A Better BetterLesson

10 min read

At the outset of this post, I want to make my biases clear: I am an open content advocate. There are many reasons why I am an open content advocate; foremost among them is the belief that unfettered access - including the ability to freely access, modify, and redistribute material used while learning - helps eliminate barriers to learning. Additionally, the ability to freely access, modify, and redistribute material puts both teachers and learners at the center of the process. It shifts how we look at both texts and learning. If our texts are fixed and malleable, it's easier to see learning as a process of acquiring and remembering a set of "facts." If, however, we look at a text - or a lesson - as the starting point in the conversation that we call learning, we reinforce the role of the teacher and learner as active participants in the process.

There are other reasons that I support open content, and see widespread adoption of open content as a cure for some of what ails education, but for this post, I wanted to make this perspective explicitly clear at the outset.

BetterLesson.com is a for profit company that has built a lesson sharing site. In November, 2012, they received 3.5 million from the Gates Foundation to support the development of Common Core aligned lesson plans.

As I do with most sites, I started by looking at the Privacy Policy. Point 8 covers how information in the site will be handled in case BetterLesson.com is bought by someone else:

In the event that BetterLesson is acquired by or merged with a third-party entity, we reserve the right, in any of these circumstances, to transfer or assign the information that we have collected from Users as part of that merger, acquisition, sale, or other change of control.

In other words, if someone acquires BetterLesson.com, they also acquire all user data, and all lessons uploaded into the site. This is a pretty standard boilerplate disclaimer. In a site like BetterLesson.com, however, it does create an increased focus on ownership rights of content, and on how content on the site can be used.

With that in mind, I headed over to the Terms of Service. Points 6c and 6d cover ownership of lessons on the site:

(c) Ownership of User Content and License Grant. You retain all of your ownership rights in User Content that you upload to the BetterLesson Platform. However, by uploading the User Content to the BetterLesson Platform, you are granting BetterLesson and others the right to use your User Content. The default license for all User Content uploaded through the BetterLesson Platform is Creative Commons, Attribution Only 3.0. Therefore, unless otherwise agreed to in a separate written agreement between you and BetterLesson signed by an authorized representative of BetterLesson, the following applies to all User Content uploaded through the BetterLesson Platform:

This gets a little confusing, but the short version: if you upload something to BetterLesson.com, you own it, but it must be licensed under what they are calling the "Creative Commons Attribution Only 3.0 License." There is no link to the license page, as is customary, and there is actually no such thing as an "Attribution Only" license. While it's relatively safe to assume that they are referring to the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, the details matter.

However, in point c1, things take a decided turn for the worse:

(1) You hereby grant to BetterLesson a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, assignable, fully paid-up, royalty-free, license to host, transfer, display, perform, reproduce, distribute, compress or convert for distribution, and otherwise exploit your User Content, in any media formats and through any media channels. Such license will apply to any form, media, or technology now known or hereafter developed. This license grant will continue even if your User Content is removed from the BetterLesson Platform by you or otherwise. By uploading User Content, you hereby warrant that your User Content is free of any digital rights management protections or functionality, including any software designed to limit the number of times User Content may be copied or played.

Under these terms, ANYTHING you upload to BetterLesson.com is given to BetterLesson.com, forever. If you delete your content? Too bad. They can still do what they want with it. In other words, what gets drafted on BetterLesson, is effectively owned by BetterLesson.

It's worth noting that this license grant is actually covered under the CC Attribution clause - because BetterLesson requires the Attribution license (assuming that's what they mean), the terms of the CC license state that, "The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms." The language in this section duplicates and rewords what is already covered in the Creative Commons license - although, as noted above, we don't actually know what license they want, as they name a license that doesn't exist, and don't link to a license deed.

(2) By distributing or disseminating User Content through the BetterLesson Platform, you hereby grant to each authorized User of the BetterLesson Platform a non-exclusive license to access and use your User Content under the terms indicated by you when you uploaded such User Content, which shall at least include a limited, non-exclusive, personal license to view and download such User Content in the manner contemplated by these Terms and the BetterLesson Platform. The foregoing license granted by you terminates as to a specific piece of User Content once you remove or delete such User Content from the BetterLesson Platform provided, however, the right to such User Content arising out of distributions occurring on or prior to deletion of such User Content from the BetterLesson Platform survives the removal or deletion of such User Content.

So, in point c, BetterLesson states that all user generated content is covered under a Creative Common Attribution License (kind of). In point c1, BetterLesson states that they retain rights to use your content, even if you delete it. Then, in point c2, BetterLesson says that deleting content means that it can no longer be used by other users.

Again, this use case is already covered under the Creative Commons license terms. By rewording the license terms, BetterLesson undercuts and confuses the actual rights of creators.

Here, it's important to keep in mind that, under the Terms of Use, any entity that purchases BetterLesson purchases all work stored in BetterLesson.

But, we're not done yet! Point 6d adds to the fun.

(d) UEE Content. Notwithstanding any other provisions of these Terms, certain content on the BetterLesson Platform has been provided by Urban Education Exchange (“UEE” and such content, the “UEE Content”). You hereby are granted a non-exclusive, non-sublicensable, non-transferable right and license to access and use UEE Content for the sole purpose of performing the duties within the scope of your employment as an educator for your current employer. You acknowledge that UEE is the sole owner of all UEE Content. You agree that you will not use the UEE Content for any commercial purposes and that any derivative works created by you from the UEE Content will only be used, distributed, transferred or reproduced as part of your duties within the scope of your employment for your students.

So, in the midst of user generated content, there is content that looks like user generated content, but isn't. The average user - who doesn't read the privacy and terms of use - will likely not even be aware of the two sets of licensing terms. This is made worse because, when browsing the site, some content has no license terms displayed. The reuse terms in this section are vague to the point of meaningless. If a teacher uses content for a colleague, does that violate the terms of use? If a TOSA (who has no students) uses material in a district training, does that violate the terms?

The reuse terms in 6d require that a subset of unidentified content on the site can only be used "within the scope of your employment for your students." Under these terms, a teacher using UEE content as part of a presentation at ISTE would potentially be in violation. Many ISTE (and other education-related conference) presenters go there on their time, and they aren't presenting to students.

This Is An Easy Problem To Fix

The lack of clarity in the terms of use have an easy fix: give authors the choice of license, either Attribution 4.0 or Attribution Share-Alike 4.0. If the UEE content requires it, add a non-commercial clause to that content.

Then, make the licensing terms of all content on the site visible.

The way the licensing terms are currently set up, it looks like BetterLesson.com is hedging its bets against the possibility of an acquisition. The founders have likely been given legal/business advice that says that the more content they "own" the more valuable the site will be. Using a Creative Commons license doesn't change that equation; it actually strengthens it. If the licensing terms were clarified and simplified to empower a community of reuse, they would be able to increase the amount of content to which they have access while increasing the size of their community.

Taking An Additional Step Back

The infographic on BetterLesson shows how BetterLesson is planning its growth. Over the next year, 130 teachers will be writing up their yearlong lesson plans.

This is actually a great plan. It aligns pretty cleanly with some things we've been talking about here, going back years.

BetterLesson seems to have gotten the crowdsourcing part right. Their approach there is solid, and 3.5 million in Gates funding doesn't hurt either. However, their reach will be diminished if they continue to get the licensing wrong.

Given that BetterLesson is in partnership with the NEA, it also seems pretty inconceivable that the union would not advocate for a simple step that would have immediate benefits for its members, and schoolkids nationwide.

If BetterLesson fixes its license terms, it can generate additional community support, generate additional visibility to its product, help more teachers, help more kids, and position itself as a leader in both the curriculum and community space. It's an easy fix that strengthens BetterLesson as a business, and increases availability of high-quality curriculum to students who wouldn't have it otherwise.

The rationale for leaving things unchanged is obvious: "But everything on BetterLesson can already be used for free!" This argument falls flat, however. Everything on the site can be read for free. The terms of reuse, remixing, and redistribution are so muddy as to make interaction with the content impossible.

To quote a blog post I read recently on scaling the effectiveness of master teachers:

Well, “the successes of excellent teachers live and die with them.” So said our man John Dewey over 80 years ago. And much to the peril of our education system here in the US of A, the same is true today. We don’t know what great teaching looks like; it remains a mythical thing. We can’t learn from these masters teachers.

Open content addresses this issue perfectly, as it allows all of us to benefit from and reuse the work of the masters who came before us.

I read the above quotation on the BetterLesson blog post where they announced their Gates funding. I sincerely hope they follow their own advice.

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