U.S. Government Funding For Open Education Materials a “Game Changer”

The technology community is fond of referring to announcements that fundamentally alter a sector or service as a “game changer”. Recent examples include the debut of the Apple iTunes store in 2003, which demonstrated how a digital music service that responds to consumer demands was possible, and Google’s Gmail, which upended web-based email in 2004 by offering 1 gigabyte of storage when competitors like Microsoft’s Hotmail were providing a paltry 2 megabytes.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) recently covered the U.S. government announcement of its own game changer, though it attracted far less attention than iTunes or Gmail. Led by the Departments of Labor and Education, it committed US$2 billion toward a new program to create free online teaching and course materials for post-secondary programs of two years or less.

  There are other open educational resource initiatives – the State of California’s Digital Textbook Initiative has led to the open availability of dozens of texts – but nothing that approaches the scale of the new U.S. program. By injecting $500 million per year for four years, the initiative will offer “free, high-quality curriculum and employment training opportunities within reach of anyone who has access to the Internet.” As a condition of funding, all materials will carry the Creative Commons BY licence, which permits their free derivative use for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.

Interest in open educational materials has been mounting steadily in recent years as educators and funders seek to leverage the millions of articles that are freely available under open access licences and to develop flexible materials that can be used on any platform and updated or amended without running into publisher or copyright barriers.

Cost is obviously also a significant consideration since school budgets face increases in book and royalty costs that often far outpace other expenditures. The shift toward an open educational resource model may still provide payment to authors, but it adopts a different approach from the conventional royalty-based system. Authors are often paid upfront for their work in return for unlimited access and the ability for others to build on their works.  

From a Canadian perspective, there are genuine risks that domestic materials will be forgotten as schools gravitate toward the U.S. funded free alternatives. In fact, a recent study commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage on the academic publishing industry acknowledged that the availability of alternative and digital resources represented a substantial risk to the publishing industry.

For Canadian educators, the challenge will be to supplement the freely available materials with Canadian context. Some Canadian universities have already jumped on the bandwagon: Athabasca University in Alberta is aiming to replace many of its course materials with open educational resources, while the BCcampus initiative brings together 25 post-secondary institutions to contribute and share open educational resources.  

Recent developments provide an exceptional opportunity for both federal and provincial governments to build on the open educational resource movement by committing funding to new initiatives as well as efforts to “Canadianize” freely available materials. Moreover, granting institutions such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada could work on integrating their funded research into course materials.  

Non-governmental organizations such as the Canadian Legal Information Institute, which provides free access to thousands of legal cases, could build a “universal casebook” that offers free access to all cases studies by Canadian law students (I am a CanLII board member).

Creating and adopting these new materials will not happen overnight, but it seems likely that years from now students will look back at the little-noticed announcement in January 2011 as the moment when access to educational materials was forever changed.


  1. Wait until educational institutions realize that teachers could and should create original class materials instead of handing out copies of a few pages from various textbooks.

    At that point nobody would care of the “fair deal for education ” so un-dear to Mme. Lavallee.


  2. CndCitizen says:

    A step in the right direction…
    Look at all the free training materials that people put out under creative commons license on almost all topics you could think of. I remember finding all the MIT class notes and assignments and answers that a professor was putting up under the CC license for students and others that couldn’t get into MIT to improve their skills/knowledge.

    With more and more industries and institutions that are seeing a benefit to online material as a savings on printing of books and environmental damage, it should be also encouraged as being “Greener” then forcing students to buy the same text book year after year with a couple page number changes or a couple different assignment questions to increase printing revenue.

    I don’t know if this is still happening in Universities but when I went through university, I had a text book that spanned 4 semesters over a 3 year period (which is quite common). I should have had to buy the book 3 times because the publishers decided to change the questions and page numbers every year and retired or pulled the older versions from the book store so students couldn’t resell their text books to other students taking the course later or use if for multiple year course tracks.

    I remember every year people handing sheets out with the updated page numbers or questions that students compiled for students that had older books so they didn’t have to fork over another $140-250 for a couple books with different questions. Also some Professors actually would quote or assignments based on a couple years worth of publications in courses that they new that the books changed every year. Everyone saw what it was as a money grab on students required to pay for this material…

    Anyway, going to free education resources will only strengthen Canada more and increase even more our standing as a knowledge export throughout the world.

  3. Hmm, one of those new models we all have been expecting …
    It is interesting to think of the pay up front vs the royalty model, if implemented correctly and fairly I can see some advantages. One would of course be, in the case of open license material, the end of infringement and all the related policing/collecting costs. Another being the freedom to use the material in unencumbered and creative ways. Finally, it would be less of a cost burden to students.

    Now having said all that there must be consideration for the writers of said materials. If paid up front by contract with the understanding that their works are being released under CC then this at least gives them the assurance of being paid for their efforts. That payment should also be in the range of what they could have expected to receive from the royalty model. The benefit of this to the writer is there would be no loss of income due to loss by infringement. This seems like a win win situation to me.

    Of course the reality of this is the money has to come from somewhere, and in the case of the USA it seems to be coming from the government which in actuality leads to the taxpayer. Now the taxpayer is already invested in supporting the educational infrastructure to some degree so this is not a new tactic, the question for the taxpayer then becomes the return on value. This is a question that will need to be explored as this new model is considered.

  4. @Crockett: “It is interesting to think of the pay up front vs the royalty model, if implemented correctly and fairly I can see some advantages.”

    It’s actually the “work for hire” vs. “license” models.

    In this world only “arteests” benefit of this model where you get paid for the rest of your life for 3 days spent in the recording studio sometimes when you were young.

    It’s said to “encourage creativity”. Yeah sure.

    As for education. The school/college/university does not necessarily need to release the materials in the public domain. It is enough if they provide a “lifetime” license to their enrolled students. And if, for example, the math teacher compiles his own original handouts instead of just photocopying from textbooks, all that “educational fair use” is a moot point.


  5. Question for Michael Geist
    Michael, since you are a teacher, here is a quick question:

    Provided that you had ample time and willingness to prepare original course materials as handouts; is there any particular information that you would need to quote “ad litteram” (i.e. no interpretation or re-wording allowed, such as in a law), and that is covered by copyright in such a manner that you would be infringing by directly photocopying it in the absence of an education fair use clause?


  6. Mark McGuire says:

    Other countries face similar issues
    You point about the scale and availability of U.S. content overwhelming initiatives in Canada is an important one, and it provides a good argument for more support at the national level. We face similar issues here in New Zealand. There are two interesting projects that are based in my home town of Dunedin. Wikieducator serves as a repository for Open Educational Resources produced by academics who are using the Creative Commons CC-BY licence. Recently, a planning meeting for an OURU (Open Educational Resources University) was held here, with over 200 virtual participants from around the world. The need for these free resources is probably most urgent in developing countries, where traditional post secondary institutions may be less numerous and less entrenched. As they have so much to gain thought the use of this more open approach to education, their governments may be more supportive of the creation as well as the use of open resources. Imagine what is possible if the potential of the large number of increasingly well educated people in these countries contributed to the OER effort. A game changer, indeed.

  7. Napalm asked Geist: “is there any particular information that you would need to quote “ad litteram” (i.e. no interpretation or re-wording allowed, such as in a law)?”

    Yes, having a version that is as close as feasible to the original is absolutely necessary in any respectable university course where one is analyzing a work. What a creator actually wrote (or painted or performed) is an indispensable foundation for the critical thinking that we university types go on and on about. Only then can we and our students reasonably assess what others have said about a work.

    Unfortunately, extended copyright terms make it extremely difficult to do this for works that are not even very recent. E.g., although the praiseworthy IMSLP Website has made decent versions of music scores that are already in the public domain accessible to students, music from the early 20th century onward is generally unavailable or too expensive to study in any comprehensive way. Effectively, serious classroom engagement with significant parts of our history has to stop around 1900 in order to support the descendants of creators for several generations and, of course, parasitic publishers.

    As for Canadian content, acquaintances in the textbook business tell me that the demand for Canadian supplements or versions of course materials that were originally published outside Canada generally originates among students themselves. Think of what it would mean to study aspects of the First or Second World War entirely in terms of American, British or French involvement.

  8. “running into publisher or copyright barriers” ?
    I’d like to storm into someone’s house without worrying about trespassing or forceable entry barriers.

  9. OK, a loose analogy .. but you started it 😉
    @Benjamin “I’d like to storm into someone’s house without worrying about trespassing or forceable entry barriers.”

    Well that analogy works. If you have bought the house from me (eg. digital music purchase) then I would have given you the keys. What you did once you were inside the house would be none of my business. Knock down walls, paint it green, have a party. If you rented the place (eg. movie rental) then I would expect the house to be taken care of and I could demand the keys back for misbehavior.

    Two types of business transactions but the media content holders seem to get them confused. Either it’s a sale or a rental, have it one way or the other but don’t expect both & be sure to charge accordingly.

    Oh, and locks are only effective if they are respected. If I bought a house, moved in and came home one day to find the locks changed because the house designer didn’t like what I did with the drapes (Hmm, sounds oddly like Bill C-32) then I would have no qualms to picking that lock or looking for an open window to access my belongings.

    I know this is not the world as you see it, but it is the world view of the majority of your customer base. Love or leave ’em they are the ones who actually give you money for your works. Now sadly, some are idiots who take for nothing, these would be like B&Eers. But treat your tenants like crap and you’ll end up getting the disrespect you already feel from the ones running down the alley with your stereo.

    Just sayin’

  10. Clarification
    Above I am not referring to altering or distributing the purchased work, just being able to use it in the privacy of my house as I see fit. I am fine paying for things I use, just don’t tell me how to use it.

    As I said it was a loose analogy. 0_o

  11. Property crimes
    Property crimes are completly different then IP crimes. Just like property crimes are completly different from bodily harm. In example, if I still your ipod, you now have no ipod. crummies. If i where to steal your eyes from your sockets, you now have no eyes. Still the same thing? Now if I was to copy your ipod, or your eyes, you still have them. I just have some too. The only damage is pontential lost revenue from me buying an ipod and… buying your eyes?!? You get the point though, not the same thing. Despite what the whatever IAA wants you to beleive.

  12. @Benjamin: “I’d like to storm into someone’s house without worrying about trespassing or forceable entry barriers. ”

    I’d like to be able to use a house that I bought, without having locks on the furnace and water heater that would make it illegal to service them.

    As Crockett said. It’s about your house not someone else’s. Locks are present on original materials that you buy, not on “pirate” editions.


  13. @Joel: “The only damage is pontential lost revenue from me buying an ipod and…”

    This “potential lost revenue” notion is the biggest pile of crock ever.

    If I intend to buy “The Tourist” on blu-ray, that’s exactly what I will be doing.

    If I don’t intend to buy that disc, then nothing could force me to.

    BTW guys. You can pre-order it on Amazon 🙂


  14. @Marchetto: “Yes, having a version that is as close as feasible to the original is absolutely necessary in any respectable university course where one is analyzing a work”

    How about a Technical University. Those maths/physics/chemistry formulas are not subject to copyright.

    Hey wait. Maybe they should. Imagine the potential revenue if publishers could “own” them too. 🙂


  15. goodbye education
    textbook makers will stop making new content if there’s no money in it.

  16. @Goldberg: “textbook makers will stop making new content if there’s no money in it.”

    ROFL. “New content” is done in scientific papers published in journals not in textbooks. Textbooks are just compilations.


  17. pat donovan says:

    spec ed
    hurray for the communication revolution.
    pay the exam fee, pass, and poof! you’re a lawyer. Or dentist? Or doctor? schools would be for the socializing function of the nobility… however obsolete they may be.

    schools, gov’ts, entertainment, hospitals, universities… dare we say it? AI judges?


  18. @Napalm
    so who will package and summarize your scientific papers in a comprehensive way for the students? Volunteers I guess ROFL

  19. @Goldberg: “so who will package and summarize your scientific papers in a comprehensive way for the students?”

    The teachers. You should check how it worked in the former Soviet bloc. And you can’t deny that the Russians had and have some of the most powerful technical schools.

    To spare you from searching, here it is on short:

    In order to get promoted and get tenure track, teachers had to publish course materials. These were being printed as books by the Universities and available to buy or through the University’s library which had at least 1 copy per student available for lending. Also there were exchanges between Universities – if you don’t like the Moscow University “Optics” course, you can borrow one from a different University.

    Also the Russians engaged into a huge effort, at state’s expense, of translating and printing foreign scientific books that they made available to buy or through the public libraries.

    The only drawback of the system was that no one could get filthy rich. 🙂


  20. @Goldberg.. “so who will package and summarize your scientific papers in a comprehensive way for the students?”

    Google, Watson, and more coming.. It doesn’t take much imagination to combine the breadth of Google with the analysis of Watson (Jeopardy) to see possibilities that would blow your mind. Doing what you describe above will be child’s play.

    Even without this, I have started to delve into genomics and string theory and dark energy without ever cracking a textbook. Things I could never dream of learning when I was young. Fascinating..

    It’s certainly not my father’s world out there. Not even the world of my formative years. Seen through the lens of a short 20 years ago, it’s hardly recognizable. Even something as simple as a “cell phone” has evolved into something totally unrecognizable.

    If I may suggest, you should hang on to this question for 10 years and ask again. I predict the answer will be obvious, and the question itself seem (lets be charitable)… quaint..

  21. Hendrik Boom says:

    Great! Where do I sign up to get funded to write and maintain a free textbook on mathematics? Maintain? Does the math change? No, but experience will tell me what’s confusing to the students and what isn’t, and that requires changes.

  22. @Hendrik Boom
    If you have experience, that must mean you have a teaching role already. As Nap pointed out above, this will become part of your role as a teacher. A role you will share will many other teachers everywhere.

    Note: This is quite different from the question asked by Goldberg.

  23. Also the Russians translated their books to other languages, mainly English:

    I happen to have an old “Handbook of Physics” (in English) from Mir Publishers. It is the best organized, logically laid out and most complete one that I ever seen.

    Also do not forget that while Russia had “Research Institutes” where scientists could dedicate themselves to research work, some of the professors in Universities were prominent researchers too. You could have the honor to attend a course given by one of the legends in the Soviet scientific world.

    I have a deep respect for what they were doing for their educational system.


  24. @oldguy
    Teachers? OMG are you serious? George Brown College has programs whereby the curriculum is established by teachers and it’s a miserable failure. There’s no “set” curriculum and every time a new teacher comes in it’s a hodgepodge. The students from one year to the next are studying different things. It’s not a good idea to have every teacher whip off the top of his head what he or she thinks the students should learn. That decision should be made by higher up types than the teachers themselves.
    Getting rid of copyright on digital media is a very bad idea and in time we will all eventually see the repercussions of low quality permeating our lives.