“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Vic Vuchic is an associate officer with the Foundation’s Education Program, where he works in its Open Educational Resources Initiative. For eight years before joining the Foundation, Vuchic worked as a consultant for start-ups and large companies in Silicon Valley, helping companies focus their strategies on customers’ needs. He holds a B.S.E. in systems science engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and recently completed his Ed.M. in the Learning, Design & Technology Program at Stanford University.

For those who have never heard of them, can you explain Open Educational Resources?

Sure. Open Educational Resources are high-quality, digital educational materials that are available to everyone for free online. One thing that distinguishes them from other online educational materials is that copyright protections are eased so users can take the content and edit it to suit their needs-even print out a textbook they’ve customized. A lot of people think that if they put content on the Web it’s open to everyone, but it’s not. The rights to use it are reserved. So we address that issue to make content available to everyone.

How do you do that?

We fund the organization Creative Commons, the brainchild of Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, an expert in intellectual property. He created a licensing system that lets people share materials they’ve created without giving up all rights to them. The owners can choose the ways they’re willing to share with others. And it’s easily understandable by anyone. There has to be a mechanism for people who want to create Open Educational Resources so they can post things openly without having to hire lawyers to sort through copyright issues.

On the consumer side, teachers and learners can take materials and edit or combine them to suit their needs. We call it remixing, and it’s a big thing. It’s not just taking content for your own use. The very process of remixing is educational in itself: putting material together in new ways to fit your learning needs in itself helps you to understand it.

What has been the Foundation’s role in developing Open Educational Resources?

It’s one of the more fascinating parts of the story. Back in 2001, MIT was looking for a strategy to put its educational material online. They hired a lot of consultants and spent a year doing all kinds of analysis. Finally, at one of the meetings to summarize the findings, an MIT professor stood up and said, “Why don’t we just give it all away for free?” The room fell silent. Then the whole discussion shifted. In some ways, the Open Educational Resources movement was born at that moment. MIT approached the Hewlett Foundation for a large grant to bring its entire undergraduate curriculum-1,800 courses-online. That process was finally completed last fall.

Since then, Hewlett’s Education Program has been the leader in the movement’s development. We’ve made more than $80 million in grants to support a range of Open Educational Resources projects around the world.

What’s the range of Open Educational Resources out there now?

With Hewlett support a consortium has been formed: the Open Courseware Consortium. It has more than 200 universities around the world that have committed to some level of open courseware online. MIT, the most established member, gets more than a million unique visitors a month. The Consortium as a whole gets more than three million. It offers material in ten languages and is a big presence of Chinese institutions.

The Consortium is focused on higher education, but K through 12 materials are also available, like the sort offered by HippoCampus, which was created by our grantee the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education. It has advanced placement courses available to high school students, among a lot of other very appealing content. Then there are teacher education materials, like the ones another grantee has started to provide in sub-Saharan Africa. Communities of teachers have begun to form to work with this material.

Beyond the Consortium, there are thousands of organizations around the world doing some kind of work with Open Educational Resources: Wikipedia is one.

How is the Hewlett Foundation’s role changing, now that Open Educational Resources has become a movement with an independent life?

Our initial goal was to increase access to educational materials around the world so people who don’t have $40,000 to attend an MIT still can teach themselves the material. That’s what we focused on for the first five years. With that starting to happen, our focus is shifting to the next step: now that the materials are increasingly out there, how do we make sure they have an impact on teaching and learning?

It turns out that these materials are a natural spur to innovation in the world of education. Putting things out openly like this eliminates restrictions and fosters creativity. People can do what they want and need to do to learn rather than having educators dictate to them or guess what they need. So we’re now trying to explore how we can support that.

Currently, we’re looking at four broad areas of support. The first is for open gaming that can be used for education. One project we’re backing along these lines is a game called The Forgotten World: Zuka Awakens. It’s based on the same role-playing software used in computer games, but it teaches middle school students languages. The first version of the game was for teaching English to Chinese speakers, and now it’s being developed for Spanish speakers.

A second area we’re supporting is open textbooks. The cost of textbooks can be a significant obstacle for students, particularly less affluent ones, like many who attend community colleges. We’re working with the Foothill-De Anza College District here in the Bay Area on a pilot program to help it make Open Educational Resource textbooks available for free for some popular classes.

The next area we’re focusing on is what we call open participatory learning, which essentially uses open educational materials to engage students in a hands-on project. Our grantee the Gulf of Maine Research Institute is using laptops and open educational materials to help middle schoolers gather data about invasive species along the Maine Coast.

Finally, we’re working to develop a range of materials and approaches to support teacher education. And, of course, we’re continuing support for infrastructure and resources for the movement and continuing needs like that.

Who is using the materials?

It’s amazing. I just encountered a family friend who lives in Berkeley and recently retired. She discovered she can watch video lectures of professors at UC Berkeley on her computer. She watches a lecture or two each morning and then volunteers at a retirement center, where people gather around to watch these video lectures. Baby boomers are a perfect audience for Open Educational Resources.

Here’s another interesting story. A fellow in China who made his fortune translating The Lord of the Rings into Chinese was passionate about open educational materials. He approached us, and we funded him to set up an online site like Wikipedia to enable the English-speaking Chinese Diaspora to translate MIT courses into Chinese. To date, they’ve translated hundreds and hundreds of courses, forming a new volunteer community of translators.

What are the movement’s most pressing needs now?

One key question is how we tap into the commercial, for-profit world to help make Open Educational Resources self-sustaining. We have Fortune 100 and 500 companies approaching us with interest in Open Educational Resources. They can put in large financial resources, which helps diversify funding for the movement, and they can do things on a very large scale. For-profit businesses also bring a lot of expertise in looking at needs of customers and seeing how to market to them. And that’s not always a strength in the nonprofit sector.

Some of this has begun to happen. One of our grantees, Teachers Without Borders, is working with Scholastic, Inc., the large children’s publisher. They’re doing research on teachers’ habits and how they use technology to make lesson plans. The result: a social lesson plan-sharing site.

Another challenge stems from the word “open.” Since there are no passwords or fees to access materials, how do we learn who the users are, and how they are using the content? We’re looking for new ways to figure that out right now.

If Hewlett and other advocates succeed, what do you think the movement might be like in five to ten years?

One harbinger of how the world is changing is that all the top ten private universities have now broached the topic of Open Educational Resources, saying they need to get involved. I’d like to see that go further, so that all universities and K through 12 educators begin to engage openness at every level and see it as part of what they do and what they use to improve.

I see learners and teachers everywhere creating and sharing in education in new ways. It’s freedom.