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open educational resources

A movement to push more schools to swap out traditional textbooks for the free variety just got a boost from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education launched a new program last week to encourage the use of open educational resources (aka free books and materials). The campaign, branded as #GoOpen, could convince more schools to use non-traditional textbooks in the classroom.

What’s the benefit? Teachers can copy and remix the material as they see fit – without violating copyright laws – and innovative lessons can be shared widely, supporters say. Critics worry about the quality, and say that relying on free materials sidesteps the various quality assurance systems used to select textbooks.

Whatever side of the debate you fall on, this fact remains: The K-12 textbook market is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and powerful players have a lot at stake. If more schools opt out of using paid books, it could reshape the way paid publishers do business. A little competition might not be a bad thing – if we trust schools to sift through the free material and find something better than what they can buy now.

The federal government’s announcement also proposed a new policy that would require all materials created with U.S. Department of Education grant money to be licensed as open educational materials. This is meant to provide more bang for the taxpayer buck, supporters say. If one group develops a superb math textbook, for example, why not allow all public schools to use it for free?

The government announced the #GoOpen program last week during an Open Education Symposium hosted by the U.S. Department of Education and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Among the leaders in attendance was Matthew Miller, the superintendent of a public school district in Mentor, Ohio that committed to blended learning and to training teachers to use technology in the classroom. Miller’s school district is one of 10 districts selected to take part in a pilot program where schools commit to replacing at least one textbook with open source materials.

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The nine other districts that will take part in the pilot program are: Affton School District, St. Louis, Missouri; Colonial Public Schools, New Castle, Delaware; Oxnard Union High School District, Oxnard, California; Department of Defense Education Activity schools; Grossmont Union High School District, La Mesa, California; Kettle Moraine School District, Wales, Wisconsin; Lawrence Public Schools, Lawrence, Kansas; Mountain Empire Unified School District, Pine Valley, California; and Vista Unified School District, Vista, California.

These districts will be assisted by six “#GoOpen Ambassador Districts” that have already made the leap to open educational materials, and by private organizations that have signed on for the program, including Amazon.

“In order to ensure that all students – no matter their zip code – have access to high-quality learning resources, we are encouraging districts and states to move away from traditional textbooks and toward freely accessible, openly-licensed materials,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Districts across the country are transforming learning by using materials that can be constantly updated and adjusted to meet students’ needs.”

Of course, everything teachers and leaders need to run a school will never be entirely free – even if this program is successful. School districts still need to create a plan to use the materials, and must develop the infrastructure to facilitate use of electronic resources.

Finding the right bandwidth, literally and figuratively, can be a stressful and expensive experience for any district. The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the adoption of blended learning and open resource materials, recently released a new guide — free, of course — for school districts, “Financing to Scale Blended Learning Download.”

You can keep up with developments in blended learning through my weekly Blended Learning Newsletter. To have a free copy delivered to your inbox each Tuesday, sign up here for a free subscription, and invite a friend to subscribe.

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