How Open Licensing Can Improve Teacher Professional Development And Textbook Quality

7 min read

As reported in EdWeek, 68% of school districts in the United States are planning on buying new Common Core aligned textbooks.

This represents an enormous amount of money. The districts that buy new curriculum will also need to devote significant resources to teacher professional development. Among states and districts spending money to prepare for the Common Core, early trends don't look good. As part of Los Angeles Unified School District's iPad 1 billion dollar iPad rollout, the district bought professional development content from Pearson. As the contract with Pearson clearly states, the District doesn't own what they bought, they can't modify it, and they can't share it.

In New York State, the Education Department spent millions of public dollars to fund the development of new material that is now privately owned. While versions of the material are available online, the licensing of them limits how they can be used. Additionally, the NY State Education Department paid a significant amount of public money for teacher professional development, and no information about that is available online.

Fortunately, other districts can learn from the mistakes of LAUSD and New York State, and do a more responsible job spending public money. At the risk of stating the obvious, when a school or district shovels public money into a third party vendor, that money is gone from the local economy, forever. In the case of LAUSD, they have a set of resources that they cannot alter, and will need to re-license in three years, to the tune of around 60 million dollars. In the case of New York State, the materials they bought to support teachers via professional development do not appear to be publicly accessible, although the contractor that delivered them is now selling the same services to other schools and districts.

If a consortium of small districts - or a group of schools within a larger district - pooled resources, they could create better textbooks and better teacher professional development at costs that are likely less than what they are currently paying. By supporting this work with open licensing, they could make this work sustainable, and pass savings on into the foreseeable future.

At a high level, here is how this could be done:

  • If every teacher within a school shared 3-5 of their best units from each course they taught, that translates into a significant amount of useful content that is relevant and successful within a local context.
  • If a group of districts agreed to pool the resources shared by teachers from the different schools within the district, the shared content would likely translate into full coverage across a significant portion of the academic requirements across the districts.
  • Teacher professional development could be modified into guided working sessions; the purpose of these working sessions would be to clean up, refine, and revise shared curriculum as needed. Districts could hire subject-matter experts (or use the expertise within their teaching or district curriculum staff) to review course materials, and to work with teachers. Teachers could also work with their peers, and the combination of peer to peer feedback with input from subject matter experts would provide a feedback loop that helped keep teachers grounded in subject matter expertise, and subject matter experts grounded in the realities of the classroom.
  • The nature of the teacher professional development would shift throughout the year. Before the school year started, classroom teachers would look at and revise existing materials. During the school year, teachers would meet in peer groups and annotate the materials they used, noting what worked, what didn't, and how the lessons could be improved. At the end of the school year, they would collect their notes, and create a summary of needed edits for the course materials. These edits would be based on the collected observations and experiences of classroom teachers. As needed, selected classroom teachers, Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs), district-level curriculum staff, and outside experts could revise and modify curriculum over the summer to prepare it for use in the upcoming school year.

This would require significant effort, and a degree of courage and vision within school districts. Creating new curricular materials isn't easy, but it's worth noting that every textbook company is doing it, and that the private companies taking public money are doing it. Within these organizations, many of the authors writing "professional" curriculum have no K12 classroom experience whatsoever. While authoring content takes time and effort, the process is known. Because of the speed at which Common Core adoption is being pushed, many districts are overwhelmed, and it feels easier to throw money to an outside vendor to make the "problem" go away, if only temporarily. But pouring public money out of the district into private hands isn't a viable long term solution. Empowering teachers - or really, providing the opportunity for teachers to empower themselves by direct involvement in the tools they use in their daily work - is the type of local, sustainable investment that reaps dividends over time.

It's also worth noting that this general process could also be applied to developing high quality, locally relevant formative assessments: get the best of what teachers are already using, clean up as needed, get outside support as needed, and revise based on use and observation within the classroom.

One of the many points of releasing material - and especially material that documents the creative and learning process - under an open license is to allow those who come after you the freedom to not reinvent the wheel. Because of the adoption of the Common Core standards in the US, districts across the country are all now scrambling to invent their own version of the wheel.

Whether you like or dislike the standards, their impending adoption creates an opportunity to rethink our dated habits of teacher professional development and sourcing curriculum. Folding curriculum review and peer feedback into teacher professional development has the potential to transform professional development into something actually useful for teachers. Because the content authors are local, updating the curriculum as needed becomes a more routine, less costly experience. By combining teacher professional development with content authoring and training, districts simultaneously save money on instructional texts, maintain local control over instructional texts, and develop a more skilled, more informed pool of professional teachers. If districts form working partnerships with other districts, isolation within schools and districts could be reduced. If the content was developed through both face to face meeting and online working spaces, teachers would have technology literacy and social learning embedded into their job in a meaningful, relevant way.

Most importantly, releasing both the written curriculum and the professional development planning materials under an open license would allow other districts to adopt and modify either set of materials as needed. Using this process would allow districts to re-allocate money spent on products and services back into people and programs and kids. From an equity place, this would help districts with less money get increased access to higher quality learning materials. From a public policy place, this helps ensure that public money continues to benefit the public.

Most importantly, using openly licensed and editable texts helps us frame education and learning in a more accurate context: education, learning, and growth is a process of interactions (with texts, with people, with ideas) in which a text can be a starting point but not the end goal.

Closing Aside

In this piece, I did not talk about the myriad potential benefits for learners that occur when students become creators alongside their teachers. I was trying to keep a focus on the aspects related to teacher professional development.

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Is NY State or Common Core Inc Violating Creative Commons Licensing?

3 min read

Update: I asked if anyone from Creative Commons could weigh in here. If I learn anything new, I'll update this post, and/or follow up with a new post containing the additional information. End update

New York State spent 28 million on the Common Core aligned curriculum currently available at the EngageNY site. This curriculum was funded via federal money that New York won as part of Race To The Top.

Leaving aside the question of how that money could have been used to support local professional development, one of the bright sides of the NY State curriculum is that it is licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license.

For example, the screenshot below is taken from page 13 of NY's Grade 2 Math Curriculum. The PDF from which the screenshot is replicated as a point of reference in Google drive.

EngageNY - with CC License

As you can see in the screenshot, Common Core Inc (the contractor who was paid to write the content) reserves some rights, and the work is released under the Creative Commons license.

This text is also for sale via Wileys. Paperback versions are currently available via Wileys. This is fine, and a piece of work that has been released under a Non-Commercial license can be included in a commercial venture, provided the seller gets permission.

However, a look at the sample chapters available on the Wiley's site shows some odd differences. On the Wiley's version (screenshot below, full PDF attached as reference to this post), Common Core Inc now retains all rights to the work, and the Creative Commons license is stripped. Aside from that, the content appears completely identical, down to the date of the last edit.

Wiley - No CC License

The fact that someone changed ownership and stripped open licensing from content created with public dollars raises some questions - and at the outset, it's necessary to state that all these questions would be moot if the Wiley version had the same licensing as the EngageNY version:

  • Why does Common Core Inc claim all rights to the Wiley version? Why does Common Core Inc and/or Wiley pull the Share-Alike clause that is present on the NY State version?
  • Did NY State agree to both pay for the development of this curriculum to be released under a NC-SA license AND for Common Core Inc to sell a proprietary version of identical content?
  • Did NY State give permission for Common Core Inc to strip the Share-Alike clause from the content it paid for?
  • Does releasing one version under a Creative Commons license and selling an identical proprietary version violate the terms of Race to the Top funding?
  • Does releasing one version under a Creative Commons license and selling an identical proprietary version violate Creative Commons licensing terms?

Possibly, this is an oversight, and the reality that the NY State content is available under a Creative Commons license means that no one needs to spend money on a proprietary version, but given that the NY State content was funded with Federal dollars, it would be good to have some clarity and transparency on this.

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Open Content: Licensing, Attribution, and Reuse

6 min read

Nearly every time we talk about open content, we are asked about licensing, reuse, and the possible risks of reuse. It's a complicated issue, but it is definitely worth noting that using Creative Commons licensed material is significantly less complex than traditional copyright. With authoring events coming up in Portland and San Francisco, we wanted to look at the resources that already existed to explain licensing, and come up with as simple a guide to licensing and reuse as possible.

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of either Creative Commons or traditional copyright. The purpose of this post is to provide people writing open content with some sound guidelines for using and remixing content.


Creative Commons Licensing: An Overview

Every one of the six Creative Commons license requires attribution of the original source, and we will look at attribution later in this post. In addition to attribution, a Creative Commons license can reserve the following rights for the author (or place the following obligations on people reusing the content):


  • Non-Commercial - work released under the NC license cannot be used in a commercial endeavor without the permission of the original creator;
  • Share Alike - when a work is released under the SA license, it requires that any future work that incorporates the original must be released under a comparable license;
  • No Derivatives - work released under the ND license cannot be altered or modified when it is reused.

Molly Kleinman has a series of posts on the details of using the Non-Commercial, the Share-Alike, and the No Derivatives licenses.

The public domain is another option; licensing your work in the Public Domain allows anyone, anywhere, to use your work in any way they see fit, without any obligation to attribute you as the original source.

A central reason that Creative Commons licensing gets confusing for people is that thinking about the license requires that we consider two different events: the initial act of creation; and how the initial work can be reused and adapted over time.


Remixing Work and License Compatibility

When we are creating open content, we will likely encounter - and want to use - content that has been licensed under several different licenses. When we are remixing a work and building on other openly licensed work, we need to consider the licenses of our source material as we choose the license of our new work. The chart included below (adapted from the Creative Commons FAQ on licensing work from multiple sources) shows how mixed licenses can be used.



Compatibility chart Licenses that may be used for a derivative work or adaptation
License of original work PD YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
BY-NC-SA       YES      
BY-SA           YES  

As the chart shows, if a piece of source material is licensed under a Non-Commercial license, any work built on that would need to be Non-Commercial as well. When choosing a license, we are limited by the licenses of the work we are looking to incorporate. If a derived work uses information licensed under either of the Share-Alike licenses, the resulting work must also use the Share-Alike license. Accordingly, the license we choose will place similar limits on future uses of our work.

This isn't a bad thing, and to all the people who are saying that this is complicated: yes, but it is much more flexible and humane than the existing copyright system. At the end of this piece, I will demonstrate how to use this chart to navigate remixing different sources.

For additional information on reusing material licensed under different licenses, see Resolving License Conflicts When Authoring Open Content.



Attribution is required under all Creative Commons licenses, and it is also just basic scholarship.

To attribute a work used in your open content, include the following information:


  • The author's name or pseudonym;
  • A link to the original work; if the resource isn't available online, then information (like publication date, publisher, magazine name, etc) to help someone else find and use the resource;
  • The title of the original work;
  • The license of the original work, with a link to the license, where possible;
  • If available, any applicable copyright dates.

Molly Kleinman has a good writeup on attribution, with examples.

This information can be collected at the end of your post, in a list of works cited and a list of works consulted.

Of these two lists, the list of works cited is the one that matters for choosing a license. When writing online, arguably, the list of works consulted can be inferred from the list of external links on a page.

At the end of this post, I include a list of works cited and a list of works consulted.


List of works remixed


In this post and our companion post on resolving licensing conflicts, we incorporated and reworked material sections from the three works listed above. Two of the works are licensed under the CC-BY license, and one is licensed under the CC-BY-SA license.

Using the matrix included above, we see that the CC-BY posts can be remixed into derivative works using many different licenses.

Our third work is licensed under a CC-BY-SA license; from looking at the matrix, we see that CC-BY works can be remixed into CC-BY-SA. Accordingly, the only choice on this post is CC-BY-SA. Given that this is the license we like to use, this works well.


List of works consulted

The list of works consulted does not affect the license used when publishing a work. When writing for the web, the list of works consulted can generally be inferred from the links in the post. In addition to the works linked in this post, we also read through the information in the posts listed below.

In addition to the posts listed below, Karen Fasimpaur provided some incredibly useful guidance with finding some of the resources used in this post.



Closing Notes

Questions about licensing have been one of the thornier elements to creating and reusing open content. However, with the large and growing body of high quality openly licensed resources that are available, navigating licenses is becoming easier. A goal of Creative Commons licensing is to facilitate sharing and reuse, and this is a fundamental shift in how we traditionally think about licensing.

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OERs, Licensing, and Are We There Yet?

2 min read

From some comments I made on Tom Hoffman's blog, in response to the Capetown Declaration -- Stephen Downes also has a great take on this.

As I see it, the thing to be avoided is:

A person or a community creates a resource that is freely available, and can be easily moved from one site to another. Some other entity comes along, uses that resource as a base for their work, distributes that resource, charges money for access to that resource, yet does not the new source material freely available.

That entity has effectively taken something that was freely available and commodified it into something that is no longer freely available.

In general terms, the point of an OER is to create a tool that is freely available. As that tool is improved, the improved version will also remain freely available.

From reading the Capetown Declaration, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the major publishers co-opt chunks of allegedly "open content" and unleash their "experts" on it, and then generate reams of marketing material describing how they are embracing the democratization of knowledge. And, of course, this "new" work built on top of OERs would not be freely available.

It's pretty obvious that the barriers to more widespread adoption of OERs are financial, and not technical. Creating, sharing, and republishing content is easy. Any chump with a few hours of spare time can cobble something together. And textbook publishers are very nervous, as they should be. Given that the CC Non-Commercial Share-Alike License exists, and has a mechanism to prevent removing OERs from the realm of free access, why not use it?

The only answer that readily springs to mind is that it doesn't play well with business plans that are predicated on selling content. The thing I love about the non-commercial license is that it aligns perfectly with a business plan predicated on selling services that add value to content. In other words, you actually need to *know something* about what you sell.

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