Using Open Content To Drive Educational Change

12 min read

I have yet to see many discussions about the relationship between open content and educational change that go beyond the potential cost savings offered by adopting open content. The differences between open content and traditional textbooks only begin with the production and distribution of the text. When we look at the types of teaching, learning, and assessment that become more accessible when using open content, we can start to get a clearer picture of the pedagogical rationale that makes remixable and reusable content a better choice than a traditional textbook.

Traditional Textbooks

With traditional textbooks, the trajectory involved in teaching and learning can be familiar. A district or a school buys the text. The text comes with a specific structure/scope/sequence. The teacher can follow that structure/scope/sequence in sum or in part, but generally, when a text is being used within a course, the structure of the text creates the structure of the course.

As part of the course, students read/study the text. The text becomes a point of reference for the ongoing work in the class.

In this traditional model, with traditional textbooks, there is a clear and unbroken line between the "authoritative version" printed and distributed by the textbook company, purchased by the district/school, supplied by the teacher, and used by the student. The text, with its underlying assumptions, structure, scope, sequence, biases, and mistakes, remains intact at every stage of this journey.

As an aside, in the past, this has translated into an outsized influence of the state standards of California and Texas over the content of textbooks - and that could get interesting.

Using a traditional textbook, the various activities of teachers and learners are clearly delineated and controlled.

  • The publisher publishes and distributes the text;
  • The district/school buys the text;
  • Teachers plan their curriculum around the text;
  • Students work from this curriculum (and in some cases, students must buy the text from the school), and are assessed on their mastery of it.

I've talked in other posts about how changing assessment is an essential part of meaningful educational change, so I won't get into it here.

But here's the thing: most teachers who use a textbook deviate from it. Most teachers plan lessons and curriculum that go beyond where the text ends, or that address deficiencies in the text. These lessons and activities form a shadow text that help drive quality classrooms. Yet, within the world of the traditional textbook, these improvements or options never make it back into the textbook. Many of these innovative practices never get shared with colleagues in the same building.

Open Content

Open content - and to be specific, I'm referring to open content that can be accessed, distributed, remixed, and redistributed via the web - eliminates many of the underlying assumptions that fuel traditional publishing (For brief introduction to the different perspectives on what constitutes the "open" in open content, this post by Stephen Downes is a good starting point into that larger conversation).

Working with open content shifts, simplifies, or eliminates many of the stages of traditional textbook publishing and distribution.

  • Publishing quality content can be done by anyone with a sufficient base knowledge to explain a topic coherently;
  • Selling and buying can be part of the equation as well, but the nature of the exchange shifts. With traditional texts, content is seen as an integral part of the deal - just ask any school that needs to buy the "updated" edition of their Intro to Chemistry textbook. With open content, companies can sell additional services and/or professional development in connection with using the text;
  • Planning with open content becomes easier, because teachers now have the ability - as well as the legal right - to modify the text they are using;
  • Working with open content - for both students and teachers - can be a more interactive and iterative process. How does planning and notetaking change when instructor plans, enrichment activities, and/or class notes can be reincorporated back into the text, and used as part of the next class offering?
  • Assessment can also look different. While traditional tests, papers, quizzes, etc still have a place, how does assessment change when student-generated work and/or teacher-generated additions provide greater levels of depth that can be incorporated back into the text? What does teacher professional development, or peer mentoring among teachers, look like when PD/mentoring can be tied directly into creating better resources for working with students?

And I wonder if this isn't the single biggest paradigm shift in moving from a traditional textbook to truly open content: Distribution channels are replaced with usage channels, and the "authoritative version" of the text can be made and remade anywhere along the usage channel. With open content, a class textbook can actually represent a localized, customized learning experience. More importantly, with open textbooks, the text that supports learning actually resembles learning: a nonstop, never-quite-finished process that can and should change as we consider both the next question and the myriad ways in which it can be answered.

The key, of course, is starting with accurate, quality texts. This is where the competence and expertise of teachers - paired with oversight from supportive administrators, and peer review - is essential.

More interestingly, though, using content that can be readily altered, remixed, and redistributed blurs the lines between teaching, planning, studying, learning, and creating. In short, open content can be used to transform the process of working from a text from an instructor-driven learning environment into an inquiry-driven learning environment.

Creating and Using Open Content

To start, one point needs immediate clarification: in order for something to be considered open content, the data needs to be readily transferrable using open web standards. Content that is made freely available anywhere, but that can't be transferred or remixed, does not qualify. Also, platforms that make it needlessly difficult to move data from one site to another don't qualify. Many sites use the "need" to go from web to print as a reason not to support full data portability; as we see it, that rationale tries to transform a business need into a technical requirement. Without full data portability, the best freely available resource suffers from many of the same limitations as a textbook. This is equally true of content trapped in a Kindle, an iPad app, an iPhone app, a SCORM player, or a PDF, and it is especially true for data trapped in any of the curriculum silos currently populating the web.

As discussed earlier, to understand the full potential of open content requires thinking about how people interact with open content, as opposed to how people distribute and consume open content.

  • Creating - this generally involves writing down lessons/chapters, collecting external resources, remixing pre-existing resources with original work, editing, getting peer review, and publishing. Fortunately for open content creators, many publishing tools also take care of distribution (think RSS, and other web standards that support the free exchange of information);
  • Using - at its most basic, using open content involves reading, watching, or listening, depending on the medium. From this starting point (which is generally the end point for traditional texts) open content can be extended, edited, reworked into class notes, and redistributed. The process of using open content can look very similar to the process of creating open content.

Respect Mah Authoritah

Earlier, we talked about the "authoritative version" of a resource. With traditional textbooks, the authoritative version comes directly from the textbook publisher (which is a long way of saying, it comes from the state standards of Texas and California). With open content that is freely distributed, multiple "authoritative" versions are potentially possible. If one doesn't think too hard about this, it can get scary: if anyone can edit the book, the argument goes, the quality will suffer, and the accuracy of the text will be unverifiable.

Respect mah authoritah!

However, this line of thought overlooks one of the biggest assets of open content: the "authoritative" version is defined at the point of use. If a district adopts an open text, the district can maintain an authoritative version that only selected people can edit. Having districts maintain an authoritative version of a text they acquired for free certainly would be preferable to several districts spending 1.9 million dollars for a textbook series with basic mathematical errors that went uncorrected for much of the school year.

System Design

From a system design perspective, the thoughts discussed in this post imply some specific functionality and needs:

  • People should be able to import content from external sources. Due to its ubiquity and flexibility, RSS is a pretty obvious choice for this base functionality, although specific systems will likely require additional means of importing content;
  • People working within the site should be able to copy and fork individual lessons, chapters, and/or texts as needed;
  • Selected site members should be able to flag selected lessons, chapters, or books as the "authoritative" version;
  • All lessons, chapters, or books should be exposed via RSS to allow easy transfer of content. This will allow texts to be copied within feed readers, other web sites, or even converted into ePub format using services like BookBrewer;
  • The code that runs this platform needs to be freely available under an open source license to allow any school or organization to set up their own instance.

There are additional features that could enrich the system - the ability to align content to standards stands out as one such need. However, the focus in this post is on identifying the core components that need to to be in place to allow people to create, remix, and distribute open content so that it can be used in as many places as possible. In this context, the ability to expose and distribute multiple pages via a single RSS feed is a more important feature than group editing as found in a traditional wiki.

Next Steps

Currently, we are building a version of the system we describe here. We are aiming to have a site up and running by the end of October.

All of the components of this site will be freely available on, and we will do our best to document any setup that is not automated as part of the installation process.

If you are a teacher and want to participate, you can do so in one of a few ways.

  • The easiest way to get involved: start publishing your lessons on a blog that has an RSS feed. Don't worry about the organization, or making them pretty. Just start sharing;
  • Convert existing lessons published under an open license into a more portable format. A lot of content has already been shared out. The OER Commons is a great place to start looking for open content. Unfortunately, much of this content, while it is freely available under an open license, is published in a way that make editing, remixing, and reuse difficult to the point of impractical. If this content was in a more reusable format, it would be of more use to more people. So, if you have found a pdf that contains some useful information, and that pdf is licensed under terms that support reuse, re-publish the useful sections on a blog that has an RSS feed.
  • If you are publishing lessons via your blog, or if you would like to be an admin on the site that we bring live at the end of October, let us know. You can get in touch with me directly via Twitter, or use our contact form

As we get closer to launching this site, we will publish more details about how to get involved. We are looking to collaborate with any and all interested parties, so if this sounds like something you would like to do, get in touch and let us know.

Closing Thoughts

Using open content relegates the text to where it should be: as a starting point (or in some cases, the foundation) for the learning and knowledge acquisition that will follow. Open content allows us to create and use information derived from and informed by a common set of educational goals. But, unlike traditional texts, open content can be localized for the specific needs of schools and learners. On its own, open content is not a panacea - nothing is. But, unlike other shifts that are currently in vogue (aka, the iPad will change everything!), the intelligent use of open content addresses immediate pedagogical needs. And, unlike other "reforms" that scapegoat teachers, administrators, and (amazingly) students, the intelligent use of open content creates the potential to use the talents of our teachers, the vision of our admnistrators, and the drive of our students to improve the learning environment.

It's difficult to talk about changing how people teach and learn without having the increasingly fractious discussions about what constitutes real educational reform seep into the conversation. And, unfortunately, many "reformers" favor a narrative that blames teachers while ignoring the role of policy makers of shaping the rules that define our educational system.

Given a choice between narratives about improving learning, I'll choose the one that empowers individuals to make the right choice. Using open content has ramifications for many areas across our educational system, but it keeps the focus on the most important component of the learning experience: the interaction between teacher, student, and the knowledge they are building. And when it comes time to improve learning, that's where the magic happens.

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