Positioning “open” – part 1

Posted by on May 27, 2015 in EdTech Update

Credit: viZZZual.com , CC BY

In marketing most things, including educational materials, positioning is important. Whether it is the short one sentence tag line or the elevator pitch description, how you describe something affects how people view it. I would even argue that coming to consensus on positioning within an organization affects the product or service itself. It becomes the target or the “mission,” if you will.

I’ve been thinking about how to position specific OER curriculum products, especially in the K-12 space.

If you ask most educators if they know what “open licensed” or “OER” or “Creative Commons” is, they will say yes. (This general awareness is fairly new and a triumph for the movement I should note.) But if you ask them more probing questions or more importantly, look at their actual use of content, their knowledge is not evident. Instead, most treat all free and digital materials pretty much the same.

So then the question is how to convey what open really means or what its benefits are. The 5 R’s are useful, but it is a big lift to explain this, and still, I would argue, these aren’t strongly perceived as benefits to many beyond the most innovative teachers. And in fact, to many in the leadership role, they may even be detriments. (That’s another post, I suppose.)

So there is a choice — do you try to educate and convince potential users of the benefits or do you take another path to positioning? Classical marketing thinking would suggest the latter, and I think I agree.

There are many benefits to open educational materials beyond their license — depending on the materials in question, these could include high quality or effectiveness, flexibility (ability to be personalized), ability to empower teachers and learners, cross-platform adaptability (including both print and digital), and of course, being free.

Next post, the pros and cons of positioning OER as “free.”

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K-12 OER Collaborative enters next phase

Posted by on April 27, 2015 in EdTech Update

[Disclosure: I am part of an advisory group for this project.]

Last week, the K-12 OER Collaborative entered the next phase of their project, awarding contracts for rapid prototypes to the following developers:

As a refresher, the K-12 OER Collaborative is a project to create comprehensive CCSS-aligned curriculum for grades K-12 math and English Language Arts that is open licensed under a CC BY license. Quite an ambitious undertaking!

The project recently issued an RFP for content developers to develop rapid prototypes, the results of which “will be a major factor in determining which content developers are selected to move into the full-course development phase of the initiative.”

Many developers have expressed interest in this project, and 24 groups submitted proposals for the rapid prototypes.

While the task of developing these materials is a daunting one, my mind is already racing forward to when these materials are available. What will make schools want to use them? How will this use be supported? In what creative ways can the savings in instructional materials funding be applied to improve teaching and learning?

This may be the one of the important opportunities for OER, blended learning, and CCSS we’ve seen to date. It is imperative that we “get it right.”

Stay tuned for more on this exciting project as it progresses.


The consequences of success

Posted by on March 9, 2015 in EdTech Update

Today, on the first day of Open Education Week, I am happy to say that OER has gained traction in K-12 over the last year.

More and more people are talking about OER. States and funders are putting serious efforts into OER as core curriculum. More high quality OER content is becoming available, and most importantly, more K-12 schools are using and remixing OER.

With that success comes other side effects. One I’ve noticed is that as OER has come into vogue, people are shouting out its availability and often putting the tag “OER” on things that are not in fact OER.


To be clear, OER is “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” (Hewlett Foundation)

Things that are free but copyrighted “all rights reserved” are not OER.

Now I have no interest in acting as the license police, but I think it’s important to use language correctly. Calling things OER that are not open licensed doesn’t serve the movement’s purpose. More to the point, it confuses people.

Sometimes, this mislabeling is merely lack of knowledge on the part of the speaker. Often, when I ask about something like this, I get a response like “Oh, I really didn’t know exactly what OER was. Thanks for clarifying.” Other times, though, it appears to be a blatant marketing attempt to attract more interest through false advertising.

This week and beyond, I’m asking all of us to be precise with our language and to ask about open licenses on materials labeled OER that are indicated as “all rights reserved.” By doing so, we might help clear up some misconceptions, extend awareness of what “open” means, and possibly even get some new materials open licensed.


(Happy post note: I sent a “This looks great, but we don’t see an open license. Are we missing something?” message to someone a couple days ago, and just heard back that they added a CC license to their site. Yay!)


Thinking about open practice

Posted by on February 25, 2015 in EdTech Update, Uncategorized

Credit: opensource.com

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about open learning and with Open Education Week coming up, thought it would be a good time to explore this in more detail.

To be clear, I am not talking about open educational resources (OER), but rather open learning practices. (Is there a common term people are using for this? Open learning? Open pedagogy? Open practice?)

In my mind, this area is somewhat loosely defined, but may be at the heart of why “open” is important.

I’m thinking aloud here, but I think that open practice includes things such as:

  • Learner choice and flexibility
    This is all about learner agency. In an open learning environment, the learners have authentic choice over what they do both in terms of process and product, and they act in a way that is self-directed. By definition, this means that not every student is doing the same thing at the same time. It precludes things like standardization, whole group direct instruction, and scripted, paced lessons.
  • Collaboration and sharing
    Open practice is about drawing upon and sharing with others. Not only do open learners share their process and end products, but they draw on others in the community and beyond to help formulate and shape their learning. This connectivism makes learning deeper and richer.
  • Transparency and open access
    Open learning is done in a way that is quite literally “in the open.” Anyone is welcome to participate. It isn’t done behind a firewall or a log-in screen. It is publicly viewable and inclusive. (This makes me wonder about an equity component to open learning.)

Elements of open learning probably exist in every learning environment, but increasingly, it seems that many formal learning structures are going more toward closed. I worry that this not only hinders learning, but doesn’t prepare students for the real world. In a world that is constantly changing and requires more critical thinking and self-directed learning skills, the rote facts learned in a closed learning environment may not be very helpful.

This makes me wonder if open learning also has something to do with content. To me, open learning is about learning how to learn, how to think, how to design, how to iterate, and how to collaborate. It is not about memorizing facts that aren’t relevant or that can just as easily be looked up somewhere.

I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this. What is the best terminology for this? (Hashtag, anyone?) What constitutes open learning? What are the benefits? How can we encourage more of it?

We’ll also be discussing this in several forums during Open Education Week, including on Teachers Teaching Teachers on Wed., March 11 at 9:00 pm ET. I hope you’ll join in the conversation there, here, on Twitter or on some other platform of your choice.


Open Education Week – Mar. 9-13

Posted by on February 10, 2015 in EdTech Update


It’s that time of year — Open Education Week!

Open Education Week is a celebration of the global Open Education Movement. Its purpose is to raise awareness about the movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide. Participation in all events and use of all resources are free and open to everyone.

You can submit your own events to the Open Education Week calendar here. Otherwise, stay tuned for lots of great free and open events and resources coming soon.


Reflecting on my year of open – part 5/Open dictionary

Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Kids Open Dictionary has been a project of love (self-funded) that I and others have worked on for the last 6 years.

This year, we accomplished some big milestones. Perhaps the most significant to me is that we defined all of the identified high frequency words. Currently, we have over 10,700 words (or approximately 43.8% of the total list) defined. [Caveat: These are not all “final.”]

This year, we also had several requests from folks to use the raw dictionary data for various projects. Most of these were game-type apps. For me, every time we get an email asking for access to the data (which is openly available),  it’s a proof that this is a useful project.

When I think about challenges of this project, there are several. First, from a technical standpoint, we spend a fair amount of time fighting off malicious attacks on the site. Unfortunately, this is a reality of any open, crowd-sourced site. It makes me sad that this is the case.

Another challenge has been the sheer amount of work this project requires. It has taken thousands of hours already, and the crowd-sourcing element of it hasn’t taken off as much as I’d hoped for. (Kudos to our loyal contributors, though, like Algot Runeman. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without you.) At this point, it’s hard to foresee when we might finish this, but it will be years.

I look forward to continuing to work on this. Not only do I think it has social value long term, but I find working on it satisfying. Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day or am in a boring meeting, I’ll define a bunch of words. Some people knit; I work on my dictionary.

The going-forward plan (in rough order of priority) is:

  • Complete initial definitions for the remaining words (approximately 13,000)
  • Begin editing and finalizing (“freezing”) definitions
  • Release a final build
  • Begin prioritizing the long list of additional features we’ve had requests for (pictures, audio, multi-language, etc.)

As we finalize, I’d also like to think about some apps we’d like to build with this data, as well as marketing the availability of the data set and tools. (We haven’t done this to date since this is still very much a work in progress. Everyone who’s using the data currently knows that it is not final and is at their own risk and discretion.)

Thanks again to everyone who’s supported this project. And if you think it’s worthwhile, consider a visit to define a word or two. :)


Reflecting on my year of open – part 4/Open learning vs OER

Posted by on December 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

credit: Tom Magliery

For a couple years now, I’ve been puzzling over the intersections between Open Educational Resources (OER) and open learning. While they have much in common, they clearly aren’t the same thing.

OER are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” (Hewlett Foundation, 2012) More simply put, they are resources that are public domain or licensed under a license that allows alteration and redistribution, like Creative Commons CC BY.

Open learning is a much broader idea. It is about transparency and sharing and inclusive access and agency and collaboration. It is a mindset, a way of being, doing, and learning. For more about working and learning in the open, I’d recommend the Hive Research Lab’s recent white paper, “What does it mean to ‘Work Open’ in Hive NYC? A Vision for Collective Organizational Learning.” This paper talks about why working in the open is relevant to their organization. It further describes what working in the open looks like in practice and talks about the benefits and tensions.

I believe that OER and open learning can reinforce and encourage one another (separate post to come on that), but it is more and more apparent that they are different things, and with there only being so many hours in the year, sometimes one has to prioritize.

One of the first times this dichotomy became very clear to me was at a gathering of renowned OER advocates. The group was asked to think of a moment of amazing learning, whether in or out of school, and to share it. Listening to a number of powerful stories of learning, it occurred to me that not one of them involved materials or resources (and this was at a gathering about open educational RESOURCES). Instead, they were all about people and experiences. That is certainly in line with my own experiences and beliefs that instructional materials are far down the list of things that matter in fostering learning.

My own thinking on this further developed as I began working with some very progressive educators in some non-traditional learning contexts (including a few connectivist MOOCs). Many of these brilliant folks were committed to “open,” but were not really concerned with open licensing, which seemed to them at best to be an unnecessary inconvenience and at worst a hindrance to what they were trying to do. (I’m not saying I completely agree with this, but it made me think.)

Then there is the path that OER seems to be taking, especially in K-12. In many cases, it is leaning more toward textbooks than non-traditional materials, more toward rigid online courses than unstructured learning spaces, more toward “resources” than processes, more toward attempts to standardize and assess than to foster authentic learning. I understand that this is the direction that K-12 education has moved in, and many think that in order for OER to gain mainstream K-12 adoption, it too must go in this direction.

But this isn’t why I got into OER. My reasons had to do with empowering teachers and students, offering an alternative model of learning. I was hoping for a different and better way to learn, not just a cheaper or more fiscally equitable way to do the same old thing.

And as I think about the challenges of districts adopting OER and the expense involved in trying to beat commercial publishers at their own game, I wonder if embracing open learning (and/or deeper learning?) might be a more fruitful way to advance the open movement. I certainly don’t doubt that it would benefit K-12 students more.


Reflecting on my year of open – part 3/OER and districts

Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

This year, I have reflected a lot on the way that districts adopt curriculum and what this means for OER. First, some background…

The curriculum adoption and purchase decision in K-12 schools is a complicated process. There are many players involved including states (in “adoption” states, the states actually determine the list of curricula that schools may purchase with state funds; in “open territory” states, the state may only issue a so-called “approved” list, leaving more discretionary power up to local sites), districts (who are typically the most direct “decision makers” subject to the whims of committees and all these others), schools, and individual teachers. Sadly students are generally not included in this process.

Districts usually have curriculum committees which include a broad range of constituents involved in final decisions. And as any publisher rep can tell you, navigating through these curriculum committees is a lot of work, and that must be done before any sales are made.

credit: Flickr user timuiuc

The monies used to buy textbooks typically come from the state, which leads to the unusual situation in which districts, schools, and teachers are not particularly incentivized to economize on curriculum purchases. (This is very different from higher education, where students buy textbooks, creating a clear economic incentive to reduce cost.)

Furthermore, the current environment of K-12 schools is one of extreme accountability at every level. Whether you think it’s right or wrong, nearly every decision in schools comes down to maximizing achievement (as defined by the system) and minimizing risk. In these days where people’s jobs are on the line for not making achievement scores, this is serious business. (See “Demand, district adoption, and ‘silver bullets.’“)

Then there’s what actually goes on in the classroom after the curriculum adoption and purchase is made. This may or may not have anything to do with what’s been adopted (thought this is less the case today than it has been in the past). Some of the best and brightest teachers I have known have left their district-adopted curriculum on the shelf, instead using other scavenged materials that they feel best meet their learners’ needs.

So into that complicated context enters OER.

Many of us have had a goal to increase OER adoption in K-12. The reasons are many. It’s a wiser use of public funds (which after all, pay for all of this in the end). It’s a way to loosen the stranglehold of commercial interests on education. It’s a way to empower teachers and learners.

However, the more I think about it, the harder the fit for OER into the formal adoption process in K-12. The process demands rigorous time and attention on the part of the curriculum “sales force,” whether the curriculum is free or for sale. That is very difficult for OER producers and publishers to do, given the fact that there is no economic incentive. (Creating an economic incentive, such as through ancillary product and service sales, may be a key to this…but that’s another post!)

The more radical side of me also asks, “Is this really the goal we should have?” If in fact, some of us don’t buy into the premises of mainstream K-12 education right now, e.g. high stakes accountability; rigid, prescribed curriculum; lack of teacher discretion, should we try to fit into its strictures?

Maybe open learning is a more worthy pursuit than adoption of OER. More on that in a future post.


Reflecting on my year of open – part 2/K-12 OER COP

Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

This year, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, we launched the K-12 OER Community of Practice (COP).

This project grew out of my years of doing OER advocacy work in K-12 and my thought that it was time to take it to the next level, not just to promote awareness, but to support use. The goal of this project was to create an online community of practice to support those who have begun using OER and move those who are aware and interested forward toward actual use.

Through my work in other online communities in the past, I am a believer that this is a powerful way to support and deepen practice.

To begin, I got a group of friends and OER advocates together to brainstorm the design of the community. There were several key design decisions we wrestled with, including whether to house this as a separate space (see “Does the world need one more online community?“) and whether to use open tools vs. a proprietary space like G+ or Ning.

After making some decisions, we went ahead with development and launched the site in March, 2014. We featured sections on getting started, classroom use (ELA, math, science, social studies), open textbooks, and open online and blended learning.


While the early interest in the site was strong, actual use of the discussion areas was low. Views of the site were higher, but not as much as I’d hoped for. Our best uptake came from social media, which we emphasized more as the year went on, by tweeting more, creating a series of storifies, etc.

I attribute some of the slow adoption of this community to the fact that there just aren’t the number of K-12 schools adopting OER that we’d hoped for (and some of those who are don’t really identify it as “OER”). Also, in hindsight, I might reconsider our initial decision to house this with open tools (WP) on our own site. Based on other experiences, I think it could have been more successful on G+ where there is already a critical mass of educators gathered.

I say that with some hesitation, as I have often fought against G+ (and other similar platforms) because of their commercial and proprietary (not open) nature. But you can’t argue that there are crowds there, and perhaps asking people to go to one more place (albeit an open one) was too heavy of a lift. Sometimes taking the moral high ground doesn’t get you where you need to go.

Now I need to decide whether to continue the COP site where it lives now or to move it elsewhere. G+ anyone?


Reflecting on my year of open – part 1

Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

credit: Stuart Rankin, CC BY NC

One of the nice things about doing some organized work on OER and open learning (including some with support from the Hewlett Foundation) is that it prompts me do reflect on my own work and thoughts regularly.

As this year comes to a close, here are some of my major areas of work and conclusions:

  • This year, we built the K-12 OER Community of Practice.
    Results were mixed, and conclusions were many.
  • Advocacy for OER in K-12 continued with a few significant new thoughts, namely that OER is a very difficult adoption decision for districts (and much easier for states and individual teachers) and that open learning may be more important than OER.
  • Work on the Kids Open Dictionary continued and made some significant strides forward.

Over the next few days, I’ll write a blog post on each of these.