Open Content in K-12 Education

Lisa A. Petrides discusses and answers questions about "open content" — shared resources educators can use, change, and republish for their own use.

July 24, 2008

Open Content in K-12 Education

Andrew Trotter (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to Education Week’s Live Chat. Joining us today is Lisa A. Petrides, head of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, a nonprofit group based in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Her group operates the OER Commons, a network that enables educators to share and collaborate on creating open educational resources. In this Live Chat, she will discuss and answer your questions about such “open content,” which are free for others to use, change, and republish. Some K-12 educators are eager to draw upon a wealth of open content that is available online--both to benefit their students and to stretch budgets for curriculum materials. Open content has been a hot topic at some educational conferences this summer. I’m Andrew Trotter, an assistant editor at Education Week and Digital Directions, and I’ll be moderating this discussion with our guest, who has a unique background and perspective on open content, the subject of a story in the July 16 issue of Education Week. We’ve already received numerous questions for this chat, so let’s get right to them.

Question from Howard Lurie, Director of Professinonal Development, WGBH Teachers’ Domain:

Given the increasing use of Open Content by teachers and students to create new digital projects, what kinds curriculum and background resources might be needed to explore copyright and intellectual property issues?

Lisa A. Petrides:

We need to continue to raise awareness about issues of copyright through workshops, online materials, etc., as part of the professional development of teachers. In our workshops with teachers as well as through our research studies, perhaps not surprisingly, teachers search the web for materials and are happy to find any high quality materials that are easy to use. Yet like many people who use the Internet, they don’t necessarily take copyright into consideration. This behavior in the digital world is really the same as the paper-based world. Have you ever seen, or been a teacher who, in our under-resourced education system, combs through books looking for great examples or exercises for their students, and simply photocopies the best pages to use? This is what we see online. Except that the difference now is that there are some great tools to facilitate this process. is among the best, but is not widely known in the education community. Within Creative Commons, creators of content can stipulate the conditions of use through a set of options that really unpacks the “all rights reserved” as we know it, in simple pieces—like if you want to share it, want someone to modify it, or if you would allow people to make commercial use of it. We have created some materials about copyright and licensing for teachers that can be found on Connexions, an open content authoring platform: There are also some good materials created by Judy Baker from Foothill De Anza Community College District, also on Connexions:

This is very similar to the way that people are thinking about music nowadays as well. Of course, there is, and have been, materials that are put in the public domain. It seems to me that materials that we create with federal grants and the like, should be available for anyone to use, since these are paid for already with tax dollars.

In terms of students, I think we have to learn from what we have seen in music downloading—which is that there need to be not only clear rules about what is allowed, but more importantly, tools that allow them to easily distinguish what materials are in fact available for download, sharing, or remixing—since these are really the “legal” categories that we need to worry about. In fact, today, there are many platforms that do allow people to both create as well as use educational materials that are open and freely available for use and modification. Here is a good blog post that lists a few of them:

Question from Ronnie HS teacher Paterson, NJ:

The problem I currently see with online material is its overabundance, varying quality and applicability to specific needs, and therefore difficulty in finding. In other words, is it time-justified to search out what is needed? Perhaps a solution is peer ratings (using rubrics; ala Netflix and YouTube) and standardized categorizations by grade-level, subject matter, type of posting (unit plan, lesson plan, supplemental, etc.), and estimated time it would take to “do” the posting. Only then will the cream float to the top and be readily found. Please comment/ correct my thinking. thanks.

Lisa A. Petrides:

Some online teaching and learning networks, like, have attempted to aggregate metadata from a myriad of open content collections across the world, and to provide grade-level, subject matter, type of material, etc. In addition, many of these systems do use ratings of some type, although I think we are learning all the time from users what they want and what is most useful. In a recent user study we found that teachers wanted more than a simple star rating of 1-5. They much preferred to have more detailed information about how the item was used, what its impact was, what type of classroom or learning context the material was used in, etc. However, other users have said that a simple rating was at least one easy way of looking at the data. Of course this means that users do have to actually rate items to be useful to others! So once thousands of people start rating items, these will become more meaningful, particularly if we know something about the rater as well (for example, that was highly rated by a high-school algebra teacher in England, as opposed to a rating made by a high school student looking for supplementary materials for his or her own learning).

Question from Sandra Parker, Business Development,

Is the intent to provide free downloads of the open content as well as provide an option to purchase the content in print?

Lisa A. Petrides:

The global open content “movement” has several different perspectives on what people believe the conditions of use of open resources should be. Last year, a declaration of sorts was crafted that attempted to incorporate these viewpoints into a statement of support for open education generally. This can be found here: So, to answer your question, I would say that at most basic level, open content is something that is freely available for use and sharing. This would include downloading. However, it is also important to note that through Creative Commons for example, individual creators of open content can choose to allow for the provision of commercial use of that content. Meaning, that someone can take that content, and freely repackage it for sale. That could be for sale in print, or for sale electronically.

Question from Gwen Gerber Video Program Marketer:

If there is just free content, where will the money come to support new production? Science never sleeps!

Lisa A. Petrides:

I like to think that the money to support new production for science materials will come from where it has already come from. Let’s think about where public education currently supports this type of content. Here’s just one example: there have been hundreds of millions of dollars granted by the National Science Foundation in STEM related areas over the years to partner science researchers with classroom teachers, and terrific materials have been created. But do we even know where all those gems are today? They might have been on a server of a faculty member who is no longer at the institution, of in need of a technology update for a simulation to run, but the funds have run out. Why not open them up and let others tinker and retool them, similar to how open source software gets improved over time? So my point simply is that there is lot of great content already out there available for education use, and secondly, the mechanisms that created that content in the first place, should be leverage to continue to create that content. Except, let’s provide, in this online world we live in, a means by which we can actually collect them, track them, open them up for improvement over time. Not just lock them away on a server, in a closet, out of the reach of our learners.

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Faculty, Wilmington University & Retired Principal (MD/DE):

What is the role of the building principal as the “Instructional Leader” and/or “Learning Leader” in supporting teachers’ use of open content in K-12 schools? What is the liability issue to the principal in supporting the use of open content in K-12 schools?

Lisa A. Petrides:

The role of the principal as instructional leader is really key in supporting teachers’ use of open content. First, this means a reconceptualization of the teacher as the person who has extensive knowledge about curriculum, as opposed to someone who is merely a delivery mechanism. There are many who will disagree with that statement, but even if you look at current textbooks, it is often teachers who are hired to write those textbooks—so they certainly do have, or have acquired over time, the expertise to be developing curriculum. I often hear of teachers retiring with huge tomes of curriculum that they have developed over three or four decades that just go to waste. Yet, even though we know this is commonplace, teachers don’t often get the support they need from their principals or in their professional development to necessarily take these materials to the next level. So I would say, that the role of the principal would be to encourage the sharing of these materials, facilitate the process of feedback and critique so that they materials are improved over time—then we have a real transformation of teaching and learning taking place!

In terms of the legal issues, of course there are the issues of copyright that must be adhered to, particularly if teachers over time have been taking bits and pieces of other copyrighted materials and integrating them into their own materials.. This can be dicey. But, if starting from now, we made sure that materials had, for example, one of the Creative Commons’ licenses on them (or if they were placed in the Public Domain), then others could be certain about whether or not these materials could be shared or modified in the future.

Question from Brian Miller, Technology Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

I am wondering how teachers, administrators, and other curriculum experts integrate or choose between open content, and content from state- or district-funded resources? If faced with a choice of a textbook or other resource that is available with state funds, and a free open-content resource, which one wins out when you have limited time or competing lesson plans? If your state funds pay for textbooks, will you be more or less inclined to adopt those if you can get open content? What factors go into your decision? Should proprietary content integrate open content to make your choices easier?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Many questions here! So let me try to sort them out one by one. First, I would say content that is a) of the highest quality, b) most readily available, c) easiest to find, use and modify for specific purposes, and d) aligned with state standards, is what should win out. I might ask, if state funds are available for textbooks, might some of those same funds also be used to create open content as well? After all, state funds, are public monies. In terms of creating the materials themselves, yes, textbooks are important, but so is the process by which teachers craft and integrate what they have learned about teaching in the classroom into the materials themselves. I think that is what an “open” perspective is more likely to bring into teaching and learning because it puts the teacher in control of the relationship between materials and pedagogy. Again, remember, there are also supplementary materials, not just textbooks, that are needed and in demand. In terms of costs, we don’t yet really know what the true cost is of teachers creating content. Lastly, in terms of combining content—one would have to be certain about licensing and how materials can be used together, if these are being integrated into one new resource.

Question from George Peternel, Associate Director, Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University:

The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) makes available online a Digital Information Fluency (DIF) model to help researchers find, evaluate and use digital information effectively, efficiently and ethically. Are there similar models/resources out there that specifically guide teachers in how to navigate through the world of open content?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Yes, that is extremely important. This is an area that many of us around the world are working on. I’ve mentioned a few already (the training materials in Connexions, specifically), and as we speak there are dozens of individuals, organizations, schools, and even governments creating models and resources to help guide teachers. Because this is still a very nascent movement, there are multiple efforts, and we are all learning from each other at a rapid rate. Think search engines 1998!

There’s a lot of energy around open “books” right now, including textbooks. For example, a new initiative around creating open textbooks is brewing here in California around Community College as well:, which will work with instructors to incorporate open content into their teaching.

In South Africa, there is the Free High School Science Texts project, which is working with teachers to create high school science textbooks: Here is an interview with the found of that project as well:

The state of Utah has just created the Open High School of Utah: And The Orange Grove, a K-20 digital repository in Florida,, just to name a few.

Question from Patricia Majors, ESOL Teacher, Charleston County School District:

I am assuming that the open content is a resource, and like any other resource, qualified educators would make the final decisions whether to use or modify the material. Is this correct?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Absolutely. In terms of schools and school districts, teachers and curriculum leads are the most qualified to be making those decisions and modifying for their needs. However, we also find that parents are looking for materials to help their children at home, and they might have different needs. So in the school context, educators are the experts. But there are other informal learning environments that open content can also support, such as after school tutoring programs, museums, learning centers, etc.

Question from Guofeng Wei, PhD in pedagogy,Beijing National Day School:

In China, as far as I know from my school experience,teachers now would very much like to use open content in their classroom. On many web sites there are a lot of free teaching resources such as PPT course ware or lesson plans for you to share. But if open content is to be sort of value added, teachers need to be more professionalized. What quality is needed for a teacher to effectively use open content?

Lisa A. Petrides:

I think most important is some training around how to vet online content, or at least to have a set of criteria in mind as they look for high quality content. There are many good examples of this. Here is just one link to some:

Question from Cathy Poplin, Arizona Department of Education, Deputy Assoc. Supt. for Ed Tech:

Please give us your definition of digital content. Also, explain how you see K - 12 embracing the new K - 12 iTunesU area that was spreadheaded by SETDA (State Educational Technology Directors Association) and Apple, Inc. Is a class project created by a child classified as digital content? If so, how will they be tagged to allow educators to wade through the vast amount of student created digital content?

Lisa A. Petrides:

In the case of educational digital content, this can be anything from lesson plans to syllabi, assessments and assignment, to podcasts, videos, games, and any ways that people share knowledge, such as through discussions, blogs, or working together, such as through wikis. Digital content can be used and shared via the web, or within a software application, but we also should include content created and transmitted on mobile devices as well as those shared on CDs, DVDs, or printed out, for the many instances in which connectivity is not available or desired. This includes materials created by students as well.

iTunesU has already offered access to podcasts, in the form of college lectures, etc. The potential for K-12 educators to capture their classroom activities in this way also exists, although schools don’t typically have the same access to infrastructure to record, process, and distribute finished audio and video content. It is a challenge to wade through resources, from both teachers and students, but as I mentioned earlier, there are ways, through ratings and reviews in which we can ensure quality does rise to the top, while the experience of making rich media in the classroom offers learning opportunities for students and their teachers.

Question from Lawrence Vincent, Head of English Department, Engadine High School:

Shouldn’t a teacher be able to evaluate and accurately measure the relevance of an open content piece against standards and benchmarks?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Yes, most definitely. Teaching materials in the classroom need to be aligned to standards and there is a lot of research work being done in this area. There are currently different methods of doing this in online world. I was recently working the European SchoolNet in Brussels, and they are trying to do this across 26 EU countries and in multiple languages! In this country, a good example is Teachers Domain. For example, if you go to this resource, and click on the bottom tab where it says “standards” you can see what it is aligned to:

Question from Gabe Kaimowitz, consultant, Caring & Sharing Learning Center, 3-5, Gainesville, FL:

In open content programs, have art and music bewb tied to core subjects required by law in my state? Without such connection, my local school district this year axed the elementary school music and art programs in half.

Lisa A. Petrides:

I’m not certain about the standards specifically in Florida, but this is a very interesting and important problem that I think can be addressed by the process of creating open education content. For example, we had one case where teachers were looking for content on OER Commons on bird flu, to teach in a biology class. In addition to some great biology resources, what they found were oral histories about the influenza epidemic in the early 1900s. They ended up using these oral histories to help teach the science of biology to their students, which is a great interdisciplinary example. So, in terms of your question, I think we can more creatively find resources that could be integrated in this same way across the arts and music. Of course trying to get these important subjects back into state standards and into classrooms is key!

Question from Julie Shively, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, Department of Education:

This appears to be a great resource for teachers, but how will they know that the sites they use are valid?

Lisa A. Petrides:

We built the OER Commons initiative by bringing together collections from content providers that already have some interval vetting process in place and have some recognition around quality. We’re looking at how, in a more bottom-up way, individuals and groups can review and/or endorse content, and have that context “attached” to the resource when they search for content. If a group of teachers wish to mark sites and resources as favorites or high-quality, their annotation or stamp of approval should be easily findable by the group members or like-minded users generally.

Question from Al Peabody, Ex HS math tchr, Tutor in K-12 Sci & Math, Cleveland Hts., OH:

Argument stated is: “But critics raise concerns that such content might not be evaluated and revised by experts, leaving it open for educators to add inaccurate information or poorly conceived ideas.”

Yet again today I ran across two significant errors in a Math text, major Co., typical of all texts I have ever read or used (I will probably run into a dozen more as I continue using it). So much for review by panel of experts. Is it the teachers who are “concerned”, or just the money-hungry publishers, writers, and jealous/arrogant “Experts”? One has only to look at Wikipedia to see not only the upside and downside of openness, but also the amazing self-correcting aspect of open but moderated criticism.

Lisa A. Petrides:

Let’s face it, we’re only human, and mistakes are bound to occur in everything we do. The good news about open, as in the example of wikipedia that you give, is that in an open environment, the mistakes are more transparent and more easily fixable.

Question from Linda L Summitt, Science Educator:

Sharing the material is excellent and helps educators keep more up to date on news and technology; however,it must be emphsized,if educators within systems do not discuss and observe certain standards students may see or use the say materials over several times and become bored as with any other presentation style. Another problem is that educators should never use open content material without first previewing and completely understanding the material themselves; like other materials they are aids, not replacements.

Lisa A. Petrides:

Yes, and I think you make an important point that we need to think of open content as a process, not just as an end product. The new opportunity is that because a resource is open, teachers can freely engage around that resource, modifying, improving, incorporating feedback from students, etc.

Question from Mark VandenBerge, Van Andel Institutue/ IT Managers Assoc:

hello-- This concerns science education. One of the most powerful learning environments for teaching science is that of “inquiry-based learning.” The student is given raw materials and some possible hypotheses, however, the job of discovering answers needs to be up to him/ her vs. the teacher (fellow students on the assignments can assist somewhat)

Given the amount of plagiarism that occurs in cyberspace for academic excercise, does the wiki platform defeat the inquiry need for INDIVIDUAL hands-on, student-centered discovery?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Inquiry-based learning is a key component to advancing and innovating all kinds of learning, and is especially vital to teaching and learning science. We’ve been working with the BioQuest Curriculum Consortium ( that teaches instructors how to model investigative case-based learning and problem space building for their students in order to innovate science education. In this mode, open education resources are an important component, because resources must be continuously updated and made current and integrated into feedback loops with other collaborators. Science learning can’t be limited to individuals working alone, nor does a wiki address all ways that people create. Many tools and environments, online and offline, contribute to creating quality resources and experiments where it’s ok to make mistakes on one’s own and with others; but processes that use sharing allow mechanisms for improvement, where learning can keep happening.

Question from Jean Farley Brown, Production Coordinator, InContext Publishing Partners:

I think the open content movement is exciting but I have not seen much about equipping individual teachers to work this way. I would like to hear more about how teachers are trained, assessed, and supported as they wrangle the massive amounts of wonderful content they find, and manage their classrooms. No doubt there is valuable open-content material available, but if the teachers are not prepared and/or qualified it won’t help students.

Lisa A. Petrides:

It’s important to remember that this is a relatively new phenomenon, so it’s just now that some of these trainings are being developed. I’ve just returned from helping to facilitate a workshop for 50 teachers from former eastern bloc countries that have recently joined the European Union, and they were very eager to dive into the world of open resources. It’s a time consuming process, one teacher at a time, but the good news is that its a very collaborative process that engages teachers and helps them see themselves as part of the larger whole.

Question from Mark Donovan, Assistant Superintendent, Woburn (MA) Public Schools:

Can open source materials be used to deliver online professional development? I’m thinking platforms such as Moodle to deliver online workshops or courses to teachers. Any thoughts?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Open content can be used and is being used to deliver professional development. We conduct workshops with instructors about the creation and use of open content to bring them deeper in the the role of curriculum creator, author, and remixer. Courses delivered in learning management systems, such as Moodle, could be made accessible. Those systems are closed, in part to protect student privacy, but the course materials themselves could be made open and searchable, while collaboration across courses has the same potential for improvement as it does in any environment.

Question from Jacqueline Miller, Senior Research Scientist, Education Development Center:

You allude to the hundreds of millions of dollars that NSF has invested in curriculum projects. To date these have become the property of for profit publishers. How do you see these developed programs interfacing with open source and reaching the large teaching population for whom they were intended? How might their use be supported by professional development?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Write to our congresspeople? :)

I think many tax-funded programs are beginning to look at these same issues. Certainly, the open source journals have been leading the way on that, and we have a lot to learn from that movement. And more recently, the digital libraries as well.

Question from Ronald Brill, Coping Skills for Kids Internet Project director:

Open education resources via the Internet have an added value to classroom education. Do you believe that referring students to pre-screened free, open-access learning websites has an added benefit in that we are teaching students to become more SELF-DIRECTED learners?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Encouraging teachers and students to access learning resources and knowledge via the web is a process that underscores investigative and self-directed learning techniques. In addition, being able to respond and interact in discussions, use collaborative tools, remix media, etc., are also processes that encourage the DIY (do it yourself) and do-it-together, hands-on nature of learning, that traditional modes might not support.

Question from Donna Bowman, Librarian, University of Regina, Canada:

What about using Wikipedia entries in teaching? Having teachers or students revise, or create, a Wikipedia entry on a particular topic? One of our professors here did that in a class last academic year.

Lisa A. Petrides:

That’s a real creative idea, working with students to help them create and craft a Wikipedia entry. In this Web 2.0 world, it’s certainly a great learning experience to understand how information and knowledge are created, who or what is the authority, and how continuous learning can be a very valuable process when it is so transparent. And of course, the “pedia” of my youth, the Encyclopedia, was often the first point of reference I used when wanting to write a paper on a particular topic.

Question from John Concilus, Administrator, Bering Strait School District:

Ray Ozzie and others have said that Microsoft’s biggest threat is Open Source. Is Open Content a threat to the existing textbook and publishing industry?

Lisa A. Petrides:

That’s a difficult question to answer. I suppose potentially it is a threat. Think of the recording industry and what happened there. However, even in music, new models are developing, and people are still creating and innovating with new modes of production. But specifically in education, perhaps the threat should really be a call to action. In terms of education, does everyone have access? Is what we are doing making significant progress in our children’s lives? In our society as a whole? If not, what are the necessary transformations to make that happen. We’ve seen that happen with Open Source and Linux, Ubuntu, etc. I think it’s time to test these concepts in education as well.

Question from Anne Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Professor, Indiana University:

How are teachers using open content, or open educational resources? Can teachers or K-12 administrators provide some good and poor examples?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Currently, teachers often use open content the same as they do any other content they find on the internet; they may not be aware that curriculum or other materials have licensing or permissions that allows sharing or modifying in new and explicit ways. We see this as part of a larger paradigm shift where teachers becomes familiar with and comfortable with adapting open materials to their own uses and then sharing it back again for the benefit of others, or so others can continue to improve upon it. It’s less about good/bad, but about supporting incremental improvement and innovation rather than being bound by static resources.

Andrew Trotter (Moderator):

Questions have been streaming in, and Ms. Petrides has graciously agreed to stay with us until 2:15 EST.

Question from Derek Kalahar, QED, Market Analyst:

How will the platforms (websites) be financed?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Ah, the million dollar question. Currently many of the platforms are financed by private foundation dollars. This isn’t a long-term strategy, but I think from a research and development perspective, crucial. What other fields can you name (i.e. medical, high tech) where massive amounts of money did not go into early stage development? I think that is where we are now, except what education gets for R&D is a pittance compared to other industries. So we are often asked to do more with less (and everyday this is more so). I think optimally, we might see a combination of some for-profit models blended with a strong public education model. Meaning, the money we currently spend in public education could be allocated into the “open” space. Particularly if we believe that access to education is as important as having access to clean water, safe shelter, etc.

Question from Peter Levy, Curriki:

Given that teachers will ultimately want to use a mix of free and proprietary content in their classrooms, what do you envision as the single platform that will facilitate this use case?

Lisa A. Petrides:

Good question. As teachers become more aware of the restrictions that govern content, and as the freedoms and limitations themselves evolve, we hope that it will become simpler to use to use and share content in the classroom. Understanding IP is not simple, and differs in every country, so making it easy for teachers and students to do is the challenge. As to the question of a single platform, I think what we’ve learned from the onslaught of social networking applications, is that it is going to be all about interoperabilty, and how we build interfaces that feed out to world will be key.

Question from William McDonald, Director Curriculum Development, Discovery Education:

Can you speak about the grade levels for which open content material is created? I’ve noted that much of it is aimed at high school or college level, with relatively little that can be used for elementary and middle school due to vocabulary and concepts.

Lisa A. Petrides:

It’s being created for all grade levels. Stay tuned as more of this comes online. One example is LearnNC in North Carolina: But there are many more!

Andrew Trotter (Moderator):

We have had many questions today and stretched the chat longer than scheduled. Thanks for your participation. And thanks to our hard-working guest, Lisa Petrides. You can visit the OER Commons online at A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week’s Web site shortly:

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