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'Open Educational Resources' Promoted in U.S. Senate's ESEA Draft

"Open educational resources" have gained popularity in several states and districts, and it turns out the concept has support on Capitol Hill, too.

A bipartisan amendment to the U.S. Senate's rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes language encouraging the use of the free, modifiable, and openly licensed resources.

The amendment was sponsored by Republican Orrin Hatch, of Utah—whose state has taken a lead role in encouraging the use of open resources—and Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and it was approved by a voice vote in the Senate. The overall bill, as my colleagues at Politics K-12 have reported, awaits a vote of the full chamber. The House's rewrite of the ESEA, meanwhile, appears to be in a holding pattern.

The amendment is meant to encourage schools "to use and share open educational resources to disseminate best-practices and provide an alternative to costly textbooks," Sen. Hatch said in a statement to Education Week.

Sen-Orrin-Hatch-blog.jpg

"It also allows teachers to share content with one another and adapt the content to reflect their own unique classroom needs. We should all support customized, sharable content making its way to teachers and their classrooms."

The amendment encourages the use of open resources—which typically are alternatives to proprietary products created by commercial companies—through grants the ESEA makes available to states.

Applicants for grants to states must, among other provisions, provide "an assurance that [they] will consider making content widely available through open educational resources when making purchasing decisions with funds," according to the language in the amendment.

Another section encourages state grant applicants to "provide tools and processes to support the creation, modification, and distribution of open educational resources."

Open educational resources are generally defined as free materials created under a license that allows them to be shared, modified, and repurposed by teachers and other users to meet their individual instructional needs.

Commercial publishers sometimes cast doubts on the quality and value of open resources, and question how easily they can be integrated into instructional materials used by most schools. They argue that it's not easy for schools to rely on open materials, because teachers and others in districts end up having to devote many hours trying to sort through them to find the curricula and lessons that meet their needs.

Some proponents of open-ed resources agree that districts adopting those materials face an initial heavy lift. But they also say that process results in teachers gaining a deeper understanding of the content they're covering, and how to deliver it.

The Senate's inclusion of language on open educational resources heartened TJ Bliss, a program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has made significant investments in supporting open content.

Federal policymakers are responding to the interest that states and districts have shown in open materials because of their potential to reduce costs and provide teachers with content specifically tailored to their needs, he said.

"It signals that OER is a nonpartisan issue," Bliss said in an interview. "People are starting to pay attention to OER because it can solve problems that people care about." 

(Disclosure: the Hewlett foundation provides support for Education Week's coverage of attempts to provide students with "deeper learning." Education Week retains sole editorial control over its content.)

[UPDATE: In February, the U.S. House of Representatives also approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat, that would make it clear that federal funds through the proposal could be used to support "open-access textbooks and open educational resources." The House measure was never brought to a vote in that chamber.

In remarks during the House's deliberations, Polis said his measure—which makes up just a few lines of text—was aimed at bringing "cost savings to school districts, cost savings to families, and quality enhancements and educational enhancements to those districts, schools, and States that embrace" the resources.

Today, some schools are forced to use "old dog-eared textbooks," Polis said, according to a transcript, and "outdated and of different versions" of them.

"I have been to a number of classrooms where the teacher has to say, 'For your assignment, if you have this version, read pages 33 through 35,'" the lawmaker said. "'If you have this version, it is 36 through 38. If you don't have any version, here's a few copies in front that we'll give to you.' That gets in the way of a quality education."]

The current version of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, does not include language directly supporting open resources, noted Douglas A. Levin, a consultant and analyst on ed-tech policy. There's an obvious reason for that, he noted: Open educational resources hadn't really come into focus as a defined concept at the time NCLB was approved by Congress, and was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2002.

Since then, advocates for open education have pushed unsuccessfully for its inclusion in a number of federal education proposals, said Levin, who supported those efforts. One measure of victory, he pointed out, came in language included in the federal guidance for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (better known as the stimulus bill) that emphasized how recipients of funding could spend it on educational technology.

Whether the language supporting open educational resources survives the push-and-pull of congressional ESEA negotiations in the months ahead remains to be seen.

Photo of Sen. Hatch, taken last month at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. By Evan Vucci/AP


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