The Gap Between Open and Closed: OER vs TPT

Free vs Profit

Despite the inference in the title of this post, I don’t imagine the movement towards Open Educational Resources battling it out on the stage with profit-driven spaces like Teachers Pay Teachers. I am not sure it even has to be one (profit-based) versus the other (free-based). I just want to put both models side by side, to see what I can see.

And given Stephen Downes’ exploration within E-Learning 3.0 around OER resources, and the Distributed Web networks that might emerge for greater sharing of open resources as well as my friend Laura’s post with the question of “who pays” for hosting open content, I find it intriguing to think about these two movements in the field of teachers: One, where open sharing of resources is the underpinning of possible education change and the other, where teachers pay other teachers for their lesson plans and resources to make up gaps where school systems have fallen woefully short.

(Watch and annotate in Vialogues)

Both have some validity, although I lean more strongly toward OER, for sure. Personally, I try my best to share out project ideas and lesson plans and other resources as freely as I can (see: Video Game Design for the classroom), in the optimistic hope that somewhere, a student might be engaged in something that will light that light (you know the one) or spark a discovery that unveils something new. Ever hopeful, ever the optimist — that’s me.

It’s why I engage in connected communities and why I learn from others while hoping others might learn a bit from what I am doing. I can’t think of a time when I paused and thought, Maybe this should be behind a paywall so I can get a little honey money from the idea.

The success of a site like Teachers Pay Teachers, however, shows another model. That, of turning teaching ideas into cash. What is TPT? The site’s About Us explains and makes perfectly clear: this is a business:

Teachers Pay Teachers is an online marketplace where teachers buy and sell original educational materials.

Now, look, I have paid to download resources from TpT and I found it mostly to be a seamless experience. I found and bought some good resources that helped me in the classroom. Sure, I wish I didn’t have to pay for what I needed, but I also understand the notion that teachers work hard and deserve to make a living (maybe if teachers were paid more fairly, and respected more in society, this would not even be a discussion). When I hit the virtual check-out line at TpT, I figure I am helping support a colleague somewhere and getting a quality resource.

And there are sometimes free resources at TpT. Sort of like nibbling on samples in Costco. They hope you will open your wallet for more.

I dug a little deeper as I was writing this post and boy, I quickly realized just what a huge business model this TPT really is and how it is growing profit maker — prob not so much for the teachers, but for the company overseeing it. The folks at TPT apparently host a periodic conference that appears to teach teachers how to sell themselves and their work (read this teacher’s post-conference reflections) There are a ton of videos on how to launch into the sales site. They have job openings for teachers as marketers, and more.

I was thinking of TpT in reference to an interview I once had with Howard Rheingold, for the Connected Learning Alliance, and he asked me about TpT because he had featured another teacher using TpT.  It struck me as odd, then. Howard was exploring ways teachers use social media and resources to connect with other teachers. I could not equate what she was doing — selling to other teachers — with connected learning principles of openness.

Elsewhere, recently, I found another teacher wrote of TpT:

Selling my teaching materials on this popular website has made me a better teacher and has changed my life! — via blog

Um. Yuck. Sorry, but my hackles got up just perusing it all, the way the business model is seeping into the education model, built on the noble concept of teachers helping other teachers. A conference to help teachers sell themselves and their lesson plans? Yeah, that goes against my philosophical and moral outlook of education as a special kind of societal job, with the greater good baked in there.

Maybe that’s just me.

I am not naive — I know there is an argument to be made for teachers leveraging experience to make a living for their families. And the teacher quoted above might be suggesting that getting plans and resources ready for sale might have forced her to think more deeply about her teaching practice.

Legal Aside: if you develop lessons in the school you teach, who owns the intellectual property? The school or you?  Can you sell it? Do you need permission? I don’t even know. Some lawyer somewhere has already figured it out, I am sure.

Meanwhile, the Open Educational Resource movement (OER Commons is one of many sites) that we are exploring in EL30 is like another planet altogether. Which is not to say that the Open Educational Resource movement is not about quality, too. It is. It’s also about learning together, of sharing together, of collaboration, of considering the greater good.

The question of how to access (if you are looking) and how to distribute (if you are sharing) is a topic of great interest in many circles, particularly at the University level where the costs of textbooks are opening doors to alternatives for professors and students alike. Difficulties around how to license materials, and how to ensure adequate citation of used work, or the act of remixing the content of others  … these are all questions to be considered and barriers yet to be overcome.

But in the battle between open and closed, free or profit … I am all about the open sharing of experiences to make the world a better place. We all will need to be helping each other over that “river” (another reference to Laura’s post)– from here to there.

Teachers helping teachers (from Laura post)

Peace (beyond the marketplace),

  1. My issue with Teachers pay Teachers isn’t so much the commercial aspect but rather the idea that teachers should have to pay for anything. Why aren’t the schools and school boards paying for all this?

    • Yep. Right on the mark. Why, indeed. The answer is because public education is considered a perk and the first thing GOP Governor’s cut? State Education Funds. Locally, towns also cut school funds because it is often the largest expense in any town. The result: Underfunded, understaffed, overworked teachers seeking to supplement funds to support their families. It’s terrible.

  2. I appreciate your response to my comment about this on Twitter. I decided to come over here and read the entire article.

    About 15-20 years ago someone criticized me for not being willing to give away the database of youth programs I had created with no compensation in return. I said, “If I give it away, and you use it to gain resources to support your work, who helps me keep gathering and updating this?” No answer.

    The idea that doing good should be funded by doing well, is behind a social entrepreneur movement growing since the 1990s.

    The problem I have is that in the market economy, there can only be a limited number of “sellers” or the market would be saturated and no one could make any money. Thus, in the Teachers Pay Teachers, or any of the larger Education Industry markets, there will be a few, maybe many, success stories of some teachers earning extra income to support their teaching practice, but the untold story will be all the others who did not make money, and continue to struggle to be good teachers and/or stay in the profession.

    Downes is right. Teachers should be paid better. So should people working with youth in non-profit organizations. And probably many others. The challenge is figuring out how do make it happen.

  3. This is an interesting discussion, which for me raises the issue of free labour. Like Daniel, I also had an experience more than 20 years ago (so pre any experience of OER or open education) where a team I worked with refused to give away a whole programme’s resources.

    The context was a distance learning programme for trainee teachers in which we (the HE programme team) had spent at least 500 hours each writing distance learning materials for our subject – mine was science for primary teachers. I remember having to get up at 4.00 am for weeks to write these materials and meet the deadline, because the institution didn’t give us any hours to develop these. Then an educator from St Helena island visited us and wanted us to give her, for free, all our materials. We had written materials, at 500 hours a time, for 10 curriculum subjects.

    I could understand that she would probably find it difficult to access suitable resources, but there was no sense that this would be a collaborative arrangement in which we would each stand to gain.

    At the time, we didn’t trust that our materials would be treated with respect, or even that they wouldn’t be sold on. We recognised and weren’t happy with the view that ‘free labour’ was somehow OK.

    I’m not sure what I would do if this situation cropped up now. It might be easier because of CC licensing, so at least the authors would get some recognition, if not in a monetary way.

    I do think the automatic assumption that people will work for free, remains an issue.

    And re TPT, which I have not heard of before, I think that one of the issues might be that it results in teachers taking their eye off the ball in terms of focussing on the best interests of the students they teach.

    • I don’t have an answer, either. The system seems broken. Even if you publish a textbook, the proceeds/profit you get as a writer is rather minimal, unless you have some blockbuster. I co-edited a book on technology and writing, and have gotten dribbles of proceeds over the year, never enough to cover the amount of work I put into it. I’m not complaining — I’m proud of that book and that work we surfaced — and I didn’t do the book to get rich. But the experience sort of put the work into perspective about how one might use experience, either to supplement income or to engage in colleagues to advance the practice of teaching. There may be a middle ground, as Daniel notes, but I still find myself viewing it as a dichotomy that society has put into place (this is maybe a US-perspective on the field of education).
      Thanks for taking time to comment and share your experience, Jenny.

  4. Hi Kevin,
    I love your comic. That comment was made by Alexander Bernstein when he came to talk with my students about his Artful Learning programme for schools. -I will write about that day and his talk. It’s on the to-do list!! You’d enjoy the programme. Schools that subscribe to the idea integrate art, music, and dance through ALL aspects of the curriculum… to create artful learning… that has relevance to their lives, and to the core questions about life, living, and being a good (global) citizen. Here’s the page about the programme:

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