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U.S. Dept. of Ed. Reaffirms OER Support, Highlights Competency-Based Assessment

Last week, Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter led an education policy briefing at U.S. Department of Education headquarters that put a spotlight on the department’s support for open educational resources (OER). Joined by two of her senior policy advisors long associated with the OER movement, Hal Plotkin (journalist and former president of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District board) and Joel Thierstein (former executive director of the OER organization, Connexions), as well as by the director of the department’s Office of Educational Technology, Karen Cator, Kanter spoke at length about the importance the department places on the continued development of OER.

She began by referencing the definition of OER advanced by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, implying that it may reflect the department’s operating definition of the concept: “…, and they [the Hewlett Foundation] defined OER as teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain, or [that] have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or repurposing by others,…”

Kanter continued by identifying a wide range of resources that might fall under the rubric of OER, from open courseware (both modules and full courses) to open textbooks, multimedia files, and learning assessments. And she noted that the department and the Obama Administration’s commitment to OER began “at the top,” with President Obama highlighting his support for “the creation of a new online and open source clearinghouse of courses” to help higher education achieve the goal of making the United States first in the world in the proportion of students graduating from college by 2020.

As a tangible expression of this support, Kanter cited the requirement in the recently announced $500 million in grant awards (the first of $2 billion in awards expected over the next four years) under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program “… that all the new intellectual property produced as a result of those grants, whether it’s a new open course or modules, or new kinds of learning materials,… would be released with a Creative Commons CC-BY license, which means they are open and available for repurposing [and] reuse by the public and the private sector.” She also discussed her plans to introduce at an upcoming conference of the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) a proposed joint policy statement on OER to facilitate global OER development and sharing.

In addition, Kanter spoke in this context about the importance of the joint MacArthur Foundation/Mozilla Foundation “Badges for Heroes” program in highlighting the potential of digital badges as an emerging competency-based quasi-credential. She then quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as stating in his remarks at the program launch event: “We're excited that, this year, this competition will serve as a catalyst to advance the potential of digital badges. Badges can help engage students in learning and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate – as well as document and display – their skills. Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings.”

Later, in response to a question on the interplay between OER and competency-based assessment, Kanter noted that both the Department of Education and the White House are actively studying “what productive steps the Department of Education can take” to advance competency-based assessment in postsecondary education. She also referenced the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile work as a key example of efforts to advance the development of learning outcomes-based assessment.

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