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Free Education -- Sustaining Open-Source Curriculum?

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In
the digital marketplace, the most effective price is no price at all, argues
Anderson (The Long Tail). He illustrates how savvy businesses are raking it in
with indirect routes from product to revenue with such models as
cross-subsidies (giving away a DVR to sell cable service) and freemiums
(offering Flickr for free while selling the superior FlickrPro to serious
users)…

A generational and global shift is at
play—those below 30 won't pay for information, knowing it will be available
somewhere for free…
(Publishers
Weekly
) 

Free education! Free instructional materials! It
seems that if the Internet is free, then education delivered through the
Internet should also be free since knowledge should not be proprietary.
However, just what does free mean? Free—as in available at no cost? Or free—as
in “free beer”—a way to bring people into the restaurant to pay for a
meal?  Free also means unrestricted
use, as in the definition of open educational resources, which are “learning
materials that are freely available for use, remixing and redistribution
.”

Curriki (www.curriki.org) is a nonprofit social
entrepreneurship organization dedicated to improving education by empowering
teachers, students and parents with universal access to free, open and shared
educational resources. Curriki provides a virtual space for educators to share
and collaboratively develop curricula, teaching resources and best practices. The
platform we provide is clearly valuable to our community, which has grown to
nearly 90,000 educators with another 150,000 Friends of Curriki that receive
our monthly newsletters. It provides a set of features and services that the
community uses to drive forward a new and powerful model of educational
publishing. In this new paradigm, the field-tested classroom educators are the
experts and technology is used to leverage their collective knowledge. Curriki
then overlays a multi-layered quality review system to ensure that users can
always quickly access the best material.

We’ve build a robust platform, a resource-rich
repository and a vibrant and rapidly growing community and provided it all for
free. As a non-profit in a challenging fundraising environment, the most
pressing question we now face is, ‘how do we make it sustainable?’  Given all that we’ve accomplished,
we’re now setting our sites on how we financially support the Curriki’s
infrastructure to guarantee that we will exist in 2, 5 or 10 years or (permit
the non-profit flight of fantasy) even become an icon of the open and shared
curricula movement.  Without an
in-depth exploration of these questions along with innovative ideas for
implementation, the open education movement will cease to exist. 

To address these issues, first we need to answer
the question of organizational definition.  Are open source education organizations social networking
communities or content repositories? 
Second, is Curriki a non-profit entity or an entrepreneurial
start-up? 

In my view, Curriki currently is a bit of all of
these—simultaneously a community, repository, start-up and non-profit
organization all in one. Using these parameters, there are several models that
should be considered to ensure that open and shared educational resources and
communities continue to exist and drive forward innovative approaches to
improving teacher effectiveness and student achievement. Here are a few that
we’re looking at:

Sponsorship:  This is a model that has been
successfully employed by many other non-profit organizations such as NPR and
public television.  In Curriki’s
case, we have a large and rapidly growing community of technology-literate
educators. They are self-starters, committed to creating the very best lessons
possible and often intensely loyal to the open source education movement. To
this highly targeted group, sponsorships can be sold on the home page and
throughout the site, on newsletters, email messages and around custom content
packages. 

Sustainability
fees
:  Curriki continues to grow and attract
both attention from the news media, for-profit publishers and state and federal
government agencies.  These groups
see Curriki as a game changer and as an innovation that changes the process of
teaching and learning for the better. 
As an open platform, both our content and platform can be used and
integrated into other products and services. Shouldn’t those that use the
content, the platform and the functions of the site support the ongoing
existence of Curriki? Without this support, products and communities such as Moodle and Wikipedia
would all cease to exist. 

Technical
Support and Licensing Maintenance Fees

Building a robust platform for building and sharing open educational resources
has been a very significant endeavor of Curriki.  The platform is completely built on open source code and can
be downloaded and used by other parties. 
However, if the user wants technical support and maintenance of the
code, then they should be willing to pay a fee for these services. Other
companies such as BrainHoney and Redhat have replicated and improved upon this
model.

Membership fees:  As Curriki grows, we need to determine
if there are a set of services and functionalities which add enough value to
our basic services that many of our members would be comfortable paying a fee
for premium access. Think of this similar to the upgraded account on Linkedin or Flickr

Custom Content:  Given the breadth and depth of the
content in our repository, that content has value when properly packaged.   For example, a school district
might be willing to pay for a new unit of study in algebra or government if the
content is modularized and delivered via multiple mediums and modes of
instruction (see Flatworld
Knowledge
).  They also might
pay to have custom content developed that meets the highly targeted needs of
their district. For example, a district might work with Curriki in a
consultative arrangement to develop custom collections of open resources that
directly address the results of last year’s standardized tests as well as the
districts own learning priorities. Unlike high-priced and static textbooks, the
services to assemble and package these collections of resources are
significantly less expensive and are as flexible as an iTunes playlist, where
if one item is found to be ineffective, another can be easily swapped in.

Let’s begin a community conversation to
determine which models work and are most effective.  If you believe in the open education movement, would you
donate?  Which of these models will
most likely drive sustainability?

And what of the argument that all content on
the Internet will ultimately end up free? “How will Curriki survive in a ‘free’
world?” is a question the Curriki team and I wrestle with often. One or more of
the models above will probably prove effective.

In a freemium scenario, Curriki would give away
our content to the majority of our users as the way to encourage at least some
of them to purchase value-added premium features and services. The assumption,
as suggested by Peter
Jackson
, is that if 5% of our users upgrade to premium, we’ll be able to
cover our marginal costs. Furthermore, if another 5% go premium our fixed costs
will be taken care of, enabling us to be sustainable, Sounds easy, but the
tough part is figuring out what premium features and services people want and
will actively pay for. Obviously, as Peter says our “sums have to be right, and
adopting the strategy takes intestinal fortitude (as well as access to
capital)”.



The open education movement is a new and exciting way to promote access to high
quality educational content and to better engage teachers in using and
developing curriculum. Truly, the movement has the potential to be a disruptive
change to education and publishing. Yet when it comes to sustaining the movement,
creative and as-yet unproven business models must be evolved and refined to
keep the momentum going.

Yes, FREE and open is inevitable.  How exactly FREE navigates the highly
governed, deeply entrenched waters of education is a journey just starting to
unfold.




 

 

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