Expanding Opportunity through Open Educational Resources

Cross posted from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog

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 report exploring 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, to improve 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 the National STEM Consortium and the aerospace education programs and curriculum created by the Air Washington community 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

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College Ratings Listening Tour: College Value and Affordability

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton gets feedback during an open forum at Louisiana State University.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton gets feedback during an open forum at Louisiana State University.

A system of college ratings will help students choose among colleges and encourage institutions to improve. This fall, the Department of Education set out across the country tolisten to everyone who wanted to talk about how we can make college more affordable and a solid investment for families and taxpayers.

In August the President outlined an ambitious agenda to combat rising college costs and improve the value of education so students and the nation can achieve our goals of growth, opportunity and economic strength.  He asked the Department of Education to reach out widely as we create a system both to help students and families choose colleges and eventually to reward colleges’ performance on key measures of opportunity and completion that are important to the nation. He also asked us and to honor his “firm principle that [the Administration’s] ratings be carefully designed to increase, not decrease, the opportunities for higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages.”  –August 22, 2013, Buffalo, NY.

So we fanned out across the country to listen. First, we gathered national student organizations, because students are at the heart of this effort to improve education and put it within everyone’s reach. In November, we held four Open Forums in the Los Angeles area at California State University- Dominguez Hills, George Mason University in the Washington, D.C., area, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We also arranged meetings in Chicago, Boston, Richmond, Las Vegas, and Annapolis, MD, before wrapping up the Fall portion of our outreach earlier this week in Davis, CA.  We gathered a wide range of perspectives from college leaders, students and faculty from all levels and sectors, and from parents, business people, college counselors, education associations, and policy analysts. In all, we held more than 55 meetings with thousands of participants. We also invited comment from the public, and continue to welcome ideas, at collegefeedback@ed.gov.

What have we learned? It was no surprise that people want the option of college for themselves and their families, that choosing among colleges is hard, and that people worry – a lot — about the cost. Many students and groups that advise low-income students about college responded positively to the plan for ratings that would incorporate measures of college access, affordability and outcomes.

And it was very good to hear, over and over and from all quarters, how many people share the President’s fundamental commitments to affordability, access, completion, innovation and transparency. Here are some of the most enthusiastic and personal comments we heard in support of the plan to develop a college ratings system:

“Parents and students shouldn’t have to guess. We salute the Secretary’s call for a ratings system – nutrition labeling for colleges.” J.B. Schramm, College Summit

“There is an urgency in developing solutions…Perhaps the worst thing we could be doing right now is to do nothing.”  King Alexander, President, Louisiana State University

“We whole-heartedly stand behind a ratings system…It would encourage institutions to start innovating and create more effective practices to get their students through the pipeline.” Allison De Lucca, Southern California College Access Network

“The Administration is right to demand results, not rhetoric, and metrics for accountability.” American Council of Trustees and Alumni

At the same time, we heard many probing questions, thoughtful suggestions, and serious concerns about the design of the system, its reliability and clarity, and the effects it might have. They were glad to hear that colleges will be grouped by mission or other criteria to generate reasonable peer groups; that the system is envisioned to generate broad performance categories, not rank-ordered lists; and that we want to give weight to whether schools are improving. Stakeholders said they appreciate the Department seeking advice before designing the system, but not having a specific proposal they could react to led to speculation and some concern.

We received many comments that recognize the challenges the Department faces in shaping a successful ratings system.  We were encouraged to consider a range of issues, including:

  • Promoting access, not endangering it: In recognizing schools that do a good job of providing access and achieving strong completion results, it will be important to avoid what many called “unintended consequences,” such as creating incentives to not accept high-risk students or to push students to less-demanding programs.
  • Outcomes measures: We were encouraged to consider a broad view of outcomes that go beyond degree completion to include successful transfer, completion of occupational certificates, and persistence, as well as to choose metrics relating to employment and income after college very carefully.
  • Intangible outcomes of education: A ratings system is not expected to capture all of the significant benefits of a college education, including academic success and capacities for civic engagement, critical thinking and problem solving, and lifelong learning.  We were urged to make very clear that college contributes to the success of our democracy, on the broad level, and to individuals’ quality of life and ability to participate in civic life on the personal level.
  • Institutional comparisons: Many comments noted the complexity of designing meaningful peer groups, especially given the variety of colleges and the fact that students with choices often compare colleges across categories, such as by location or program.
  • State role: Recognizing that about 75% of students attend public institutions of higher education, many comments reflected the common pattern of diminishing state investment in colleges and universities so that students and the federal government are shouldering more of the cost. Institutions and students asked whether it would be possible to reflect variations in state support so that colleges and results could be compared in light of those differentials. Others noted that the ratings system could be a useful tool for state policymakers, as well as college leaders.
  • Consumer accessibility: The effectiveness of a new rating system depends on whether the data and interface are friendly and easy to use for all families. The Department plans to test the system with consumers, colleges and other stakeholders to assure that the presentations are fair and appropriate and tell a clear and useful story.

The Department is now evaluating all the comments we received, while working with data experts, soliciting technical recommendations, and assessing existing ratings systems in higher education and other fields. Our goal is to publish a draft of the ratings system in mid-2014 for public feedback and improvement. The President has charged us to issue the ratings in time for students and others to use it for the 2015-16 school year.

We continue to look forward to receiving your comments, particularly those which both pose a question and focus on a specific recommendation to address the issue. Secretary Duncan has urged stakeholders to be candid and constructive. We understand the concerns we have heard and recognize the challenge of developing a system that is helpful to students and their families and not harmful to quality institutions and our diverse higher education sector. With continued constructive feedback and collaboration, we can produce a more useful, smarter system that promotes opportunity and individual and national goals through informed higher education choices.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Under Secretary of Education.

Weighing the Cost and Value of a College Decision

Posted on July 24, 2013 by Courtney Clemmons

It’s no secret that college can be expensive, especially for the middle class and those striving to get into the middle class. In the face of state budget cuts, institutions of higher education are faced with difficult choices about how best to incur these costs.  Unfortunately, many times these costs are passed on to students in the form of tuition increases.  In the 2012-2013 school year alone, tuition increased by an average of 4.8% at in-state public colleges. This leads to uncertainty for students as the cost of attendance will often increase greatly from the time they enter college to the time they graduate; making it difficult for students to make informed financial decisions regarding their education, or discouraging some from attending at all.  Since 1981, tuition costs have greatly outpaced the rate of inflation. The graph below from the Bureau of Labor Statistics displays the continual rise in college costs as compared to inflation.    


The Administration recognizes that slowing the growth in tuition requires shared responsibility among multiple actors.  For instance, states can’t keep cutting and balancing budgets on the backs of students and institutions need to be more productive and make better use of their budgets.

However, students also have the power to make smart choice and choose institutions based on value, and the Department has made great strides in helping students make those smart choices.  For instance, the College Affordability and Transparency Center allows students to compare institutions costs and percentage changes in state spending on higher education. The College Navigator is also a great tool to compare types of institutions, ranking them by cost of attendance and dozens of other categories. Also, if students receive financial aid or scholarships, the Department offers a net price calculator, which helps students determine the actual amount they will pay for their college education. Using the net price calculator, students are able to assess how much they need to save in order to cover the remaining cost of attendance. 

While college costs can be a major strain on families and individuals, many choose to invest in higher education because they know that there will be a good return on their investment. The tools provided by the Department of Education inform and educate students and families and allow them to make informed decisions in the college selection process. Making a decision on where to attend college should not be based on school notoriety nor “sticker shock”, but instead on the value of the program, affordability, type of institution, and the overall fit for the student. We encourage everyone to utilize these tools to inform their decisions and ensure they are making the best choice for their unique situation. When students are more educated about their college options, we move closer to meeting the President’s 2020 goal.

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A Student’s Experience in the Department of Education

Posted on June 6, 2013 by Annie Do.

The most rewarding experience I have ever had in my undergraduate career was my internship at the Department of Education here in the Office of the Under Secretary. This Spring, I was privileged with the opportunity to work with Senior Officials and Policy Advisors on key issues that directly affect me as a college student. I learned, grew, and was challenged every day to be creative, hard-working, and actively engaged with Under Secretary Kanter and her team. The most exciting part was that everything we were working on concerned me- a college student. The best part of my internship was the freedom I was given to pursue projects or attend different events. This allowed me to dip my feet in different areas of interest and expose myself to everything and anything that concerns higher education.

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MOOCs- A Student’s Perspective

Posted on June 6, 2013 by Annie Do.

Let me first say that when I heard MOOCs were on the rise, I thought it was a very bad idea. The first time I ever took an online course at a local community college one summer, I despised it— it was taking too much of my effort and motivation to sit down and watch a lecture online when I could have been enjoying the beautiful summer sun with my friends on the beaches of California. Said course was a hybrid Intro to Biology course—I watched the lectures online and attended lab at 8:30 am. On the very first day, my professor kindly praised us for our bravery for tackling an online course during the summer—according to him, online courses take twice as much discipline as their traditional counterparts because one actually has to sit down of their own accord and watch the lecture online instead of going to class. I found it particularly difficult because I could not ask questions during lecture—if I had not had any face-to-face time with my professor during labs, I would have been behind on my course work.

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Financial Literacy Month Recap

Posted on May 23, 2013 by Annie Do.

We recently finished National Financial Capability month in April and it was a great success! With the rising costs of college and a new class of students preparing to attend, it is more important than ever for students to think about choosing among postsecondary education options, be familiar with the different types of aid available to them, as well as prepare for the complicated process of repaying their loans after they graduate. Our Senior Advisor on Financial Education Dr. David Soo attended several events for this important month.

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The Evolution of Escuela Popular

Posted by on May 6, 2013 by Martha Kanter.

“Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves – and be free.”

— Cesar Chavez

Escuela Popular “educates to transform lives” as it carries out its mission on North White Road in San Jose, California. Open throughout the year, Escuela Popular (http://www.escuelapopular.org/) offers a dual language curriculum for children and adults to more than 1000 students a day. The Dual Language Academy serves K-8 students, the High School Academy serves youth and adults, and childcare is freely provided so all family members are welcome.

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Coming Home: Pathways to Success for Service Members and Veterans

Posted by Rosye Cloud and Martha Kanter on May 2, 2013

Cross-posted from Joining Forces

With more than a million veterans returning home to our nation’s shores over the next five years, we have an unprecedented opportunity – and a civic obligation – to strengthen their pathways to success. To prepare for their return home and their transition back to civilian life, the Obama Administration sought – early on– to bring diverse government partners to the table, calling for an interagency planning effort to support Service members’ career readiness.

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Attention High School Seniors!

Posted on April 30, 2013 by Annie Do

It’s that time of year- are you ready for college? This season, tens of thousands of high school seniors have been or will be making crucial, life-changing decisions about where to attend college. The Department of Education has several resources to help with this process that I wish I had three years ago when I was in your shoes. The Department is dedicated to empowering students and families to make responsible and informed decisions about where to attend school. This administration is focused on aiding students and families in this complicated process- choosing the right school that will equip you for a career will strengthen your future and our economy.

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University and State Partnerships to Increase Civic Learning and Engagement

Posted on January 24, 2013 by Martha Kanter

On a sparkling Bowling Green morning in early November, we arrived at Western Kentucky University where Gary Ransdell, WKU’s visionary president, opened the Seventh Annual Kentucky Engagement Conference. He called for “A New Era of Engagement” in the civic life of the campus, the community and the state. Dr. Paul Markham, Assistant Professor of Honors Interdisciplinary Studies and Co-Director of the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, had worked with President Ransdell and a team of faculty and students to convene Kentucky’s thought leaders from education, government, business and philanthropy to invigorate a call to civic leadership and shared action to seek solutions to the challenges they face. For higher education, there was clearly a clarion call for deeper civic learning across the curriculum and deeper engagement in service learning opportunities to make a difference in K-12 schools and community work. Markham and his colleagues were particularly interested in building bridges between the traditional aims of liberal education and practical career preparation. Markham expressed his desire for the students of WKU to graduate not only with superior content knowledge, but with an understanding of what it means to practice citizenship in the working world. Markham has now moved to the University of Washington where he is slated to accelerate their civic learning and engagement agenda. Look for more good work to come from Paul and his colleagues in the West.

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