MCPS, Pearson, and Missing an Opportunity

I sent the following letter to the editor of the Washington Post, who reported on the MCPS / Pearson deal. It looks like they’re not running it, so I share it here.

Montgomery County Public Schools’ shortsighted decision to sell its nationally recognized and taxpayer-funded curriculum to an education publishing company (Re: Global firm to pay Montgomery, Md., schools
millions for elementary curriculum
; June 9, 2010) will only further exacerbate the education budget crises in the region and throughout the nation.

As a veteran educator, I am well aware of the significant and growing budgetary challenges districts like Montgomery are facing. Unfortunately, the huge collection of curriculum materials whose creation by MCPS was funded with taxpayer dollars now belongs to a commercial publisher. Now, when education budgets are tightest, other schools will spend additional taxpayer dollars to purchase materials originally produced with public funds. To call this “wasteful” would be an understatement. Why should the public pay over and over again for access to curriculum materials whose development they already paid to support? The current economic climate is not the time for school districts to engage in selfish educational isolationism. The county has missed a huge opportunity to explore a genuinely new way of doing things – sharing.

Instead of selling its content, the county should have followed the lead of others and made its curriculum resources freely available for use by other states, districts and individual teachers. Right now, the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is actively working to expand teacher and student access to high-quality, up-to-date, engaging, and customizable content and curriculum far more quickly, cost-effectively, and efficiently than today. Instead of holding world-class curriculum and other content hostage for the highest bidder, OER provides all educators with access to a much larger pool of resources that are freely available for sharing, adaptation and customization.

Far from a utopian dream, OER is a ready solution already being used by schools and universities throughout the nation and world. For example, at the Open High School of Utah, which I founded and on whose board I serve, the entire curriculum is comprised of OER. This provides teachers with a tremendous amount of freedom to customize the content so it best meets the needs of our students, and enables the resources to be shared with anyone, free of charge.

As Superintendent Weast suggests, Montgomery County Schools and others need to find new ways of doing things. A return to the basic principle of sharing would be our best way forward.

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  • It’s worth noting that while these missed opportunities are happening everywhere we need to pay special attention to the problem as it’s developing in our own backyard. This summer here in Utah, our state agencies are about to make a decision about what LMS to acquire since Utah’s statewide Blackboard license is about to expire. Given our regional commitment to openness one would expect that an open source solution would be a strong contender. But other options are being given very serious consideration. I can’t help reworking your third paragraph into a lament that may very well come true on a local level:

    Instead of buying from a proprietary LMS vendor, the state of Utah should have followed the lead of other universities and used resources freely available for use by Sakai and/or Moodle. Right now, the open source LMS movement is actively working to expand higher education’s access to high-quality, up-to-date learning technology far more quickly, cost-effectively, and efficiently than today. Instead of exposing Utah universities and taxpayers to vendor lock-in and onerous licensing costs, open source LMSs provide educators with technologies that are freely available for sharing, adaptation and customization.

    Hopefully Utah residents will recognize that many of the virtues that we see in OER also exist in OSS. But I’m doubtful.