Free, open educational content gaining ground in schools

A California nonprofit organization is looking for vendors to create Open Educational Resources, which would lower costs in schools but some say could upend the billion-a-year educational content and textbook industry.

In 2009, ex-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled out an initiative that would offer free digital textbooks – known as open educational resources – in public high schools. By some accounts, the program was unsuccessful in part because much of the content materials did not meet state standards.

Now, the Golden State is once again at the forefront of creating educational materials that are free and openly licensed – and getting other states involved. Advocates say OER can upend the market and keep school districts from depending on the $8 billion-a-year educational content and textbook industry.

The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit organization based in Cupertino, has launched the K-12 OER Collaborative to create free, high-quality educational materials aligned with Common Core standards that teachers can modify and personalize for their students.

“We really saw it as a faster option, moving away from the traditional 10-year textbook procurement,” said Jennifer Wolfe, who runs the K-12 OER Collaborative. “We’re not dealing with traditional copyright. [OER] can be, with the free cost and ability to modify, updated quite rapidly and improved.”


The collaborative put out a request for proposals in November to a variety of publishers interested in creating free content that can be altered by individual teachers. Formal responses are due Friday.

Wolfe would not divulge which publishers have submitted initial bids, but said major education companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had not participated in the process.

When asked whether they support free and open educational content, a spokesman for McGraw-Hill had no comment and a spokeswoman for Pearson did not respond to an email.

A spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin also did not respond to repeated requests for comment but told the San Jose Mercury News last month, “We don’t believe that OER can replace the standards-based curriculum that schools want and need.”

Wolfe said access to the complimentary content can free up district money that can be used for other materials and tools, like chromebooks. But asking vendors to create free materials still comes at a cost.


The Learning Accelerator depends on philanthropic money and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a big supporter of OER initiatives.

“We believe we can, through philanthropy, use this new paradigm of openness and digital learning to create lower-cost, high-quality materials for students,” Wolfe said. “Why wouldn’t we explore that option? So many industries that have been disrupted due to technology. We see this as an opportunity … to give local districts this control they never had.”

The collaborative builds on work that Washington state has done around OER. Other states working on their own projects affiliated with the collaborative include Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin.

Karl Nelson, director of digital learning at the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said teachers across the state have been reviewing open educational materials to make sure they meet Common Core standards.

“Each individual district has control to choose whichever instructional materials they want to use,” Nelson told StateScoop. “We’re basically acting as a resource for them.”


The state has allocated $250,000 to review and use OER following a bill that the Legislature passed in 2012 for K-12 school districts to adopt the materials.

“That includes the grants that we’re giving to school districts and money to pay the review teams that are looking at the resources,” Nelson said. “And then we also do events for school districts to help them understand what OER is and how to use them.”

But, he added, the state would not mandate schools to use openly licensed content.

Publishing industry insiders said open and free content does not pose a threat to established education companies.

“They’re not as rich or dynamic or interesting as publisher-developed materials,” said Jay Diskey of the Association of American Publishers. “We have no idea what sort of impact OER has had on the classroom. Moreover, most of the material is supplemental.”


Diskey added that the materials are often not as comprehensive because they lack images, graphs and other visual perks for which larger education companies are able to secure third-party copyrights.

Washington state schools use a mix of curricula from such varied places as the Saylor Foundation, Georgia Virtual Learning, EngageNY and Curriki, a nonprofit open education service.

“I think we can stand tall when we’re talking about quality,” Nelson said. “At the end of the day, local districts need the highest quality instructional materials they can get. It’s great if it’s free, but high quality is much more important.”

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