New ‘Open’ Ed. Project to Challenge Commercial Publishers for K-12 Work

By Sean Cavanagh — September 16, 2016 6 min read
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Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog

An open educational resources provider is attempting to bring its free and shareable materials into schools on a large scale, with ambitions to compete directly with commercial publishers for big K-12 contracts.

Open Up Resources, a nonprofit that until recently was called the K-12 OER Collaborative, says it will offer openly licensed materials to school districts, and predicts it will achieve savings from what those systems would normally pay for commercial materials.

It also says it will provide open resources at “curriculum-scale,” across entire subjects and grade levels, as an alternative to existing textbooks. That model would be a break from the norm with many open resources, which are individual units and lessons selected by individual teachers.

Open Up Resources is led by CEO Larry Singer, the former managing director for Pearson’s K-12 North American sales. He said the organization will offer its core open resources to school districts for free, under a license issued by Creative Commons--with ancillary support services for a price.

Open resources are materials established on licenses that typically allow them to be redistributed, altered, and shared as long as the uses are noncommercial. (On a related note, see our recent coverage of a potentially important lawsuit brought by an open education provider, Great Minds, against FedEx. The company is accused of making a profit by copying schools’ resources without compensating the creator of the materials.)

Initially, the only curriculum available through the organization is Illustrative Mathematics, resources for middle school math that have been developed by University of Arizona professor William McCallum. But Open Up Resources will soon release a set of English-language arts curriculum, too, and other materials will come after that, Singer said in an interview.

A small set of districts will begin using the materials during the 2016-17 school year, and they will be released more broadly in 2017-18. The districts are the Sunnyside Unified School District in Arizona; Galt Joint Union Elementary School District in California; Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina; and the Evergreen Public Schools and the Tumwater School District in Washington state, according to Open Up Resources.

One of the biggest criticisms of open resources levied by for-profit publishers is that the free materials don’t have a steady source of revenue that can be used to revise and improve them. The result, critics say, is that schools are left with static resources that grow stale, or lack supports and digital features that commercial companies are likely to offer.

Open Up Resources says it will break through those barriers. It promises to respond to RFPs put forward by districts requesting curriculum, going after the same contracts that traditional commercial vendors pursue. It will offer its core open resources for free--but it will also bring in money to sustain its operations by offering ancillary services, for a fee.

Those commercial offerings will include professional development to K-12 systems; printing and distribution services; and support and maintenance for districts seeking to use digital versions of the open materials.

Open Up Resources officials see those services not only as ways to raise money, but also as areas of need for K-12 systems when they end up choosing open materials, help that many teachers do not receive.

District buyers will essentially be given a “pick list” of options to choose from and pay for, Singer explained. All five of the initial districts working with Open Up are buying some form of the commercial services, he said.

Open Up Resources is coming out the door with lofty expectations: It boasts that its model will allow districts to save up to 80 percent over the costs of adopting materials from traditional publishers, with school systems needing only to pay for the side services that Open Up Resources is offering.

Singer said in an interview that Open Up Resources is initially drawing support from $10 million in philanthropic funds, with money coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, among others.

The organization is likely to need philanthropic support to create additional open academic content, Singer acknowledged. But he also expects that the need for foundation money will phase out, because the existing operations budget will support improvements to the materials, and customers will be able to make them on their own.

As a result, the project’s backers see the overall effort as a potential “market-maker"--forging a path for open resources to compete with commercial entities for large chunks of K-12 work, added Singer.

Maturing Models?

Jay Diskey, the executive director of the PreK-12 learning group for the Association of American Publishers, said he couldn’t say whether the Open Up Resources effort will take off or stall. Schools’ appetite for different flavors of curricula is hard to predict, he said.

“People will often say, ‘Districts think this way, or that way,’” when it comes to buying, Diskey said, “but the reality is, it’s a very decentralized process.”

But Diskey questioned whether the initial philanthropic funding Open Up Resources is receiving would be sufficient to meet its goals. The publishers’ organization has argued that proponents of open materials often underestimate the costs of producing high-quality content, whereas commercial providers have a strong incentive to do so.

Diskey also said that PD and related services the organization is offering amount to a “recognition” of the difficulty that many teachers and schools have in making open materials work for them without substantial wrap-around help.

For a long time, the message coming from backers of open materials seemed to be simply, “we’re free, we’re free, we’re free,” Diskey said. With efforts like Open Up Resources, “it’s clear we’re seeing a maturing of business models.”

Open Up Resources says it will only partner with organizations creating content that distribute materials on an open license from the organization, Creative Commons, known as CC BY. Districts will be able to do whatever they want with the materials, as long as they give proper attribution to the content-creators, Singer said.

The K-12 OER Collaborative was an effort launched by 13 states, under the development of the Learning Accelerator, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit. But as the organization began to focus on providing open resources to districts, there were concerns that states could face a conflict of interest if they were involved in supporting efforts to bring those resources into the market, Singer said.

The states have played an important role in starting the project, but now, Open Up Resources is operating as its own, independent nonprofit, and no longer a “collaborative” of states, he said.

Initially, the organization put out an RFP for organizations to produce open content, which drew more than 60 responses. But Open Up Resource officials were looking for content-producers deemed to be viable and sustainable, and very few met that mark. Illustrative Mathematics was one that did, Singer said.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.