N.Y. ‘Open’ Education Effort Draws Users Nationwide

By Sean Cavanagh — June 09, 2015 9 min read
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An online library of academic materials created in New York state to align with the Common Core State Standards has improbably found a vast, nationwide audience—which doesn’t have to pay a cent for the content.

The resources, developed through a project called EngageNY and housed on a state-managed website, have been downloaded an estimated 20 million times by educators and others in states around the country, and even in foreign countries, according to estimates provided by New York officials.

The project is one of the most ambitious to date in K-12 to develop and disseminate “open educational resources,” typically defined as materials created on licenses that permit their free sharing and repurposing.

While interest in those materials in states and districts has risen, some say the adoption of the common core has intensified demand for them among school officials dissatisfied with traditional commercial offerings and wary of absorbing hefty new instructional content costs.

In addition to EngageNY, a nascent multistate effort, the K-12 OER Collaborative, is seeking to deliver free, common-core-aligned open resources on a national scale.

The free availability of open resources through those two projects does not mean, however, that they’ve dispensed with the commercial model entirely.

Each entity has its own built-in mechanisms that allow either for-profit or non-profit entities to make money through the open model. Supporters say those approaches create incentives for content developers to invest heavily in fashioning high-quality open material—and create viable business models for sustaining those resources.

Critics, however, see those strategies as allowing commercial providers to reap unnecessary windfalls.

Backers of EngageNY say the growing interest in the resources is a sign of educators’ demand for reliable content aligned with the common core—and other new standards adopted by states—and their displeasure with many of the commercial options marketed to them.

“There is momentum around the production of these materials,” said Kate Gerson, a former senior fellow at the Regents Research Fund, a nonprofit that supports the New York state education department and worked on EngageNY. “Teachers are scrappy. They’ll find what they need.”

Company Contributions

Open educational resources are generally described as resources released under a license that allows their free use, remix, and sharing by others. The most recognized source of those agreements is Creative Commons, a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit, established in 2001, which says it has issued hundreds of millions of open licenses to date.

Because open resources are offered for free, efforts to develop and sustain open resources traditionally have relied on support from philanthropies, nonprofits, and universities to cover the costs. States have also shown an interest: 26 states are promoting open educational resources through policies, and 18 states have taken steps to share them with districts, according to a recent report by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Education Week’s Sean Cavanagh offers a primer on “open educational resources” and school districts’ experiments with them.

New York’s plan for EngageNY was funded through the state’s $700 million federal Race to the Top award in 2010. In 2011, the state put forward a request for proposals, asking content developers to bid to produce open resources for the online portal. That solicitation quickly stalled out: No vendors responded. State officials had included strong language in the RFP granting New York ownership of all the materials produced for EngageNY. Ken Wagner, New York’s senior deputy commissioner for education policy, said in an interview the state interpreted vendors’ indifference to the RFP to mean they saw the rules as too restrictive and that their state contracts would not allow them to recoup their costs.

In response, New York officials released a revised RFP that made it clear the copyright for creating the material belonged to the vendors, and allowed them—independent of the free content they were required to churn out for EngageNY—to commercialize their materials through other product offerings.

Vendors responded, and four were chosen to produce content for EngageNY: Expeditionary Learning, a New York City nonprofit; Great Minds, a nonprofit based in Washington; PCG Education, a Boston for-profit; and the Core Knowledge Foundation, a Charlottesville, Va. nonprofit. They were paid a combined $36.6 million by the state to develop curriculum modules.

Today, all four content providers are trying to capitalize on the commercial opportunity allowed by the project.

Core Knowledge, for instance, has a licensing agreement with Amplify, a New York City-based ed-tech company, to provide printed, collected versions of the otherwise free EngageNY materials, most likely to entire districts needing big quantities of them, at a cost. Expeditionary Learning charges for providing schools and districts with professional development and coaching on its EngageNY materials.

See Also

Multistate Effort Brings ‘Open’ Content to Broad Audience

“The economics of [the arrangement] was that contract with New York paid our direct costs,” said Scott Hartl, the CEO of Expeditionary Learning, “but it did not provide the kind of ongoing margin or profit” to allow his organization to develop and promote the use of those resources in classrooms as extensively as possible.

Great Minds, among its other offerings, is providing an enhanced version of its math content in HTML form designed to make it easily navigable, and enhanced through an online platform with embedded videos, teacher tools, and other features.

EngageNY’s materials have fared well under scrutiny from a number of outside entities judging the resources’ common-core alignment. For instance, a review of a math curriculum developed by Great Minds for EngageNY, called Eureka Math, was deemed to be aligned at all grades evaluated by the nonprofit reviewer

Going forward, New York officials face questions about how they will continue to manage the online resources. The state’s original contracts with vendors for EngageNY will expire later this month, said Mr. Wagner, of the state department of education.

While the agency will continue to support EngageNY and help users of the site, Mr. Wagner said the state is considering options for how it will manage the materials, which include having the state handle those duties; collaborating with other public entities in New York, such as school districts or state Boards of Cooperative Educational Services; or forging partnerships with other states.

Quality Questions

Skeptics have long questioned the quality of open-educational resources, as well as how they could be sustained without a source of revenue to allow the materials to be improved over time.

But Ms. Gerson, of the Regents Research Fund, argued that New York’s approach builds an incentive for content developers to put a lot of care into producing materials that stand up to scrutiny."You have to solve the who-pays-for-it question, if you’re going to develop good material,” she said.

Absent viable business models, developers of open-educational resources become dependent on foundations and other sources—and susceptible to charges that they’re being influenced by those entities, argued Lynne Munson, the president of Great Minds.

“We’d rather have teachers and others exerting that influence,” she added, based on their choice of materials.

Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York, doesn’t buy that argument. Ms. Burris, a frequent critic of the common-core standards and what she sees as corporate profiteering from public education, said there was no reason commercial vendors needed a route to make money from EngageNY, beyond the millions of dollars the state had paid them.

“All the development work was funded by taxpayers,” she said. “and now it’s becoming products.”

Ms. Burris also said EngageNY’s content reflects flaws she and others see in the common core standards. In her view, the standards place an overemphasis on informational texts, and encourage reading of literature in “snippets and pieces,” rather than in a more holistic and rewarding way.

A Teacher’s Perspective

The open resources planned by the K-12 OER Collaborative, meanwhile, allow for commercialization in an even broader form. Once the open resources are developed, other users—whether for-profit or nonprofit—will be able to take that material and use it however they want, including for the development of entirely new, different products.

There’s a persistent “schism” in the open-education community between those who want to keep commercial influences out entirely, and those who want the fewest restrictions possible, said Cable T. Green, the director of global learning for Creative Commons, which consulted on the collaborative project.

The latter option—favored by the collaborative—is based on the idea that the ultimate goal is to create more “downstream options” and innovations flowing out of open resources, Mr. Green said, so that you can “maximize the cool stuff people can do,” no matter who’s doing it.

Open resources have long been viewed warily by some commercial publishers and content producers, who see the materials as inferior and stale.

Yet publishers’ views have evolved somewhat, as they’ve found ways to weave open resources into their business models, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Washington-based Association of American Publishers’ pre-K-12 division.

“There’s been an uptick in open educational resource development that leaves the door open to commercial involvement,” Mr. Diskey said.

The AAP is not opposed to open resources, Mr. Diskey said, but it does not favor allowing public agencies to bankroll them—as was the case with EngageNY.

“Governments should not compete with their citizens"—whether for-profit, nonprofit, or other content producers, he said. “We believe in a market” without such interference.

Regardless of EngageNY’s origins, Janet H. Blenheim, the K-5 math coach and curriculum leader for the Upper Dublin, Pa., school district, says she can testify to its value.

Her district reviewed numerous commercial programs in trying to find materials that reflected the common core, but found them offering the “same-old, same-old,” she recalled.

The 4,000-student district began using EngageNY last year. Teachers struggled initially to understand the math content and terminology, but now Ms. Blenheim says she credits the resources with building a deeper understanding of math among teachers and students.

She also regularly trades ideas with other EngageNY users around the country, including a Wisconsin district that recently asked for her input on the math content.

“It’s exciting because we’re having conversations, not just across our schools,” she said, “but across counties, and across states.”

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as N.Y. ‘Open’ Content Going Nationwide


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