Open Educational Resources, Professional Development, and Public Money

8 min read

Yesterday, Darren Draper put out a post expressing some concerns with Teachers Pay Teachers. Shortly after putting out that post, Darren was forced to don his flame-and-troll-proof suit, as the comment thread got, well, interesting.

I'll get to the discussions in the comment thread later in this post, as a majority of the comments are illustrative of a small part of a larger problem.

OpenWashing, Teachers Pay Teachers Edition

Teachers Pay Teachers markets itself as "An open marketplace for educators where teachers buy, sell and share original teaching resources." In this context, Teachers Pay Teachers (or, TpT) provides a clear example of how the word "open" has been mangled beyond recognition.


For those of us working in open source and open content, our notions of openness generally share some common pedigree with the four freedoms of free software, the definition of Open Source, and the Creative Commons licenses. It's worth noting that, even within these broad definitions, there is often vehement disagreement as to what constitutes open. However, even while acknowledging that there is no universally accepted definition of what "open" really is, it's still safe to say that TpT isn't it.

"Open" does not equal "being on the internet."

TpT is a marketplace, and this is fine, but a marketplace that anyone can enter isn't an "open" space, at least not in the context of Open Educational Resources. TpT puts technically unneeded barriers in the way of reusing content; the most obvious of these barriers is the need for a login even to download a free resource. The business need of TpT (collect contact info) is in direct conflict with greater openness, and TpT lets the business need trump the tendency to be more open.

And, of course, this is fine - it's just not open. If, however, your actual practice conflicts with your marketing catchphrase, that's not good.

I'll return to the TpT at the end of this post, but now, we're going to jump into Darren's post.

Private Time, Public Money

Darren lays out seven reasons why he struggles with TpT. I'm highlighting 5, 6, and 7, below:

5. Public school teachers are paid by the taxpayers - with public funds - to work during specific hours of the day.
6. The computer and other equipment used by public school teachers were all likely purchased by the taxpayers, using public funds.
7. It is my belief that classroom activities, assessments, games, handouts, outlines, posters, printables, research, worksheets, and the like - that have been created by a public educator during work time or with school-owned equipment - belong to the public and should therefore be licensed with an appropriate, open license. Resources created with public funds should neither be bought nor sold by teachers because they were never the teacher's to sell in the first place. Because these resources were created with public funds, they belong to the public.

I checked the comment thread on Darren's post before staring to write this response. When I looked, there were 34 comments - 19 of those comments focused on when content was created - and this is illustrative of the larger problem.

The question of who owns teacher-created content - and the nuances of the time of day and equipment used to create the content - came up in several of the Open Content Authoring events we ran over the last several months.

Our advice to this question in the short term:

  • Work on your curricular material outside of school hours, and use your personal account. Store a copy on personal hardware (an external hard drive, a personal blog, a personal Google Apps account, etc);
  • Let your district know that their policy on intellectual property creates an unnecessarily adversarial relationship around curriculum planning;
  • Let your district know that their policy on intellectual property creates a disincentive to you doing your best work, as the only way you can maintain ownership over your work is to do it outside "normal" working hours on your own equipment;
  • If you belong to a union, bring this to union leaders as an issue that needs to be on the table as part of contract negotiations;
  • Incorporate a piece of Creative Commons Licensed content into EVERYTHING you do for your work - make sure it is licensed under the Share-Alike clause. This means that your District can claim ownership of it, but that due to the nature of the license, you (and anyone else) is free to reuse it under the terms of the CC license.

In Darren's comment thread, the fact that so many commenters were fixated on the timing issue flags the reality that people are having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. Fighting about the time of day when you are allowed to maintain control of your creative output means that you are living in the box that people laid out for you. Fighting about the time of day when you can do your work means that your perspective is limited at the outset. This comment illustrates the predicament perfectly:

I was so with you on this post, until it hinted that items were most likely being created on school time and/or with school equipment. I would encourage you to spend a week with me to see that I don't have enough hours in my "school day" prep time to make my weekly schedule, copy/assemble resources, grade papers, record grades, communicate with parents, and supervise my students during additional remediation opportunities. I consider myself lucky to sneak in a second bathroom break each day! :)
All of my TpT products are made by me, at home, on my personal equipment with software I've purchased myself (my classroom computer is a desktop that is over 8 years old) .That's *after* I have spent numerous additional hours per week grading papers, inputting grades, and emailing parents (from home, on my own computer). My dear husband can attest to the hours he has spent helping me cut, laminate, recut, and assemble centers for my kiddos.

The workload issues here sound very typical of most teachers that I know. There is not enough time in the workday to cover their professional responsibilities, so work comes home. Work spills into weekends. Budgets for supplies have been slashed, so teachers buy supplies out of their own pocket. School equipment is outdated or locked down to the point of unusable, requiring much prep to take place outside of school networks, on non-school machines. Teaching doesn't fit into the hours defined in most contracts, and teachers put in significant time outside of traditional working hours, in addition to spending their own money on class supplies.

And this is the conversation we should be having: why are teachers expected to power the underfunded mandates of increased reporting in the era of high stakes testing, with fewer resources, less support, in a work day that doesn't have room for all the demands on teacher time? Districts that have policies that claim ownership of teacher intellectual property are perpetuating that absurdity, and this absurdity needs to be addressed and clarified in employment contracts. Unions need to make this an issue as well.

Lessons Are Not The Ultimate Goal

The problem - and a shortcoming - of both traditional textbooks and content silos like TpT is that they treat a lesson as the stopping point. This makes sense for them, because both textbook companies and TpT make money from distribution. If there is no sale, there is no revenue. From a business place, this makes perfect sense.

Creating and using open content approaches the same problem - how do I get the best possible material to my class - from a different place. Teachers can use open content exactly as they would use a textbook, or a piece of content purchased from TpT; for many people, that is where their understanding of open content ends. However, that vision of open content is incomplete, and rooted in our habits of using material with restrictive licensing.

There are different levels of using open content; teaching lessons that use open content is the starting point. Remixing material that incorporates two or more openly licensed sources is a next step. Releasing that remixed version is the next step. Collaborating with other people to edit and remix content is an additional level of involvement.

And, if you look at the trajectory of using open content, it resembles the trajectory of learning. It's not a transaction (go here, buy this) - it's a series of interactions of increasing complexity, each of which requires judgment and expertise. Over time, building and using open content develops a professional network and a collection of domain level experts to work with. Working with people to create open content is some of the best ongoing professional development out there, and districts would be wise to embrace and support this reality. Rather than make absurd claims over ownership of teacher IP, they could divert some professional development money into supporting teacher time in a facilitated authoring process that spanned the course of a year. The resulting material could be released under a Creative Commons license, ensuring that teachers and the district were given the appropriate credit for their role in creating and funding the work, and material created with public money would remain available for public use.

Image Credit: "Money, get away!" taken by kiki follettosa, published under an Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license.

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