Expanding Opportunity through Open Educational Resources

Cross-posted from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Using advanced technology to dramatically expand the quality and reach of education has long been a key priority for the Obama Administration.

In December 2013, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a reportexploring the potential of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to expand access to higher education opportunities. Last month, the President announced a $2B down payment, and another $750M in private-sector commitments to deliver on the President’s ConnectEd initiative, which will connect 99% of American K-12 students to broadband by 2017 at no cost to American taxpayers.

This week, we are happy to be joining with educators, students, and technologists worldwide to recognize and celebrate Open Education Week.

Open Educational Resources (“OER”) are educational resources that are released with copyright licenses allowing for their free use, continuous improvement, and modification by others. The world is moving fast, and OER enables educators and students to access, customize, and remix high-quality course materials reflecting the latest understanding of the world and materials that incorporate state of the art teaching methods – adding their own insights along the way. OER is not a silver bullet solution to the many challenges that teachers, students and schools face. But it is a tool increasingly being used, for example by players like edX and the Kahn Academy, toimprove learning outcomes and create scalable platforms for sharing educational resources that reach millions of students worldwide.

Launched at MIT in 2001, OER became a global movement in 2007 when thousands of educators around the globe endorsed the Cape Town Declaration on Open Educational Resources. Another major milestone came in 2011, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis unveiled the four-year, $2B Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT). It was the first Federal program to leverage OER to support the development of a new generation of affordable, post-secondary educational programs that can be completed in two years or less to prepare students for careers in emerging and expanding industries.

To drive accessibility and quality, and to make these resources permanently renewable, the program contained the innovative requirement that all new intellectual property paid for with grant funds be openly licensed for free use, adaptation, and improvement by others.

The first Federal grants for OER under the TAACCCT program were made in 2010; altogether the Federal Government has invested $1.5B to build, develop and expand academic and job-training programs that help students and unemployed workers secure good jobs in growing, high wage industries as quickly as possible. These investments are creating a new pipeline of high-quality OER that will come online for free use in waves over the coming months and years.

The first examples of open TAACCCT deliverables are already in use, with representative efforts that include theNational STEM Consortium and the aerospace education programs and curriculum created by the Air Washingtoncommunity college consortium.

Building on this record of success, OSTP and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are exploring an effort to inspire and empower university students through multidisciplinary OER focused on one of the USAID Grand Challenges, such as securing clean water, saving lives at birth, or improving green agriculture. This effort promises to  be a stepping stone towards leveraging OER to help solve other grand challenges such as the NAE Grand Challenges in Engineering or Grand Challenges in Global Health.

This is great progress, but there is more work to do. We look forward to keeping the community updated right here. To see the winning videos from the U.S. Department of Education’s “Why Open Education Matters” video contest, click here.

Hal Plotkin is Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Under Secretary U.S. Department of Education

Colleen V. Chien is Senior Advisor to the CTO, Intellectual Property and Innovation at OSTP

ED Team Visits Green Ribbon Honorees in Oregon and Washington

Catlin Gabel

On the West Coast portion of the ‘Education Built to Last’ Facilities Best Practices Tour, ED officials visited the Catlin Gabel School, in Portland, Ore., where the garden is curricular focus of middle school classes and a school-wide garden club. Each year, students have a sustainability theme woven into their curriculum.

When my colleague, Andrea Falken, director of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), asked me to accompany her on site visits to honored schools in Oregon and Washington, I quickly agreed. As part of the Education Built to Last Facilities Best Practices Tour, the plan was to make brief visits over three days to about a dozen schools across the Pacific Northwest, recognizing them for their outstanding environmental impact, health, and education and bringing more attention to their strategies, so that other schools might do more of the same.

As a long-time environmentalist, I was eager to learn more about how top-notch K-12 educators are helping students understand the perils that face our planet. How do these educators get the message across without scaring the kids? Do the students understand the root causes of the problems and their personal role in solving them? What books, films, experiments, and lessons are most useful? How do the best schools link environmental education with more traditional subjects such as social studies, science and math?

What I discovered in Oregon and Washington, however, surprised me. The questions that I thought were most important were, indeed, important, but it turned out they were secondary to a far more vital issue: what is the quality of leadership at each school?

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Why Open Education Matters Video Competition Winners Announced

What would you do if you thought you had a solution that would make a high-quality education freely available to anyone with a computer or cell phone, help instructors build new teaching skills and get credit for their accomplishments, and also greatly reduce costs for schools, families and students?  You’d want to tell the world!  That is just what the nearly one hundred videographers who entered the “Why Open Education Matters” video competition, co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, spent part of this summer doing.

Here are the top three winners:


Congratulations to Blinktower, a creative agency based in Cape Town, South Africa


Congratulations to Laura Rachfalski and her team.  Laura is an artist, videographer and photographer from Philadelphia.


Congratulations to Nadia Paola Mireles Torres and her collaborators from the design firm Funktionell. Nadia has also made all the video assets available for download and reuse under a CC BY intellectual property license.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

In addition to the winning videos, all qualifying videos are available for viewing on the competition website, http://whyopenedmatters.org. All of the videos are licensed CC BY, which means others may distribute, remix, and build upon them, even commercially, as long as they give credit to the creators.

The prize winners were determined by a panel of distinguished experts, including Davis Guggenheim, Nina Paley, Liz Dwyer, Anya Kamenetz, James Franco, Angela Lin, and Mark Surman. The contest was a partnership between Creative Commons, The Open Society Institutes and the U.S. Department of Education.  All prize money was provided by non-governmental sources.

Hal Plotkin is a senior policy advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education.

“Why Open Education Matters”—Video Competition Launches

Did you know there is now a high quality, college-level statistics textbook available entirely free online, free high school STEM textbooks and a set of free, openly-licensed books for the highest-enrolled college courses?  If you didn’t, you’re not alone. These free learning materials are just a few examples of a relatively new type of learning material called “Open Educational Resources.”

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials, like textbooks, courses, study guides, lectures and illustrations, in digital or print, that are available in the public domain or have been released under a license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. In recent years, several foundations and number of government agencies have funded the creation of OER covering virtually hundreds of topics and dozens of academic subjects.

And yet even now, more than ten years after the Open Educational Resources movement got started, it’s a safe bet to say that most Americans don’t have any idea what the words “open educational resources” mean or why they’re important.  Likewise, there are still very few school districts, colleges or universities that are taking full advantage of these free and open learning resources, which can enhance the quality of teaching and learning while also driving down the costs imposed on students, families and systems of education at all levels.

ED is working with partners to turn that around. Today marks the official launch of the Why Open Education Matters Video Competition, a partnership between Creative Commons, the Open Society Institute and the Department of Education. The competition will award cash prizes of up to $25,000 for the best short videos that explain the use and promise of free, high-quality open educational resources and describe the benefits and opportunities these materials create for teachers, students and schools.

“We haven’t come close to tapping the full potential of OER,” says Cathy Casserly, who helped launch the OER movement twelve years ago as a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and who now serves as the CEO of Creative Commons, a California-based non-profit that provides the copyright licenses that help authors, artists and educators share their works with the world on their own terms.

“We need to help more people understand that these materials are not just free,” she says, “they can also create communities of teachers and learners who collaborate on their continuous improvement, and that’s the real magic – in the actual reuse and remix.”

As Casserly points out, powerful things can happen when people share what they know. At its heart, that is what education has always been all about. In 2012, thanks to the advent of the Internet, and organizations such as Creative Commons that promote the legal sharing of creative and educational works, we have a whole new set of opportunities to increase access to high-quality education and job-training experiences. The question now is how do we accelerate this trend so that it makes a real contribution to meeting President Obama’s goal that the U.S. will once again have the best-educated workforce in the world by 2020? The results of this video competition may point the way.

Click here to get started on creating your video for the Why Open Education Matters Video Competition.

Hal Plotkin is the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education