A Call for Extending Open Access in K-12 Education

Jan 24, 2024

Why We Must Prioritize Sharing Knowledge 

One of the things I really appreciate about the Center for Assessment is our commitment to sharing knowledge. We strongly believe that it’s not enough to develop good ideas; it’s equally important to disseminate these ideas broadly. Center Co-founder Rich Hill used to quip, “If you have a good idea to improve student learning and you want to keep it a secret, don’t tell us—because we’re going to tell everyone!”   

One of the ways we make good on this pledge is by supporting open access. That means we make the intellectual property (IP) we produce available free of charge without restriction. Our IP includes novel approaches to developing and validating high-quality assessment and accountability systems. We disseminate these ideas in blog posts, papers, presentations, and toolkits.  

The Importance of IP Protections in Education 

To be fair, there are good reasons for reasonable restrictions and protections on IP. The musician who writes a song or the inventor who develops a new product, for example, deserve to benefit from their work. Patents and copyrights help ensure creators will be appropriately credited and compensated. 

These protections also help consumers. For example, a familiar logo outside a chain restaurant conveys information about the dining experience you can expect inside. Without trademark protections for the exclusive use of the logo, the consumer will not have a trustworthy signal.

Open Access in Education 

While reasonable efforts to protect IP are important, it’s equally important to avoid any overreach that might stifle the widespread distribution of good ideas for a public good such as the education of all students. When it comes to IP developed to improve educational practices, we must prioritize open access.  

Why? First, it’s a matter of ethics. Barriers to sharing knowledge are simply unacceptable when the information is in service of improving outcomes for students. Just as we wouldn’t defend the denial of effective medical treatments to patients in need, we have a moral responsibility to ensure students have access to high-quality educational experiences, particularly when so many students have been historically marginalized and underserved. 

Second, most educational initiatives are funded with public dollars, such as through a federal grant or a contract with a government agency. When IP is created with public funds, the creators of that IP bear a responsibility to return the benefits to the public.  

Finally, open access in education creates downstream benefits beyond the specific IP created.  When researchers and practitioners can access, learn from, adapt, and extend ideas originated by others, the work can improve more quickly. This directly helps students learn and grow, and sparks a virtuous cycle of growth and development for society as a whole. 

What’s the Problem? 

There are still too many barriers to free and unrestricted access to important developments in education. 

One barrier I encounter frequently is ownership restrictions included in contracts between educational agencies and service providers. For example, it’s common for such contracts to contain overarching ‘‘work for hire” clauses that compel the service provider to release all rights and access to their IP. Of course, there are circumstances when such terms are appropriate, but I believe there are many other times when these restrictions are unnecessary and even harmful.  

Consider the following example. Suppose a state education agency hires an organization to develop items for its state assessment. The requirements include developing items that better elicit evidence of deeper learning and are more accessible to a wide range of learners. The state wants to own the items in order to keep them secure and protect their investment, which is sensible. 

However, the state could ensure that the item-development methodology can be shared without restriction. Doing so will allow other organizations to learn from the initiative and promote improved assessment practices. This simply requires IP terms that distinguish between the product and the process. 

In my experience, the knowledge work associated with education is much more likely to be something that can and should be shared. Think about all the work organizations do to design more effective assessments, examine new ways to support school improvement, research promising pedagogical practices, increase the quality of curriculum materials, or analyze information about student achievement. In each instance, it’s hard for me to imagine a good reason to prohibit sharing what we learn. 

Supporting Open Access 

There are a few straightforward ways to better support open access. 

First, those who create contracts should always ask, “Is there an educational benefit to owning and controlling this IP?” If the answer is “no,” simply remove the IP restrictions. I worry that standard, boilerplate, contracts are used far too often, and nobody takes the time to carefully consider whether there is an important rationale for the terms. 

In my opinion, a better approach is to use an open-access license to both protect IP and support sharing. The Center uses a Creative Commons (CC) license. There are different CC licenses; we use CC 4.0. This license allows all users to share or adapt the content as long as they give credit to the author(s) and do not attempt to restrict its use in the future. 

We Must Work Together

It’s not enough to go it alone. We can realize the virtuous cycle of innovation and advancement that open access stimulates only when the many organizations working to improve student learning support it. When even a few organizations hold fast to outdated and unnecessary IP restrictions, it disproportionately slows progress for everyone.   

Supporting open access collectively, as a field, has a practical benefit, too. When organizations share IP, the time and cost required to support similar efforts with new partners are greatly reduced because it’s no longer necessary to keep reinventing the wheel.  

It is possible to balance the need for reasonable IP protections with a commitment to open access. I urge all of us involved in education to carefully consider the role you can play in helping share great ideas.