When the Hewlett Foundation began making grants to support open educational resources (OER) in 2002, these materials were preliminary experiments undertaken by just a few institutions of higher learning. By 2013, 40 percent of K-12 educators in the US were using OER to supplement their core materials. Today, OER have an opportunity to make the jump to the mainstream as schools and teachers seek high-quality materials aligned to the Common Core State Standards after many large publishers failed to deliver them.

Cathy Casserly was at the Hewlett Foundation when the foundation began to invest in OER. Since leaving the foundation, she has served as the CEO of Creative Commons, which developed the open licenses that provide the legal underpinnings of OER, and is now a fellow at the Aspen Institute. We spoke with Cathy about the OER movement and its potential for mainstream adoption now that the Common Core standards have sparked demand for high-quality instructional materials.

R  How can OER enrich the market for high quality instructional materials in K-12 classrooms in the United States?

Stepping back, the Common Core State Standards have created a terrific inflection point for the OER movement. OER has now had over 10 years of experimentation, growth and evaluation, and we understand how the materials can be developed effectively. This is a perfect time for OER to become aligned with the Common Core because teachers and districts are searching for high-quality materials. OER gives teachers and districts engaging in curriculum review the opportunity to identify or develop high quality OER instructional materials, and share them with others in their districts or even across state lines.

We’re beginning to see the power of collective engagement of teachers with OER – they are not behind paywalls, enabling all teachers to engage with them. Thanks to OER, we can now level that playing field for all students to have access to high-quality instructional materials.

Finally, OER is also an opportunity for the teachers to engage in a thoughtful way with the materials. We know from research that the most effective instruction happens when teachers are engaged with developing and refining their teaching materials, not just being a conduit for the materials.

R  What has the OER movement learned over the last 10 years?

When we first released an openly-licensed textbook in the marketplace, if it didn’t look as polished as a publisher’s textbook, it was perceived to be of lower quality. While there may be 350 pages of great content, it wasn’t in the format that teachers and students could use easily. It didn’t have nice photos and pretty layouts. We realized we couldn’t jump too far ahead of where the system is today. So we focused on supporting ecosystems that could produce high-quality, open materials that are aligned with standards, and look like the materials that teachers are used to buying from publishers.

We wanted to leap-frog to our longer-term vision in which teachers and students actively produce materials, and not just consume them. In many ways, OER is not just about providing content; it’s about the process of developing them in an open ecosystem. And that process is also about participatory learning and collaboration. This is the longer-term vision we wanted to jump to, but we learned that we had to build a bridge for teachers from the materials they are familiar with to OER.

R  What challenges does the OER movement face today?

The marketing challenge is real. In the traditional textbook model, there’s this incredible salesforce that sells the textbooks to districts and teachers. The publishers know the districts and the procurement processes. It’s costly but effective.

But with the Internet, we don’t need that – the cost of distribution is essentially zero. It was definitely part of our strategy not to replicate the current salesforce – it was infeasible. Instead, we needed to raise people’s awareness about this opportunity of openly licensed textbooks. This did hinder the movement in the early days, but some of the OER projects are getting much savvier about marketing because they understand that in order to compete, you need to be out there. Educators are typically much more focused on the pedagogy, so the marketing isn’t always our strength, but it’s steadily improving.

But we still need penetration and attraction in the mainstream. We need teachers and districts to understand what OER is, the economic benefits, and the potential for continual improvement and innovation allowed by open materials. At this moment of changing standards, we can’t afford to create a new set of proprietary content. It’s very expensive to create proprietary materials. We want schools and districts to shift their attention to other priorities, like professional development. The biggest potential for failure is if we recreate the traditional models for content production and distribution with this shift in standards.

R  How can philanthropy help sustain the OER movement in the long-run?

Philanthropy invests a lot of money in knowledge and curriculum development, and because we didn’t have an open license 10 years ago, copyrighting made sense. With an open license, you still acknowledge the creator, but the materials live on and can be innovated on over and over again. For philanthropy, that creates a multiplier effect. As philanthropy becomes more knowledgeable about OER, they’re beginning to understand the potential impact of open licensing, and the benefits of requiring that their grants carry an open license for their curriculum developers.

In the long-run, however, the movement will need to find other funding sources. Districts, philanthropy, and governments invest over $10 billion in K-12 curriculum, and another $10 billion in postsecondary curriculum. If we could shift just a portion of that money to support open materials, you can have a sustainable model for OER. Governments need to understand that longevity and low-cost of OER materials is a significant advantage.

We see that happening over time. More and more we’re seeing openly licensed materials that are free to use, with schools and government willing to pay for the services around them – technical assistance, professional development – that can sustain OER organizations. OER needed proof of efficacy, and now we have it.


    About the Author
  • Nathan Huttner

    Nathan has helped philanthropic programs working on health, education, and climate and energy to develop strategies that build on clients’ strengths to maximize their positive impact