Open Content

A Custom Fit

The movement toward open educational resources turns teachers into the shapers of curriculum, mixing and matching educational materials to create content that is tailor-made for the needs of their students.

In his line of work, Ahrash Bissell meets with K-12 educators all the time. For most of them, he says, open content sits “just on the edge of their awareness.”

The former executive director of ccLearn, the educational division of the nonprofit licensing entity Creative Commons, Bissell understands the potential of open content to enhance education. But he believes that “some kind of massive awareness raising” has to happen for K-12 administrators to realize this.

“There is much confusion about what open content is, why it is beneficial, and for whom,” says Bissell, who recently left Creative Commons and is now doing consulting work. “We’re seeing that at the school policy level. So much of what awareness there is focuses on cost. But that’s really the least interesting part of open content. It’s the capacity to adapt and share freely, to see educational materials as morphing, growing, and living. That has so much more impact potentially on what happens in the classroom.”

In its broadest sense, open content refers to material published under a license that allows any user to edit, adapt, remix, and distribute it. It is distinct from free content, which is in the public domain and has no significant legal restrictions on its modification.

For several years, as digital media came to influence education, K-12 instructors have been using online resources to supplement printed materials. But they’re generally not familiar with the principles of open content licensing or the extent to which open educational materials can enhance or even supplant traditional textbooks. Nor have they made the effort to be. Lisa Petrides, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), a nonprofit research group, points out that teachers often mix and match content from various sources without worrying about attribution. “One teacher told us, ‘I already take whatever I want and use it,’” Petrides says.

But with momentum building toward widespread use of open content in school districts, K-12 educators need to get a better understanding of the issue, for their own benefit as well as their students’. California, Texas, and Florida, which, according to The Center for Education Reform in Washington, DC, together account for more than 30 percent of the K-12 textbook market, have stated their intent to move toward open content education, a clear signal to other states to follow suit.

In a much-publicized action in January 2008, Florida became the first state to approve an open, online instructional program when it adopted FreeReading, from Wireless Generation, as a K-3 supplemental reading resource. The program allows teachers to download, copy, and share lessons, as well as post comments and modifications. Then, last June, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made the bold announcement that the state’s public school system would start a move toward tossing out traditional textbooks in favor of digital versions, beginning with math and science classes this past fall. Also in 2009, the Texas state legislature passed two bills that encourage the use of both electronic textbook materials and open educational resources.

More Ways to Teach

Why the big shift from the Big Three? Cost, naturally. As budgets shrink, educators and legislators are looking more closely at textbook publishers’ monopoly over the educational process and the high price of their offerings. The Association of American Publishers reports that in 2008 the K-12 textbook market totaled $6.1 billion; California public schools alone accounted for more than $400 million of that total.

In this environment, you would expect schools to turn to open educational resources, says David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Wiley coined the term open content in 1998 and has since remained one of its leading advocates. “If you’re looking at a 15 percent budget cut and you can find open content, that’s a natural place to look and save quite a bit of money,” he says. “There are so many other things that schools can spend the money on. That’s not to say all open content is worth adopting. There’s really great open content and there’s really poor open content. There needs to be peer reviews and quality checks. But I do think there’s a great case to be made for open content right now.”

Currently, educators are focusing on the cost benefits of open content, but “once we get past that, we can move on to other opportunities,” says Wiley. “Open content has a lot more to offer pedagogically.”

What it offers, for free, is many more ways to teach—podcasts, videos, music, etc.—than are available by traditional methods. Because the material is “open” and can be modified or expanded instantly, the material is dynamic, up-to-date, and constantly changing, unlike a static printed textbook.

Karen Fasimpaur, president of mobile educational software provider K12 Handhelds, works with schools and other educational organizations to integrate technology into curriculum. One of her creations on the K12 Handhelds website, “Karen’s Mashups: Compilations of Digital Content for K-12 Educators,” offers “shows” on topics as varied as poetry, the US elections, national parks, and test prep. Each show is constructed entirely from open content sources, including podcasts, videos, photos, and printed materials.

Because it is uniquely customizable and offers educators a variety of resources, Fasimpaur says, open content makes it possible for teachers to differentiate instruction based on students’ individual reading levels, interests, or learning styles. “In project-based learning, for example,” she explains, “the teacher can offer several options for project formats for the same course. One student can create a wiki, one can create an audio podcast, another can write a report. The point is that you need a lot of content resources, including multimedia content such as photos and music, and you need to be able to remix them into a final product without copyright issues.”

Those copyright issues have to this point been mostly ignored by teachers, an unfortunate truth that Creative Commons’ Bissell says can’t continue if teachers are to take maximum advantage of open content. Teachers have to take pride in becoming professional content creators, he explains, and that means respecting others’ ownership rights—as well as staking claim to their own. The latter point highlights the problem at the crux of K-12’s open content debate: teachers’ reluctance to formalize their habit of adapting content from various sources by sharing their work online and engaging in content licensing and distribution.

“A huge point of confusion is how an open license gets them anything they don’t already have,” Bissell says.

It gets them legitimacy, for one. Teachers may mix and match content freely, but they often don’t have the legal right to do it. For example, if they add a video to their instruction when they teach a chapter from a traditional textbook, the video may require attribution or permission to reproduce, or reproduction in any form may even be prohibited. They may choose to skirt the technicalities because the content stays inside their specific classroom and no one is the wiser, but, as Bissell explains, teachers who remix content informally minimize the impact their creations can have. They have no right to publish or disseminate the result of their work.

“All of it dies in the classroom,” Bissell says. “Nobody else can benefit from it except a teacher’s students.”

Bissell’s organization dedicates itself to helping ensure that doesn’t happen. Working alongside copyright law, Creative Commons provides free legal tools for content creators to set the terms under which their work can be shared, adapted, and distributed. So, for example, if a teacher uses legal, licensed open-content video to augment a lesson, the lesson can be posted and shared with other educators, who in turn can add their own wrinkles to it. Over time, the give-and-take benefits pedagogy, improves student learning, and expands the body of knowledge on a given topic.

Creative Commons offers six main licenses, ranging from least to most restrictive. The most accommodating, and the one that Bissell recommends for educational purposes, is the attribution license, which allows users to adapt and reuse a work in almost any way they want as long as they credit its original creator. This provision, Bissell says, is what allows instructors to be acknowledged for what they do.

“That’s a crucial issue for people to understand,” he says. “It’s not just about access: We actually want you to benefit from your expertise.”

Byte size

In late January, California launched Phase 2 of its digital textbook initiative, which invited content developers to submit textbooks for review against California’s academic content standards in high school history, geography, politics, and economics. Phase 1 focused on high school science and math.

Bissell sees this as “professionalizing” the discipline of teaching, a concept that other open content advocates embrace as well. ISKME’s Petrides, for one, believes that the professionalizing of teaching occurs when instructors are engaged in and excited about curriculum development—something that she is convinced happens most often when teachers use and share open content. From monitoring site traffic and usage at OER Commons, an open-education teaching and learning network that ISKME developed in 2007, Petrides and her colleagues “learn a lot about what teachers need, professional development, and how and why to use open content,” she says. “The whole collaboration and remixing part of this is critical to professional development. Teachers are excited about sharing these things and building more storage of information. They’re engaged in the curriculum process. As an administrator, you want an engaged teacher.”

Creating ‘Living’ Textbooks

Mindset notwithstanding, K-12 instructors can’t experiment with open content to the extent they might like. Curriculum requirements vary widely by state, and with traditional textbook publishers offering free materials for review, curriculum committees have no incentive to explore open content.

“You have to be proactive and go out and look for it,” says Brigham Young’s Wiley. “There are no publishers pushing hard for open content. This is true in higher ed as well, but in K-12 a much smaller group of people makes the decision on content for the entire school. District by district, school by school, the more power the teacher has, the easier the decision.”

For now, instructors are straddling the fence by using traditional and open content materials in tandem, which is the right approach, according to former K-2 teacher Dixon Deutsch. Deutsch made news in 2008 when he decided to use supplemental materials from FreeReading for his students at Achievement First Bushwick Charter School in New York City, not long after the state of Florida had taken the same step for its students statewide. Now director of special services achievement for the Achievement First charter schools in New York, Deutsch cautions against replacing traditional materials with open content. The latter works best, he says, “as a supplement to the general curriculum. It is not meant to take over the core curriculum.”

So is the new form of content on par with the old? Both have their shortcomings. Many educators cite the errors and outdated information in printed textbooks. One example they note often is science texts’ continuing reference to Pluto as a “planet” even though scientists downgraded it to the category of “dwarf planet” in 2006. But open content isn’t spotless either. A report on California’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative, released by the California Learning Resource Network in August, revealed that many open science textbooks fall short of alignment with California’s state content standards. An open chemistry course from Curriki, for instance, met only 44 out of 73 standards, and a biology course from Pearson Education scored just 31 out of 67.

But innovator Neeru Khosla is working to upgrade the quality of open content—and transform K-12 education in the process. A longtime crusader for high-quality open educational resources, Khosla, along with her business partner, Murugan Pal, in 2006 co-founded the CK-12 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce the cost of textbooks for schools in the US and worldwide. CK-12 pioneered an open-content, web-based collaborative model called the FlexBook, a combination of the words flexibility and textbook. FlexBooks are online, customizable textbooks that focus specifically on K-12 standards-based content. FlexBook materials are written, reviewed, and edited by highly qualified educators or subject-matter experts, many of whom hold master’s degrees or doctorates in their fields. Recently, 10 of CK-12’s books were approved for use in California public schools.

“Our quality is assured, our standards are in line with state and national requirements, and we make every effort to ensure that the content is the same as in a regular textbook,” Khosla says.

With simple publishing tools, teachers can create their own FlexBooks to use in their classrooms by pulling and adapting content from the CK-12 “library.” Upon registering at the site, teachers select the topic they’re interested in to find all the chapters that CK-12’s content developers have created on the subject. For example, while crafting a human biology FlexBook, a teacher may find a chapter in the repository on “Diseases and the Body’s Defenses” to his liking and wish to add some content to it, perhaps a paragraph from another resource. An “Edit” tab on the site allows this to be done. The teacher then saves the chapter and adds it to his FlexBook. Once completed, the book can be freely shared with others under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, which grants freedom to anyone to use and reuse its core materials provided attribution is given to the author. Users are free to print paper versions of the FlexBooks at their own cost, but in the future CK-12 expects to work with on-demand presses to provide low-cost, customized paper textbooks.

As of last July, CK-12 had developed about 30 textbooks for secondary schools focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math. Taking advantage of open content, Khosla says, allows the addition of up-to-the-minute developments in these essential areas. For example, in September, on the very same day that NASA announced the discovery of water molecules on the moon’s surface, Khosla was able to update CK-12’s Earth Science FlexBook with the new information and add a link to the relevant section on NASA’s website—realizing her vision of creating “living books” whose content is dynamic, flexible, and multifaceted.

Khosla expects her organization’s content repository to grow and eventually encompass the entire K-12 curriculum. “I would highly recommend that people start looking at open content from a different point of view,” she says. “One of the key things is not to have a closed mind. If teachers are the drivers of content, they can start teaching students from where they are, not where they are expected to be.”

It’s a sentiment affirmed by ISKME’s Petrides. “During upbeat economic times, publishers took the decision out of the hands of teachers and educators,” she says. “Now that we have an alternative, we’re starting to get back to the teacher as the knowledgeable one about the curriculum. Previously, the teacher was just the deliverer of content but can now interact and experiment with it, and can change, learn, and create it. Open content is bringing teachers back to the curriculum.”


Association of American Publishers

California Learning Resource Network

CK-12 Foundation

Creative Commons


Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education

K12 Handhelds

OER Commons

The Center for Education Reform

Wireless Generation

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of THE Journal.