Monday, November 16, 2015

USED Goes Open Source, Stabs Pearson in the Back for a Change

The United States Department of Education announced at the end of last month its new #GoOpen campaign, a program in support of using "openly licensed" aka open source materials for schools. Word of this is only slowly leaking into the media, which is odd, because unless I'm missing something here, this is kind of huge. Open sourced material does not have traditional copyright restrictions and so can be shared by anybody and modified by anybody (to really drive that point home, I'll link to Wikipedia).

Is the USED just dropping hints that we are potentially reading too much into? I don't think so. Here's the second paragraph from the USED's own press release:

“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,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “Districts across the country are transforming learning by using materials that can be constantly updated and adjusted to meet students’ needs.”

Yeah, that message is pretty unambiguous-- stop buying your textbooks from Pearson and grab a nice online open-source free text instead.

And if that still seems ambiguous, here's something that isn't-- a proposed rules change for competitive grants. 

In plain English, the proposed rule "would require intellectual property created with Department of Education grant funding to be openly licensed to the public. This includes both software and instructional materials." The policy parallels similar policies in other government departments.

The represents such a change of direction for the department that I still suspect there's something about this I'm either not seeing or not understanding. We've operated so long under the theory that the way government gets things done is to hand a stack of money to a private company, allowing them both to profit and to maintain their corporate independence. You get federal funds to help you develop a cool new idea, then you turn around and market that cool idea to make yourself rich. That was old school. That was "unleashing the power of the free market."

But imagine if this new policy had been the rule for the last fifteen years. If any grant money had touched the development of Common Core, the standards would have been open source, free and editable to anyone in the country. If any grant money touched the development of the SBA and PARCC tests, they would be open and editable for every school in America. And if USED money was tracked as it trickled down through the states- the mind reels. If, for instance, any federal grant money found its way to a charter school, all of that schools instructional ideas and educational materials would have become property of all US citizens.

As a classroom teacher, I find the idea of having the federal government confiscate all my work because federal grant money somehow touched my classroom-- well, that's kind of appalling. But I confess-- the image of Eva Moskowitz having to not only open her books but hand over all her proprietary materials to the feds is a little delicious.

Corporations no doubt know how to build firewalls that allow them to glom up federal money while protecting intellectual property. And those that don't may just stop taking federal money to fuel their innovation-- after all, what else is a Gates or a Walton foundation for?

And realistically speaking, this will not have a super-broad impact because it refers only to competitive grants, which account for about $3 billion of the $67 billion that the department throws around. 

So who knows if anything will actually come of this. Still, the prospect of the feds standing in front of a big rack of textbooks and software published by Pearson et al and declaring, "Stop! Don't waste your money on this stuff!" Well, that's just special.

And in case you're wondering if this will survive the transition coming up in a month, the USED also quotes the hilariously-titled John King:

“By requiring an open license, we will ensure that high-quality resources created through our public funds are shared with the public, thereby ensuring equal access for all teachers and students regardless of their location or background,” said John King, senior advisor delegated the duty of the Deputy Secretary of Education. “We are excited to join other federal agencies leading on this work to ensure that we are part of the solution to helping classrooms transition to next generation materials.”

The proposed change will be open for thirty days of comment as soon as it's published at the regulations site. In the meantime, we can ponder what curious conditions lead to fans of the free market declaring their love for just plain free. But hey-- we know they're serious because they wrote a hashtag for it.


  1. In their minds, the USED has been driving at this all along. For example:

    I'm sure in their minds, the EngageNY curriculum is a big open content success story -- and it sort of is, aside from not seeming to be a very good curriculum.

    The Common Core standards would have an open content license aside from a single (vague and unenforceable) clause requiring re-use to be in support of the standards (or something like that, I'm not looking it up right now). But practically speaking, it is pretty much an open content license. The whole discussion of copyright on the standards mis-understands that in the US you *have to* establish copyright *before* you can give something away. Open licensing is *based on* copyright law.

    Anyhow, the problem with what USED has been doing is that nobody cares if you open source something they hate.

  2. As my mother has says...NOTHING is ever really FREE.
    I'd really like to believe they want to use open source, but it won't be open source or free for long and if it is they will want something in return....

  3. Ha, ha, ha! John King, open-source materials, has anyone heard of Engage NY, which is loathed by teachers everywhere?

  4. "John King, senior advisor delegated the duty of the Deputy Secretary of Education"

    As my third graders would say, "delegated the doodie!!!!!"

    Oh, pooh.

  5. 'Course, that only works if your zip code has tech equality (hardware and internet).

    My students avoid reading classics, not because they're not interested, but because they're not interested enough to suffer through an electronic text. We tried to stretch our budget by not ordering print copies of public domain works: no dice. They demand paper.

  6. I read nothing good into this at all. I agree with G Sampson. Here in NY we have engageny - a complete and utter disaster of a "curriculum." Open Source to me means a rush to publication without any of the usual oversight, field testing or accountability that may be tied to materials that are published the old-fashioned way.
    There is so little child development understanding reflected in the engageny materials it's frightening.

  7. There shouldn't be any doubt that public access to publicly funded work is generally a good thing, because the alternative is commercial access (only) to publicly funded work. Of course, if it is lousy work, it isn't very helpful.