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It was a good week for open educational resources, with the announcement of two major investments: open content publishers Flat World Knowledge raised their Series B round, and the Department of Education and Labor announced a substantial commitment for higher ed OER.

Challenging the Textbook Industry with Open Content

The academic publisher Flat World Knowledge announced that it has secured $15 million in funding from Bertesmann Digital Media Investments and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Flat World Knowledge is really a pioneer in the open content movment, and I think it has great potential to disrupt the traditional textbook industry and, more importantly perhaps, to provide a service to students and professors that gives them more control over content and price

Flat World Knowledge currently publishes over 20 titles, most of which are geared towards general education courses. These textbooks are published with an open license, which gives instructors latitude to customize the books - edit, add to, mix-up - or use as-is. Students can access the books online for free or can pay for print-on-demand and audiobook versions.

According to The College Board, students will spend an average of $1137 during this academic year on textbooks. And although offering a cheaper (even free) alternative is surely one way to challenge some of the traditional players in this market, I think the model of openly-licensed content has the potential to be even more transformative.

The new funding for Flat World Knowledge will help expand their catalog to include books from the basics to include those from the 125 highest enrolled courses on college campuses, including English composition, algebra, chemistry, and American government.

Raising Graduation Rates by Forgoing All Rights Reserved

On Thursday, the Secretaries of Labor and Education announced a $2 billion program to fund grants that will provide community colleges and other eligible institutions of higher education with funds to expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs. It's all part of a larger effort to boost career training and help increase college graduation levels.

What's interesting about the announcement, I think, is that the programs funded by the grant must be released under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license:

In order to further the goal of career training and education and encourage innovation in the development of new learning materials, as a condition of the receipt of a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant (Grant), the Grantee will be required to license to the public (not including the Federal Government) all work created with the support of the grant (Work) under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (License). This License allows subsequent users to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt the copyrighted work and requires such users to attribute the work in the manner specified by the Grantee. Notice of the License shall be affixed to the Work. For more information on this License, please visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0.

Support for open educational resources is part of the administration's National Education Technology Plan, and as Beth Noveck, former U.S. Deputy CTO and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative, says, The decision to make the work product of $2 billion in federally funded grants free for others to reuse represents a historic step forward for open education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Marc Parry does cite a DOE spokesperson who throws a little cold water on the news, as she says that there's no guarantee that the $2 billion in funding will all go to develop OER: All of the intellectual property that is created as a result of the grants has to be shared as OERs, and it would be accurate to say that the money is available to fund open educational resources, but there is no guarantee all those funds -- or even any of those funds -- will be spent for that purpose.

But here's hoping that the funding for Flat World Knowledge and for these new DOE grants will mean many more open educational resources in the future.

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Audrey Watters


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