Open Source Knowledge will save schools from expensive lock-in

I want to see e-readers and epub succeed in schools but I fear restrictive practices will threaten their adoption. The future may lay with EPUB and the Open Education Resources project (OER) However before that can happen we have to realise...


I want to see e-readers and epub succeed in schools but I fear restrictive practices will threaten their adoption. The future may lay with EPUB and the Open Education Resources project (OER)

However before that can happen we have to realise both are needed.

This article concerns an area I think amounts to an abuse of market position. In some ways it mirrors the debate over Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows.

In this case It concerns the publication of school textbooks and resources to support the curriculum and is in effect about making 'school-knowledge' a proprietary product.

To set the scene two(ish) facts about knowledge in schools need to be stated clearly:

1) A student’s capacity to learn is exceeded by the volume of available school-specific resources by a factor of 1:100

2) ‘School Knowledge’ is increasingly narrowly defined by exam marking schemes.

2a) ‘School Knowledge’ is increasingly protected by copyright Law

Too much information

The first point may be counter intuitive to some parents and school book buyers but the market for such resources is mature, competitive and powerfully promoted. The very rich schools can and do purchase a bewildering array of materials at great expense, the poorer schools purchase fewer but still spend tens of thousands on them each year.

Most teachers will tell you that their students correspondingly absorb amazingly little of that information during their stay in school yet paradoxically teachers continue to covet that next flashy book or DVD that promises to make the difference.

Towards 100% Scores

Point 2 is more esoteric and requires a little close up knowledge of examinations so bear with me a while. Grade inflation, which has seen GCE/GCSE results improve every year for nearly three decades (even more remarkable since according to Ofsted this week that over half of the lessons taught are barely satisfactory), means that the A* and A grade dominate the school league tables for the schools that specialise in exam results (many get 100% A and A*).

To guarantee the top grades the scores must be in the high 80% and low 90%’s. The only safe way of doing this is to use text books and resources that perfectly match the examination. At the high percentage, the arcanities of mark schema really matter. So teachers must have the ‘perfect’ text books.

It does not take a genius to work out that a vendor who sells both exams and supporting material (i.e. text books, CDs etc) is exposed to the temptation to produce and publish ever more esoteric mark schema that wed the three together.

In other words if you go ‘off piste’ in your text book purchases (i.e. you don’t buy the exam board’s ‘official’ stuff) you risk that tiny drop in marks that will knock you off the top slots.

The exam vendors are in effect creating a knowledge ‘lock-in’

Quite simply examination vendors should be barred from being text book suppliers. Not only do they have an unfair advantage over their commercial rivals they completely undermine the use of free materials as the predominant source of school-knowledge. You are free to go 'free' but can you really take the chance of not buying the officially supported version?

The uncanny link to our beloved software world goes further. Very often the exams are changed (upgraded?), this of course requires a text book upgrade … sound familiar?

The Open Approach

Many others have noticed the problem of providing ‘school-knowledge’ for all. To many, including me, it should be free and free of restrictions in distribution. The Open Source model so well known to us in the software world is making inroads in the proprietary education system.

The Open Education Resources project embraces the likes of Wikipedia, WikiEducator and Open Text Books. The once hopeful project known as the National Digital Resource Bank seems unfortunately to have foundered (too expensive?) and is currently off line.

Even so the list above contains already more than enough information to educate a generation for free (remember Point 1) and is rapidly growing. Nothing prevents a teacher or parent accessing this information online or converting it to open electronic publication formats.

It is plainly wrong that the current model of knowledge-access employed by schools should be so reliant on expensive text books. Plainly it serves to disadvantage the less privileged in society which is especially galling when it is unnecessary.

All that is required is to link Open Knowledge to exam success

This is actually quite a simple thing to do. End of year exams rather than modular exams, no-extended (and weirdly assessed) course work and a ban on exam boards selling text books and exams.

The Secretary of State for Education has announced the first two, we await the third.