By Hal Plotkin
One of the best things about having been a member of the Obama administration was the chance it gave me to see history unfold close up. For example, I remember the night when my heroic friend Bob Shireman, then-deputy under secretary of education, sprinted back to the U.S. Department of Education after a critical meeting at the White House with the news that the Affordable Care Act, which also contained student loan reforms he’d championed for decades, was likely to pass the Senate by at least one vote, and that we would also get $2 billion placed into an obscure job-training fund (TAACCCT) we might be able to use to create free, high-quality open educational resources (OER) for community college students and unemployed workers. It was a singular moment, one that will stay with me forever. It meant that in at least that one instance we’d have a chance to get past all the arguing, we’d get a chance to govern in a new way and to do some really big things to help people, including voters who had placed their faith in President Obama. It was a moment when I knew I wanted to dig in and fight even harder.
I’ll be part of another such moment in Mexico City next week at the bi-annual global summit of the Open Government Partnership (the OGP). At the meeting, I will have the privilege and honor of joining representatives from the U.S. Department of State in an open panel discussion designed to encourage formal, government-to-government collaboration in the creation, use, and continuous improvement of free, high-quality open educational resources (OER). This OGP meeting is a milestone in the history of the Open Educational Resources movement; the first substantive effort to enlist governments around the world in a formal partnership aimed at using technology — not just to enrich entrepreneurs — but to also provide free, high-quality, open, publicly-funded learning resources and opportunities to every student, school and teacher on the planet. Yes, you read that right.
I have long maintained that this is one of the most important undertakings of our generation: transforming education around the world from exclusionary systems that weed students out to inclusive systems that lift students up. Old-world ideas about who is worthy of a good education were rooted in the possibilities of an earlier era; excellence was fostered but too often at the price of exclusion and bitterness. In place of those social carcinogens, we can instead now plant more hope and opportunity using new, more modern educational practices and approaches that rely on OER. I’ve been given a small speaking role at the start and close of next week’s meeting (OGP Summit-Save the Date) as a representative of Creative Commons USA which is, of course, a very great honor. But what matters much more is that next week’s meeting is happening in the first place, and that it was organized and will be led by two exceptionally able U.S. Department of State officials, with additional support from a variety of Obama administration federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Labor, Education and the White House. The Obama administration will send a powerful signal to the world next week: the government of the United States formally invites other governments to join in using the Internet and OER to improve national and local systems of education, to learn together, to create together, to grow together, to learn about and from each other at prices we all can afford, to share digital educational and job-training opportunities freely, and to build a better world filled with more opportunity and hope for the generations who will follow us.
The Open Government Partnership
Some background on the OGP:
“The OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Since then, OGP (which operates with a small staff, my note) has grown from 8 countries to 66…In all of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms,” according to its website.
At heart, the OGP is a coalition of governments around the world that have agreed to support one another as they envision, specify, implement and measure the impact of reforms aligned with the values of openness. Each year, OGP member-countries publish a National Action Plan (NAP) in which they make public commitments that detail the specific reforms they plan to implement. The annual NAP’s provide a basis on which progress in each country can be bench-marked and measured. NAPs also create opportunities for collaborations among countries with similar needs, for example, if one country decides to publish online data about, say, traffic signal patterns to see if doing so eases urban congestion, other countries can learn from the experience and, if interested, perhaps work together to jointly spur the development of new tools, technologies or practices that make it easier to get around crowded regions.
In the first few years, OGP National Action Plan commitments were important but mostly prosaic. Promises were made to publish lists of government officials, more detailed public budgets, publish contracts online, establish better protections for whistle-blowers, etc. These are all very important reforms, to be sure, and areas where lots of additional progress can and should continue to be made but, in some sense, the first commitments were also mostly low-hanging fruit, primarily items governments had been working on for years.
President Obama’s OER OGP Game-Changer
That all changed when President Obama traveled to the United Nations building in New York to personally deliver his administration’s annual OGP National Action Plan update in late 2014. For the first time, the U.S. plan featured a promise to work with other countries to support the collaborative creation, use and continuous improvement of OER. Just months earlier, I’d worked with a small group of senior Obama administration officials to bring this particular recommendation to the White House, where it was quickly vetted and embraced. The official, public announcement to include support for OER in the U.S. OGP NAP happened the same month I returned to private life in Palo Alto after five-plus years in the Obama administration. I regarded the OGP NAP OER announcement (sorry for all the initials, that’s life in government!) as a sort of going away present: an insurance policy that the new approach many of us had worked so hard to initiate and champion on President Obama’s watch — using public resources more efficiently to provide free, high-quality, open learning materials in place of more traditional, costly, closed commercial resources and textbooks — that this work would now have through the OGP an expanding center of gravity and champions in D.C. working with others around the world after I went back to tending our neglected fruit trees and garden in California.
The progress in recent days has been more than heartening.
Earlier this month, Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, Sunshine Ison, Director of the Education and Cultural Affairs Collaboratory at the U.S. Department of State and Nancy Weiss, Senior Advisor to the Chief Technology Officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy gave additional heft and momentum to this work in a historic White House blog post, “Openly Licensed Educational Resources: Providing Eqitable Access to Education for all Learners.”
And next week, I will join two of the smartest, most dedicated, hardest-working, most forward-thinking leaders I worked with during my years in the Obama administration, Jennryn Wetzler, Senior Program Designer in U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs innovative “collaboratory,” and her colleague, Sara Trettin, a tireless, and also obviously brilliant Presidential Management Fellow who served in the Department of Education before recently moving over to the U.S. Department of State, who will lead the only official U.S. government workshop that will take place at this year’s international OGP summit meeting. The workshop will be focused squarely on the opportunity governments now have to collaboratively use OER to build and constantly improve more inclusive, high-quality, systems of education and job-training for the permanent benefit of financially-disadvantaged students here in the U.S. and around the world and in doing so, bring new opportunities and hope to billions.
Some important history will be made next week in Mexico City. Thank you, President Obama.