because I’d just created it.”

Joshua Marks, the chief technology advisor to Curriki, one of the top sites for lesson sharing, agrees. “I think we can attribute it primarily to the transition to digital material and the dinosaur-like movement of the traditional publishers,” he said.

Each of the most popular lesson-sharing sites has put its own gloss on the basic idea.

BetterLesson‘s innovation has been to hire a corps of master teachers to boost the coherence of resources. Those master teachers produce accompanying training manuals, exercises, and video exemplars of how to teach each lesson, supplementing the content uploaded by other teachers to the site. Similarly, LearnZillion pays a “dream team” of teachers to develop common-core-aligned lessons.

Share My Lesson was co-created by the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Another site, Teachers Pay Teachers, is unique in that its business model is market-based. Teachers price the materials they submit, and they are purchased by others.

But the differences between the sites go far beyond their surface features. Primarily, ed-tech experts say, they concern licensing—the terms under which a site makes uploaded lessons available to others.

Take our hypothetical teacher’s fractions lesson. As it currently stands, she would have a lot less control over what happened to it on Share My Lesson than on, say, Curriki. Why? Because under the former site’s terms, teacher-creators grant it a license to use the materials in virtually any way.

Theoretically, if the site’s owners decided to package and sell an anthology of member-created lessons, it could, said Bill Fitzgerald, a former teacher who is a consultant on open-educational resources. At the other end of the spectrum, Teachers Pay Teachers’ license only allows the company to make submitted lessons available on its platform for others to buy.

BetterLesson falls somewhere in the middle. The site’s default setting licenses materials under a version of what’s called the Creative Commons License. (That license was created to permit the free sharing of otherwise copyrighted materials, including for commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the creator. Teachers uploading materials to the site can choose to further restrict the type of use.)

Most teachers simply use the default, BetterLesson co-founder Erin Osborn said, but they can also choose to put their work in the public domain, to restrict it to noncommercial use, or to maintain traditional copyright, in which royalties must be paid for use.

Curriki, similarly, gives users the option of licensing their materials to the site for either commercial or noncommercial use.

Such differences appear to be partly a product of the sites’ business models. The sites exerting the most control over content are potentially keeping their options open for future revenue-generating strategies.

“It costs money to keep the servers up and running, to curate and present and promote the best in the community. Where do we get that money?” said Joshua Marks, the chief technology adviser to Curriki.

To be fair, sites like Better Lesson and LearnZillion have sustained themselves so far through grants or by selling premium services, not by repackaging teachers’ lovingly crafted work products. Teachers Pay Teachers is in a class by its own, charging a membership fee for teachers and collecting a commission on each transaction in exchange for access to its marketplace.

Balancing Business and Vision

Still, balancing vision with financial reality can prove challenging, as the partners behind Share My Lesson can attest.

The AFT and its co-creator, the British-based TES, announced this summer they would part ways. TES has created a pay marketplace similar to Teachers Pay Teachers, while the AFT will assume all control over Share My Lesson and keep it free for teachers.

“There’s no acrimony; we just had a very different values system about it,” said Randi Weingarten, the union’s president. “And at the end of the day, this was about teachers sharing with each other, not paying for materials.”

The union is also aware of the criticisms of Share My Lesson’s terms and conditions. Plans to revise them to favor teachers who create materials are in the works.

And while it’s possible that the AFT might try to monetize premium content or services, it will not do so with user-generated content, said Elena Balint, the chief marketing officer for the partnership.

The sites’ differences in licensing and business objectives highlight competing orientations toward the idea of shared online educational resources.

The Fine Print

The same lesson uploaded to a variety of lesson-sharing sites could be treated very differently, depending on the sites’ business models and licensing provisions. Excerpted below are the key sections of several sites’ terms and conditions.

444,000 members
69,400 resources

“6.3 License Grant to Curriki for Commercial Use. When You upload a Contribution, You will have the option to grant Curriki the right to exploit your Contribution for commercial purposes. If you choose this option when You upload Your Contribution, in addition to the Default License, you are granting Curriki a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, assignable, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to host, transfer, display, perform, reproduce, distribute and re-distribute, and otherwise exploit your Contributions, for commercial purposes, in whole or in part, in any media formats and through any media channels (now known or hereafter developed).
6.4 Limited License Grant to Other Curriki Users.
(a) Default License. All Contributions submitted to the Curriki Site are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial license, which can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/ (the “Default License”).”

Better Lesson
400,000 unique monthly visitors
1.5 million lessons; 15,000 master-teacher lessons

“In connection with your uploading of User Content, you will select (i) whether you want your User Content to be kept private or made public, and (ii) the license under which you are sharing the User Content with BetterLesson. The default license for all User Content uploaded through the BetterLesson Platform is Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.”

Did not respond to inquiries on membership or resources

“We do not claim ownership of any User Content you post unless otherwise agreed; however, by posting or transmitting such User Content, you grant us, our affiliates, our successors, and others with whom we have agreements, a perpetual, transferable, royalty- free worldwide right to use, copy, display, perform, modify, distribute, adapt, aggregate, translate, reformat, sublicense, create compilations and collective works, prepare derivative works based upon, display publicly, perform publicly and otherwise exploit (including but not limited to over the Internet or any other uses or media.)”

Teachers Pay Teachers
50,000 active teacher-authors
1.5 million lessons

“When you (Teacher-Seller or Publisher-Seller) submit or upload content on or through the Service, you retain ownership of any copyright you claim to your submitted content. However, by making your content available through the Service you automatically grant TEACHERSPAYTEACHERS a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable (except as expressly set forth in this Agreement), non-exclusive, worldwide, sublicensable right to exercise any copyright, trademark rights publicity rights, and/or database rights (but no other rights) you have in the content, in any media now known or later developed, solely as reasonably necessary to make the Teaching Content available through the Service.”

Share My Lesson
783,000 registered members
309,000 lessons

“With respect to all Content you post on the Service, you grant SML a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed. With respect to all Content you post to the Service, you hereby waive any moral rights you have in the Content. You agree to perform all further acts necessary to perfect any of the above rights granted by you to SML, including the execution of deeds and documents, at our request.”

SOURCE: Education Week

The Teachers Pay Teachers argument goes like this: In a job that’s frequently stressful and often underpaid, teachers should be able to make extra cash by selling their lessons. Yet, others warn, that model undermines the power of lesson sharing to encourage widescale instructional improvement.

“The point of the creative-commons license is the freedom to change up a lesson, free-mix it, share your version of it, and get some experimentation and localization and adaptation,” said Michael Carroll, a co-founder of Creative Commons, the nonprofit that developed the creative-commons license, and a professor of law at American University in Washington. “If you have a marketplace, all that adaptation takes place in a classroom, in a context where no one else gets to see it.”

It’s a testament to the complexity of the issue that teachers like Chandler, the Share My Lesson contributor, can see it from both perspectives.

“My husband says this to me all the time: ‘You should find a publisher, people will buy this,’ ” she said. “Maybe that’s true, but I think there’s something about being able to give someone an electronic copy that’s particularly appealing to educators.”

Her biggest concern isn’t about profiting from her work in some way. It’s that somewhere, someone will modify her shared lessons in a way that weakens their power.

Chandler teaches middle school English/language arts. One of her units focuses on the award-winning Lois Lowry novel The Giver, about a dystopian community. In the lesson, the teacher has her students write a brochure featuring the community’s selling points: no hunger, no unemployment. Then students revisit it two weeks later to analyze the negative aspects—surveillance, a lack of emotional attachment.

“If you took one lesson out of context, does it look like I’m an idiot?” Chandler said. “I think that would be my biggest misgiving.”

Fitzgerald, the open-resources consultant, worries that the entire lesson-sharing trend is built on what amounts to an honor system. Teachers promise they’re uploading materials they’ve created and that they own. But some of the sites create an incentive to fudge.

Who Owns a Lesson?

Meanwhile, schools, districts, and professional-development providers scouring lesson sites for helpful tools also face quandaries when they download materials. They must negotiate the fine lines separating fair use, noncommercial use, and commercial use, depending on how each piece of content is licensed.

Take our teacher’s fractions lesson. Let’s say she designated it under the Creative Commons for noncommercial use.

In that instance, it’s probably OK for a PD provider to hand out copies of that plan during a district training. But a provider who required a district to purchase packets of materials containing that lesson conceivably would be violating the terms of the license.

Finally, none of the lesson-sharing sites fundamentally deals with a gray area in American copyright law. Simply stated: Does any teacher really own anything they create on the job?

The 1909 law establishing U.S. copyright policy made employers the owner of employee work products and carved out a special exemption for teachers. But in what some suspect might have been a drafting error, Congress deleted that exemption when it rewrote the law in 1976.

Some say the change limiting teachers’ ownership rights was appropriate. “Government employees gaining experience and doing work on taxpayer dollars, I don’t believe, should be allowed to turn around and make personal profits from that work,” said Douglas A. Levin, an ed-tech consultant and recent head of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

Few courts have acted to clarify the matter, which means that the legal status of who owns teachers’ work products remains unsettled.

“This is incredibly silly and counterproductive. Smart teachers game the system and are forced to do ‘their’ work outside school hours, off school infrastructure,” said Fitzgerald. “If union leadership understood how teachers could be supported to author, modify, and reuse openly licensed content, we would not be facing the shortage of good teaching materials that are both common-core-aligned and accessible to teachers.”

In a 2010 article in NEA Today, a member of the National Education Association’s general counsel advised teachers that, unless otherwise stated in their contracts, anything that they create as part of their job duties probably belongs to a school district.

In light of all licensing and ownership issues, the experts say, there are a few things teachers and PD coordinators should keep in mind, as they use lesson-sharing sites for professional development. First of all, make sure what you produce is truly yours.

If you download someone else’s lesson, make sure you know the terms of the license. And if you plan to build a larger professional community or brand, then insist on maintaining ownership and control of your work.

In other words, dull and uninspiring though it is: Read the fine print.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Online Lesson Sites Raise Issues of Ownership, Use


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