School districts to use openly licensed online content over textbooks — officials

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The Department of Education is asking schools to swap out at least one textbook with openly licensed educational resources, and 10 districts will comply within the next year, federal officials announced Thursday.

The new initiative, called #GoOpen, was part of the agency’s push to make copyrighted content publicly and widely available so schools can use, and teachers can customize, the content for their students — at no charge. As EdScoop reported Tuesday, the agency is proposing a new regulation that would require all copyrightable intellectual property created with federal grants to have an open license.

“In order to ensure that all students — no matter their ZIP code — have access to high-quality learning resources, we are encouraging districts and states to move away from traditional textbooks and toward freely accessible, openly licensed materials,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is being replaced by deputy John King when he steps down in January.

In later remarks at the White House, Duncan added that taking textbooks out of the equation would be a huge cost saver for schools.

“If we can stop buying textbooks, $8 billion a year frees up,” he said. “In tough economic times, how do we keep spending on things that are obsolete?”

An Education Department spokeswoman said the proposed regulation would apply to all of the roughly 3,000 grants the department gives out, including well-known programs like Race to the Top, which funds personalized learning initiatives.

Companies like Amazon, Edmodo and Microsoft are providing infrastructure and developer support on the department’s bank of educational content, which runs on the Amazon Web Services cloud. Microsoft tools like Docs.com, Sway and OneNote Class Notebooks will have new features that allow educators to rate and share openly licensed educational materials.

Creative Commons USA, which advocates for open, shareable content, sent a letter to the department in August urging officials to require all recipients of federal grants to make their projects openly licensed. They applauded the government’s decision to propose a change in the regulations.

Making the content open is an “opportunity for public money to be used for the broadest public benefit,” said Meredith Jacob of Creative Commons, which is stationed at American University’s Washington College of Law.

But publishing experts said they are concerned about possible overreach by the federal government, since selecting content is usually left up to teachers and local schools and districts, as well as how the educational materials will be vetted.

The new initiative “does make us wonder how far the Department of Education and some other federal
agencies may go in the direction of local curriculum decisions,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group at the Association of American Publishers. “It
would seem, at first blush, that this sort of announcement certainly has the
potential to pull the federal government closer to getting into the curriculum business.”

Joseph South, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology, said the objective is to support districts who want to use open educational resources rather than decide what curricula schools use.

“We don’t dictate what the content is, we don’t dictate how it’s done – that’s not our role,” he said. “But what we are doing is bringing together districts who want to do it, and we are prepared to support it.”

He added that the 10 school districts were selected based on their commitment to rethinking how classrooms can be modernized for the technology age.

“If you don’t have the digital ecosystem in place first, then you’re going to trip over yourself trying to do something like this,” South said. “We tried to start with districts who already had that [infrastructure] in order, which lays the foundation for them to be ale to do something new.”

Diskey said that content creators can still copyright their material, but if a district goes with openly licensed resources, that “puts the publisher or technology company in the position of either refusing a potential purchase or choosing to openly license their material.”

“School districts have to look real close if OER can satisfy their requirements,” said Diskey, who added that classes typically use a range of learning materials in different formats. “In my view, probably not.”

Officials are seeking comment on the proposed policy change.

The 10 participating school districts are:

Affton School District, St. Louis

Colonial Public Schools, New Castle, Del.

Oxnard Union High School District, Oxnard, Calif.

Department of Defense Education Activity

Grossmont Union High School District, La Mesa, Calif.

Kettle Moraine School District, Wales, Wis.

Lawrence Public Schools, Lawrence, Kan.

Mentor School District, Mentor, Ohio

Mountain Empire Unified School District, Pine Valley, Calif.

Vista Unified School District, Vista, Calif.

This article was updated to include comments from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Office of Educational Technology officials.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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