In Support of the Monterey Institute of Technology and Education

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to spend about three hours talking with Gary Lopez, founder of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (or MITE, pronounced “mighty”), who is one of my favorite people in the OER movement and someone for whom I have boundless respect. Just a day later I was fortunate to participate in another amazing conversation involving MITE’s Ahrash Bissell as well as several other members of the OER community.

Among the wide range of issues we discussed, one topic that came up in both conversations was the observation that many “inside” the OER community seem to think of MITE as “outside” the OER community, despite the fact that they publish much of their content under Creative Commons licenses.

Why is that? I want to explore this a little. MITE is a case worth talking about both (1) because of the very high quality of the multimedia and other content they produce, (2) because of the incredible adoption and usage of their content (literally millions of users – many of whom are teachers using the materials in their classrooms and consequently represent 30 or so additional users), and (3) because MITE is one of an extremely small number of OER producing organizations that can be called sustainable.

MITE in 60 Seconds

MITE spends significant resources creating a relatively small number of very high quality courses, which they license under Creative Commons licenses. In this regard, you might think of MITE as the Carnegie Mellon University Open Learning Initiative of the secondary education space. An additional significant amount of non-development work goes into making the resources easy to find and use. For example, in addition to creating alignments with Common Core and state content standards, MITE aligns their content with popular textbooks. Using their Textbook Correlations tool a teacher or student can do a search like “show me content relevant to pages 103-111 of Glencoe’s 2010 Algebra 1 textbook.” It’s an amazing interface that makes it very easy for parents or students to find and use supplemental materials, for example.

MITE has settled on a sustainability model that requires you to become a paying member of their NROC Network if the uses of their materials you’re planning on making include things like being “downloaded en masse, stored on institutional servers, or otherwise incorporated into institutional resources (including learning-management or student-information systems) or distributed directly via institutional channels.” But, you might ask, how can they require network membership before permitting these uses if their content is CC licensed? Answer: they take a unique perspective on the NC clause in order to do it.

How Does It Work?

To expand the previous quote from MITE’s Terms of Use just a bit, MITE considers it “commercial use when the materials are downloaded en masse, stored on institutional servers, or otherwise incorporated into institutional resources (including learning-management or student-information systems) or distributed directly via institutional channels.” MITE uses this definition of NC to require anyone who wants to make these kinds of uses of their materials to join their membership network.

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled article with a brief foray into license technicalities. Skip down two paragraphs if this kind of stuff puts you to sleep.

There is one place where the MITE Terms of Use could be greatly improved. A little background first: The language in the BY NC SA license which constitutes the Noncommercial provision begins, “You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You in Section 3 above in any manner that…” In other words, the NC clause is triggered by the what the user does, or the kind of use that is made of NC licensed materials. The clause is not triggered by the type of entity making use of the NC licensed materials. Unfortunately for MITE, they take the uses they consider commercial (downloading en masse, storing on institutional servers, etc.), bundle them up, and label the bundle “Institutional Use.” By doing so, they confuse types of use (which NC addresses) with type of user (which it does not).

To expand the previous quote once more, the Terms of Use actually say “Institutional use is deemed to be commercial use when the materials are downloaded en masse, stored on institutional servers…” By appearing to attach their definition of commercial to type of user (“Institutional Use”), they appear to place it beyond the reach of the NC trigger language in the license. MITE really needs to get a new name for the bundle of uses they consider to be commercial, and that name needs to be descriptive of the uses themselves and not even smell like they’re related to the type of user who might make them.

So MITE has created a unique definition of commercial use. Of course, folks in the know about the inner workings of the CC licenses understand that this “defining NC” language in the Terms of Use document is probably not binding on end users because of Section 8.e. of the BY-NC-SA license, which reads “This License constitutes the entire agreement between the parties with respect to the Work licensed here. There are no understandings, agreements or representations with respect to the Work not specified here.” Either way, including this statement of their interpretation of NC does cause school districts, state offices, and others to pick up the phone and call MITE, so the desired effect is achieved regardless.

But back to the main point… even MIT OCW persists in offering its own unique definition of what constitutes commercial, and consequently unallowable, uses. So why does following MIT OCW’s lead make people think of MITE as outsiders? What’s up?

What Makes MITE Different?

A number of years ago, Creative Commons commissioned and published a report called Defining Noncommercial. This report demonstrated the wide range of attitudes regarding the meaning of “Noncommercial” held by both the general population of internet users and “Creative Commons Friends and Family,” a separate group of survey responders that actually knew something about the Creative Commons licenses.

Unfortunately the report itself only presents the results from the general population in any detail. However, the raw data on the CCFF group’s responses are available for analysis by anyone willing to download Open Office. The CCFF group’s responses are particularly important for our conversation because the OER community know and care about the Creative Commons licenses, and consequently their attitudes will be much more accurately reflected in the CCFF data.

Both groups of survey respondents were asked to rate the following scenario on a scale of 1 – 100, where 1 means “Definitely a Noncommercial Use” and 100 means “Definitely a Commercial Use:”

“Your work would be used for course materials in a school — a not-for-profit organization that does not charge tuition”

For people who view themselves as “creators” in the general population (n = 263), the mean response was 33.5 (median = 10, std dev = 36.8). For users in the general population (n=280), the mean response was 44 (median = 38, std dev = 40.9). So on average the general public believes that use by public schools is more Noncommercial than Commercial.

What you won’t see in the report are the following, much more striking data: For creators in the CCFF group (n = 1078), the mean response was 13.8 (median = 1, std dev = 25.4). For users in the CCFF group (n = 137), the mean response was 18.5 (median = 1, std dev = 31.6).

Here then, finally, is the issue that makes some people in the OER community look at MITE as being somehow different or outside the “mainstream” community. While the median survey response for both creators and users in the CCFF group regarding a scenario like ‘a public school using NC licensed material’ was 1 on a scale of 1 – 100, indicating that the average member of the CC community feels that this kind of use is clearly and “Definitely a Noncommercial Use,” MITE feels very strongly that use of their “course materials in a school — a not-for-profit organization that does not charge tuition” is Definitely a Commercial Use.

Why Be Different?

If you spend any time reflecting on the question, “Why would MITE take an approach that differs so significantly from the rest of the Creative Commons / OER community?” the answer is actually very straightforward. MITE’s materials are designed specifically for use in secondary schools. If secondary schools – MITE’s primary audience – can use all of MITE’s content without contributing anything back, there is literally nowhere for MITE to go for a sustainability model beyond being “just another OER publisher living from grant to grant.” So while sys admins, teachers, students, parents, and others are free to do anything else they like with MITE materials, they can’t engage in activities like loading them into LMSs (unless they join the network) – because these activities go straight to the heart of what “commercial” means to MITE.

MITE’s focus on middle and high school is critical. There is currently no real “direct to student” path to sustainability for OER producers who focus on K-12. At the secondary level, curriculum purchases are made by a district or school. These adoption decisions are centralized, lucrative, and the competition over them is ruthless. On the other hand, higher education is almost the complete opposite – adoptions are made by individual faculty and textbook purchases are (or aren’t) made by students themselves. This creates an opportunity for an organization focused on OER in higher ed to build relationships directly with the students using their OER, and try to follow a “direct to student” path to sustainability by offering proprietary supplemental materials and services. Due to the quirks of the K-12 adoption process, there is no similar path to sustainability for a publisher of secondary OER.

MITE’s approach to NC is so different from other members of the OER community because their goals are so different from others in the OER community. What other organizations focus primarily on producing original middle and high school content and licensing it as OER? CK-12 does, but they’re a foundation with an endowment to fall back on. Khan Academy also produces original secondary level content, but they’re currently supported by a huge array of foundations, and appear to have no sustaining model in sight beyond hat-in-hand.

MITE, which is also a non-profit, is a grand experiment in trying to figure out how to be a “sustainable producer of high quality middle and high school OER.” Since no one else in the OER community is really trying to do that, it makes sense that MITE’s approach would be significantly different from everyone else’s. Actually, since so few initiatives in the OER community are actually sustainable, MITE must to be doing something different.

Give MITE a Hug When You Can

MITE is absolutely a member of the OER community. A really innovative and interesting one, at that. If they seem a little far away from where you are and what you’re doing, remember they’re doing something different from you – trying to find a sustainable path through territory that no one else has successfully navigated. Yes, they’ve got a technical issue to solve with their license, but it’s fixable. And their sustainability model seems to be fundamentally sound.

If you’re a “sustainable producer of high quality middle and high school OER” that has figured out how to do that with a more “mainstream” approach to open licensing, I’m sure MITE would love to hear from you. But if you’re not willing to invest your energy in helping them find a “better” model, for the love of Pete don’t waste your energy complaining about the model they do have. It’s still very early days for OER, and we need all the interesting experiments in sustainability we can get. We need more experiments as different from the “mainstream” as MITE’s work is. (You see how successful the “mainstream” has been at sustaining itself.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ahrashb

    Hi David. I think your post does a good job capturing many of the key issues that a number of us discussed last week.
    There are two issues I would raise…

    First, it is not the case that MITE (now rebranding to the NROC Project) focuses squarely on middle and high school. On the contrary, many of our members and most of our recent work has focused on higher ed. What we are focused on is those sectors of the educational system where resource approvals and/or purchasing decisions occur at the institutional and/or system level. This includes most community colleges and many other institutions besides. There are additional factors that interest higher ed as well, even in the cases where faculty make the resource decisions and students have to pay.

    Second, I think it is worth pointing out that the perspective of CCFF regarding whether non-profits can engage in commercial use stands in stark contrast to the specific codification of the NC term preferred by CC (i.e., that the NC clause applies to the uses of the materials, not the identities of the users). The way that question was phrased does not enable us to fully unpack people’s thoughts, but it seems likely that classification of the institution has a profound impact on the perception of whether commerce (popularly understood) is happening. Thus, those closest to CC and the licenses are actually more guilty than the general public of violating this basic premise (use versus user) of the NC clause. Anyway, the ultimate result is as you said, but I raise it here because I think it illustrates how things are far less straightforward in practice than many are inclined to think.

    Thanks again for the great discussion.

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