Thursday, 15 September 2022

Free Oak National!

To date I’ve been broadly pro-Oak. But I can see why some people don’t feel that way, and I sympathise. 

The case against it - particularly in its new life as an Arm’s Length body of the Department for Education - is easy enough to understand. People worry about scope creep. The expanded Oak could undermine the businesses of existing publishers; so if I was in that segment I guess I might have concerns too. I also think it’s reasonable for people to worry that, while Oak says now it will be independent and optional, its mere existence and close relationship with government means that these freedoms may not always be guaranteed.

But in the most general sense, I remain a fan. I think additional help for teachers in planning and offering lessons is A Good Thing. I also don’t object philosophically to the government inserting themselves into a commercial market. As an edtech vendor (I’m a co-founder of Smartgrade and Carousel), I do not expect or want all educational products and services to be provided by the private sector only. It is good and healthy that commercial outfits compete with non-profits, MATs, schools and, in some circumstances, government directly. Indeed, when it comes to curriculum resources specifically, plenty of the innovation of the past few years has emanated from excellent non-commercial organisations like White Rose Maths, NRICH, Primary Knowledge Curriculum, Ark Curriculum Plus and CUSP

So what I’m basically saying is that a debate about Oak is healthy. To get the best Oak possible we need to put aside dogma and engage with how to make Oak work well for everyone. And by everyone I mean schools, teachers, students, parents, curriculum providers and edtech vendors.

And in terms of that final constituency, I’m increasingly concerned that a huge opportunity will be missed in how Oak is proposing to operate. I’ve just read through the Oak Market Engagement slides and what they say is this:

Full Curriculum Packages will be shared on a Creative Commons licence (excluding third party copyrighted content within a lesson, such as works of art or literature).


Any existing curriculum and/or resources owned by the Supplier (Supplier IP) that is used in the development of the Full Curriculum Packages for the purposes of the Contract remain the property of the Supplier. The Supplier retains the right to commercial and other usage of those existing resources.

The use of Creative Commons is welcome - it means that teachers can download, remix and share resources without fear of breaching copyright. 

But what’s missing is that as things stand, the license seemingly does not allow for commercial use by third parties other than the organisation that created the content in the first place.

Why is that an issue? Well, an important thing to understand about edtech is that vendors selling educational resources have to do two things: create great resources and build high quality technology. They’re both really hard and very difficult tasks! So what happens in practice is that either:

  • Vendors have a vision for innovative technology, and so either outsource content creation to users, or design mediocre content.

  • Vendors have a vision for great content, but they’re not natural technologists, so their tech platforms are often a bit ropey.

Now, one quite surprising thing about Oak, given the speed at which it came about, is that it did a really good job of building nice tech as well as creating lessons. But, I think even they would acknowledge that a reason for this is that they kept their tech ambitions limited: they’re a lesson delivery platform, not a full learning platform. So they host videos and pdfs and basic quizzes and such, and they let users access those things very rapidly. However, they’ve been careful not to allow their technology brief to get too broad, and I’m not sure we should want or expect them to do more than make great resources easily accessible online.

We already know that one supplier isn’t going to win the right to create all Oak content - they have announced a cap of four lots in every procurement cycle explicitly to prevent this. So I worry that we could end up with free Oak resources on the simple-but-very-usable Oak site, and then bits and bobs of commercial reuse from the content creators only in their own closed ecosystems.

Instead, what I’d love to see is that Oak resources become available to all, including any edtech vendor, so that innovators can use this valuable content in their products. If that happens I would expect that vendors would:

  • Enhance Oak’s assessment capabilities. Right now Oak contains simple multiple choice quizzes. That’s fine as a starter, but it’s only a small part of the school assessment picture. Innovators would be able to make Oak’s quizzes available in other formats (e.g. free text quizzes); write new (and quite possibly better) questions; and innovate with other assessment approaches (e.g. retrieval practice or end of year assessments). Oak can’t possibly do all that, but the sector can, and teaching would be better for it.

  • Embed Oak lesson content in their learning platforms, allowing that content to be integrated into the software that schools are already using. That’s surely what customers want, and Oak should make it possible.

  • Apply new technologies such as AI (don’t laugh, I’m sceptical about lots of AI too) to the content. I think there’s great potential here in terms of content and assessment sequencing. For example, I was intrigued by the recent Microsoft/Eedi blog on using AI for next best question models

  • Allow teachers to remix and share Oak content. Lesson content doesn’t want to be static. Great teachers take existing resources and adapt them for their particular contents and pedagogies. The right technology would help inspired teachers share enhanced resources with their peers.

And honestly, I’m not sure I even understand the reason why the government wouldn’t do this. (I can imagine reasons some suppliers wouldn’t want this, but if that’s the case then they’re best placed to explain why, and I’ll look forward to hearing their views!) The DfE will pay out £8m to curriculum providers in the first round of procurement alone. They get to set the rules of the tender process. Surely they should want content provided in a way that allows for the maximum impact? They’re paying for it with all of our taxes; so why put limits on how the IP will be used?

More broadly, Oak hasn’t always had an easy time engaging with education suppliers. I’m sure some people will always be against them, but here they have an opportunity not just to win over a chunk of the sector, but more importantly to harness the amazing UK edtech sector’s ingenuity and ambition. Just imagine what companies like Twinkl, Sparx, Century, Google, Microsoft, Firefly, Quizlet - and of course let’s not forget Carousel and Smartgrade! - could do if they were at liberty to incorporate Oak resources into their offer however they wished. 

If we leave Oak content locked behind a non-commercial Creative Commons library the edtech sector will never get to interact with it, and it’s content will be much the poorer for it. 

Free Oak National!