What’s Happening in Williamsfield? A CC-USA FAQ on Open Educational Resources

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, visited the Williamsfield Community School District in Illinois on September 15, 2015 to highlight the District’s use of Open Educational Resources as a means of improving the quality of its instructional materials while also saving public funds. Here’s a CC-USA FAQ on Open Educational Resources and copyright licenses.

Textbooks are expensive! How is it possible to get better quality and lower price for the materials students are using in the classroom?

These high quality, curriculum-aligned materials were produced with public funds or foundation grants. Because these materials were designed to serve the public, they come with copyright permission (a Creative Commons license) to freely reproduce and adapt or localize the materials. Under the terms of this license, the District was able to give every student a digital copy for free and teachers can modify the materials to make sure that the examples used in lessons are effective for student learning in the local context.

What’s Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that created and maintains a set of standardized copyright licenses to help creators and users share materials under terms that a clear to both parties. Most providers of Open Educational Resources use one or more of the Creative Commons licenses to explain the terms of use.

What happened in Williamsfield?

In this case, officials at the Williamsfield Community School District were able to rely on the Creative Commons licenses granted by contributors to the EngageNY curricular materials, the Illinois Shared Learning Environment Website, and to the materials provided by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas to replace expensive and unadaptable math textbooks with Open Educational Resources. Watch this inspiring video to see how energizing and enabling Open Educational Resources are to teachers and students.

By the U.S. Department of Education, available under the Creative Commons Attribution Unported 3.0 License.

What do you mean by “educational resources”?

Any materials used by learners or teachers in the education or assessment process are educational resources. Textbooks, workbooks, handouts, slide presentations, videos, tests, software are examples of educational resources.

What’s the difference between a closed educational resource and an open educational resource (OER)?

The terms “closed” and “open” refer to the terms of use associated with an educational resource. Can you make copies and give them to others? Can you update the resource and post it on the Internet or otherwise share it publicly? Can you translate the resource into another language or localize the resource by adapting word problems in a math lesson, for example, with local examples? The more reuse rights the user has, the more open the resource is.

So, with an open textbook, a student can literally rewrite history?

No. This terminology of “closed” and “open” is only about whether there are copyright or technological restrictions on making copies of resources or changing the content of a resource. With an open educational resource, a student, teacher or school system has copyright permission to edit, change, or add to the content of, say, a textbook.

But, there likely will be other rules – such as curricular standards – that limit who can update or change the content of the resource for use in the classroom or by others. OER are designed to get copyright out of the way, and let the applicable rules defining appropriate uses of educational resources to come from educators and not publishers.

So how many reuse rights does it take for a resource to be “open”?

A resource is fully open if it has no conditions on reuse because it is in the public domain (i.e., there is no copyright associated with it) – such as the original version of a Shakespeare play. A resource is also fully open if the author or publisher has used a copyright license that grants full reuse rights so long as the user give credit as appropriate when republishing or adapting the resource. For more on the definitional question, see here.

Where do these reuse rights come from?

Two sources: user rights in copyright law and open licenses, such as Creative Commons licenses.

What do you mean “user rights”?

Copyright automatically grants a certain amount of legal control to a creator over how a creative or educational work can be reused. The scope of this control is usually broad enough to make a resource “closed” or “proprietary” from the user’s perspective because making copies for others or adapting and republishing adapted versions of the resource likely require permission.

But, copyright law balances the creator’s and the public’s interest, and it grants users certain rights to use copyrighted works without permission. The broadest of these user rights is fair use in the United States. Educators rely on fair use every day when they distribute copies of current event stories or other materials from the Internet to their classes. Copyright law also has some education-specific user rights, such as the right to show a movie in class as long as the teacher lawfully acquired the DVD and it is being shown for an educational purpose.

And how do open licenses work?

A license is a way for the owner of a copyright to give permission. An open license is one designed to give users more rights than they have under copyright law. Open licenses, such as Creative Commons licenses, offer the same terms to all members of the public and grant permission to reproduce and reuse the work for free subject to some conditions. The most minimal condition is that the user give credit as the creator has directed when the work is reproduced or otherwise used in a way that requires copyright permission.

Are the materials that the Williamsfield School District is using fully open?

No. Most of the materials in the EngageNY collection for example use one of the most restrictive Creative Commons license.


There are six Creative Commons licenses designed to give users more or less freedom to reuse and repurpose the licensed material. All licenses require that proper attribution is given. Some other licenses limit users to non-commercial uses, and others include a “Share Alike” condition that requires any remixes or adaptations created by users to also be licensed under the same Creative Commons license.

Much of the material in the EngageNY collection is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 3.0 unported license.

It is a mouthful, but what it means is that the user has permission to reproduce and adapt the work – as the folks at Williamsfield are doing – so long as they give proper credit (Attribution), limit their uses to those not primarily intended to make a profit or gain commercial advantage (NonCommercial), and license any of their adapted materials under the same license (ShareAlike).

More information

Williamsfield coverage:

Ethan Senack in the Huffington Post

Lindsey Tepe at New America Foundation

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