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Obama Puts Dollars Behind Open-Sourcing Education

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, January 21 2011

Lansing Community College; photo credit: Kevin Yezbick.

For information advocates, a new half-billion dollars in federal community-college education grants put on the table this week contain an especially tasty bit.

Contained in the particulars of the Obama administration's Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program, or TAA CCCT as those in the field call it (seriously), is a requirement that insists that grantees push out into the world whatever educational materials, training programs, or course plans they come up with under a Creative Commons Attribution license. That "By" license, in Creative Commons parlance, requires that anyone else who wants to make use of and remix those learning resources produced under the federal grant is free to do so, just as long as they give credit back to the original creator.

Over the last several years, there's been a global push towards what's called Open Education Resources, or OER for short. MIT's OpenCourseWare is perhaps the best known example of the philosophy in action. And in 2007, advocates rallied around something called the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, a manifesto for a burgeoning movement that "combines the established tradition of sharing good ideas with fellow educators and the collaborative, interactive culture of the Internet."

Here, the Obama administration is putting a considerable amount of money -- $500 million a year for four years, for a total of $2 billion, or what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described on a press call as "may be the largest investment into two-year institutions since the GI Bill" -- behind the principle.

"This groundbreaking federal effort," blogged Hal Plotkin, a senior policy advisor in the Department of Education, "will bring free, high-quality curriculum and employment training opportunities within reach of anyone who has access to the Internet."

It's worth keeping in mind, though, that it's not as if all the money will go to producing "free" learning resources, as grantees can use the funds they get from the government towards projects other than the creation of tangible educational programs. And Higher Ed's Doug Lederman points out that one set of folks that might not be thrilled with the requirement is institutions, including for-profit ones, who aren't eager to give other places of learning access to their work.

OMB Watch's Gavin Baker is, for one, pleased with what the requirement means for the government's return on investment. "It's a really smart way to get the most out of our money," wrote Baker in an email. "And because other colleges can customize, remix, and build upon them, the final products will be better."

This isn't just about education. One provision in one federal call for grant applications has the ability to reshape the sort of educational resources available online from Chicago to China. But the money involved here is, of course, but a fraction of what rolls out of federal coffers in the form of grants.

Over on her revived blog, Beth Noveck, who was until earlier this month the White House's lead on open government, points to things like the collaborative application process under the Obama administration's Broadband Match project and what the National Science Foundation is doing to require applicants to file data sharing plans as examples of how openness can be baked into the federal grantmaking process at every step of the way.

"Attacking the problem of closed grantmaking practices 'head on' and trying to change grants management governmentwide whether through legislation or OMB policymaking is hard, very hard," wrote Noveck.  "People have to push this boulder up the hill. But when DOL [the Departmetn of Labor] takes a page from NIH’s book and institutes its own open access program then another agency can come along and learn from the experience."