An Open Educational Resources Agenda for President Obama

An Open Educational Resources Agenda for President Obama

In a previous post, I expressed my dismay that President Obama and Vice President Biden have allowed their administration’s victory on open educational resources (OER) to go unclaimed. It’s not just a matter of failing to take a bow for a significant win. The larger problem is that by ignoring OER in their official pronouncements the President and Vice President have failed to lay a foundation on which even more substantial gains could be constructed. OER is an idea that unites many Democrats and Republicans. Conservatives and liberals, who sharply disagree on many other issues, are brought together by OER’s demonstrated capacity to save money for both students and taxpayers while also measurably improving the quality of teaching and learning.

As such, what is getting lost in the shuffle as the President and Vice President continue to ignore OER is one of the best opportunities we have to rebuild our shattered American middle class.

Instead, President Obama and Vice President Biden have decided to emphasize their new proposal to use federal funds to eliminate community college tuition. Making college free is a great idea. It is also easily understood and immediately popular with key demographic groups (including young people) that abandoned Democrats or sat out the last national election. There is, however, little hope (actually no hope whatsoever) that the current GOP-controlled Congress will enact a new federal entitlement program at this time. That is, sadly, one of the reasons the White House proposed the idea. President Obama’s initiative for free community college tuition, however worthy on its merits, is in part designed to paint its GOP opponents into a corner. That way, Republicans can be charged with not supporting the middle class in the next election. Savvy D.C. political strategists (you know, the same geniuses who lost both houses of Congress for the Democrats) apparently think that even though the free community college tuition proposal can’t possibly pass anytime soon, supporting the proposal will be useful in the next election because it makes Democrats look good.  In the meantime, an opportunity to make college more affordable for those who need help right now is being squandered.

In short, the administration has chosen to look good rather than do good. I think that strategy will backfire once more voters figure out what’s happening. The American people know better; we use smart phones, media apps, multi-player games, and most of us come in routine contact with some of the more than one billion openly licensed works now circulating on the Internet. These daily experiences remind us with every mouse click and swipe of our screens that there are simple steps the Obama administration and other public officials could take that would almost immediately make high-quality education and job training more readily available and far less expensive.

OER-related policy reforms don’t paint anyone into a corner. That’s one reason even the most common sense OER policy ideas get so little traction in our nation’s capitol. But they should.

For starters, here are five OER-related policy ideas that would do good (and also, incidentally, look good, too):

Establish an OER Policy Common Ground (not rhetorical, I mean an actual physical place)

Convene an open, public, bi-partisan group of congressional and administration staffers to collaboratively develop simple, comprehensive language that integrates effective support for OER practices and methods into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which governs K-12) and the Higher Education Opportunity Act (which governs post-secondary education). One sample idea: condition continued federal financial support on whether states, agencies and schools provide tangible cost-efficient support to teachers and professors who wish to create, use, share and/or improve OER to meet curricular needs. Hold these bi-partisan OER policy development talks in public, on the record, on some regular schedule and allow anyone to participate in one way or another. Set up a card table on the National Mall if you have to. There are many pro-OER staffers on both sides of the aisle who would participate. They include those who represent home-schoolers who crave free access to open learning materials they can adapt and use, and liberals who want higher quality, more affordable public education.

Audit Federal Spending On Closed, Commercial, Proprietary Learning Resources

No one knows how much the federal government spends each year on closed, non-renewable learning resources. The last effort to estimate those costs came up short. In 2009-2010, Aneesh Chopra, the remarkably able first U.S. Chief Technology Officer, mounted an ambitious inter-agency effort to calculate how much Uncle Sam spends each year on items such as commercial textbooks, online lessons, instructional materials, tests, assessments, and other learning resources. The estimates quickly topped one billion dollars per year in one federal department alone. But in the end,  Chopra gave up. He was forced to abandon his attempt to measure these costs when it became clear that he could not develop an accurate estimate. Why? For starters, government expenditures on learning resources are often baked into other budget line items. That makes it difficult, and especially so with Chopra’s small staff and limited authority, to measure the actual amount the federal government spends each year to rent or buy closed educational and training resources that could be purchased outright, made open, and then continually improved. It would not take much in the way of executive leadership to focus national bi-partisan attention on the utility of auditing federal expenditures on closed learning resources.  Armed with that information, policy makers would undoubtedly uncover many opportunities to spend federal funds more wisely.

Appoint a Task Force to Develop Financing Options for our Growing Digital Commons

Open Educational Resources are the only solution that emerged during the Obama administration that has measurably reduced the cost of providing high-quality education. Open intellectual property licenses, such as those offered by Creative Commons, provide the necessary legal foundation to create and efficiently share learning materials. And yet, the infrastructure necessary to maintain and improve open intellectual property licenses (and the entire OER and open data and open science movements) was created and continues to be supported today primarily — and almost entirely — by philanthropists. Let me repeat that: as of today, government plays virtually no role whatsoever in supporting the technical and legal infrastructure necessary to deploy the only tech-enabled solution that is measurably reducing the cost of education while also increasing the quality and transparency of teaching and learning. Education is a public good. It is a one of the most basic services we expect government to provide. That is why the President should appoint a bi-partisan task force with one simple mission: develop options to provide cost-efficient public support to ensure the health, security and continued vitality of our shared, public digital commons, where OER resides.  President Theodore Roosevelt won the admiration of generations because he boldly asserted our common national interest in the protection of endangered physical spaces, including many that have since become our most treasured national parks. A high quality, open, legally secure digital commons will accelerate progress in all fields of human endeavor. It is the digital equivalent of a public park. One potential idea: set aside 10 percent of all fees paid to register copyrighted works to support an organization that provides and maintains open intellectual property licenses that provide public benefits, such as learning materials that can be freely shared and improved over time.

Promote Open Badges to Honor and Reward Highly-Skilled Teachers and Instructors

Open Badges provide an exciting but currently untapped new mechanism to honor and reward teachers who possess, develop or acquire new skills they can transmit to students, such as proficiency with different computer programming languages, graphic arts, music, language arts, photography, science, dance or anything else worth teaching and learning. Imagine a world where students and parents can determine in advance which teachers are best prepared to teach subjects students want to learn. Imagine a world where teachers can receive financial rewards and recognition based on the new skills they develop or the old skills they keep up to date. Imagine a school district that can transparently highlight the qualifications of its teachers. Right now, the gist of federal K-12 policy is to develop new ways to identify teachers whose students are not successful. Those efforts, however unpopular in some quarters, have their place. But we could generate increased progress by working harder to develop new ways we can help teachers succeed while also helping students and families identify the instructors and schools best positioned to meet their needs. Open badges make it possible for government at all levels to develop an entirely new approach to the issue of professional development for teachers. Open badges for instructors, validated by reputable partners such as the National Science Foundation, would provide a cost-efficient path to solutions that are more effective and less divisive. The federal government plays an important role in supporting the professional development of teachers. Open badges would add a new level of transparency to those efforts. Is it too hard to imagine the Obama administration’s education policy-makers sitting down in public with the leaders of teacher unions to explore how new reward and recognition systems based on open badges might work? Is there any way to start that conversation?

Make Open Education Resources a Centerpiece of U.S. Foreign Policy

Open educational resources give people hope. Hope that they won’t be limited by their immediate circumstances. Hope their children might have a better life. Hope they can find a way to improve their conditions. Hope has always been a magic ingredient in our shared American identity, what some call American Exceptionalism. Hope is in desperately short supply around the world including, most notably, in countries where ignorance and lack of educational opportunities help breed violence and extremism. That is why OER should be at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The groundwork for this was laid by the inclusion of OER in the Open Government Partnership plan that President Obama personally presented to the United Nations in late 2014. Unfortunately and inexplicably, President Obama failed to mention OER when he presented his plan. Instead, he conflated OER with “online education” — which is not the same. “OER” refers to learning materials that can be freely used, shared, adapted and improved, including for use in traditional face-to-face instruction. “Online education” means using the Internet to conduct classes at whatever prices the provider chooses to charge.

At present, and despite the pledge made in the U.S. Open Government Partnership document, there is no dedicated effort underway to build high-level international government-to-government partnerships to develop and share OER. No one is assigned full-time at either the U.S. Department of Education or the U.S. Department of State to promote such mutually beneficial partnerships. When it comes to planning how we drop bombs on people, we have lots of planners. When it comes to planning how we can collaborate across borders to promote shared development of desperately needed open educational opportunities, not so much.

That is a tragedy. Robust international partnerships in this area could bring dramatic new educational opportunities to even the most downtrodden populations around the world. OER also provides an affordable platform that can bring students and teachers together across borders and cultures. In the process, American students would strengthen the communication, language and cultural skills needed for success in our globalized economy while foreign students would learn more about America and Americans. Leading the world in creating new, open educational opportunities would cement American Exceptionalism for generations to come. But for that to happen, President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will first have to recognize that OER exists and is flourishing in places where educators care more about results than preserving someone’s profit margin. They would need to take some time to understand the implications of OER. Armed with that knowledge they could begin to integrate OER’s capacity to restore shared, more equitable economic progress into the agreements they reach with foreign leaders.

Many of President Obama’s most senior advisers have heard and rejected each of these ideas in recent years. There is still time for President Obama to listen to other voices.

About the Author /

My published work since 1985 has focused mostly on public policy, technology, science, education and business. I’ve written more than 600 articles for a variety of magazines, journals and newspapers on these often interrelated subjects. The topics I have covered include analysis of progressive approaches to higher education, entrepreneurial trends, e-learning strategies, business management, open source software, alternative energy research and development, voting technologies, streaming media platforms, online electioneering, biotech research, patent and tax law reform, federal nanotechnology policies and tech stocks.