Louise Bay Waters is the Superintendent of Leadership Public Schools, a network of four charter high schools serving predominately low income students in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is committed to ensuring that her graduates are fully prepared for college. Given the academic level of entering ninth graders, in order to attain this goal she and her faculty face the formidable task of helping students catch up on two years of academic content for every one year they spend in Leadership Public Schools. They have been impressively successful at their task: 97% of graduates have been accepted to college.

To facilitate these remarkable learning gains, Louise and her staff built a deep understanding of the needs of their students and committed to adapting their curriculum to meet those needs. They realized that the vocabulary in traditional textbooks was too advanced for their students, many of whom were English language learners. In searching for an alternative, Louise discovered that CK-12 provided high quality textbooks under an open license, which meant that anyone could download them for free and modify them without violating copyright law. So that’s exactly what Louise and her staff did. They created their own college access readers that had embedded vocabulary support to help their students develop reading comprehension while learning grade-level content. CK-12’s open license saved Louise and her team from starting from scratch while also enabling them to create unique material that met their needs.

Since 2001 the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program has supported a movement towards more openly licensed materials, also known as Open Educational Resources (or simply “OER”). Over the years, the Foundation has supported organizations to develop high quality openly licensed education content like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, helped to develop the standards that enable OER like Creative Commons’ open licenses, and promoted the broader development and use of OER worldwide through organizations like UNESCO  and the Commonwealth of Learning. Through this stream of grantmaking we have seen that open licenses can dramatically increase access to valuable knowledge. As just one example, an open license on the PhET science simulations created at the University of Colorado has allowed others to translate them into more than 40 languages and reach thousands of students around the world. We have also seen that the ability to adapt open content means it can easily be reinvented for new contexts, as exemplified by the experience at Leadership Public Schools.

Until recently, our work to promote open licenses was restricted to our OER grantmaking. But the Foundation supports organizations producing valuable knowledge across many domains—knowledge that could have broader and deeper impact if it, too, were openly licensed. That is why the Education Program has started encouraging all of its grantees to license work created with funding from the Hewlett Foundation under the most recent version of the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY 4.0). Although this is already common practice among our OER grantees, it is new to many of our grantees working on Deeper Learning. Our initial conversations with grantees new to using open licenses have revealed that while in some ways open licensing is attractive, in other ways it is intimidating.

Our grantees aspire to have the greatest impact for their work, which can happen when their materials are used by as many people as possible as productively as possible. Some of them have seen how an open license can pave the way for this to happen. For example, after posting its Common Core-aligned curriculum under an open license, Expeditionary Learning has seen 1.6 million downloads from across the U.S. On the flipside, a concern among our grantees has been the possibility of for-profit companies taking their content and profiting from it. Another concern has been that an open license will decrease opportunities for generating revenue. For these reasons, organizations like the Teaching Channel have chosen to only openly license videos of inspiring teachers in practice that have been created with Hewlett funds. Most of the rest of its videos will remain openly accessible but under a proprietary license. We think this mixed approach will be informative for the Foundation and the wider field, allowing us to test the downside risk of commercial appropriation against the upside potential of brand-building and wider uptake. We recognize that organizations face real and important tradeoffs when it comes to open licensing and will be monitoring the impact of these decisions alongside our grantees.

At the Hewlett Foundation we have a bold mission of “helping people build measurably better lives.” The organizations we fund have equally bold visions. To achieve audacious goals like these we need to improve on what we know. By openly sharing the knowledge and resources we produce we can not only expand access to knowledge, but also enable adaptation and improvement of that knowledge. For the Hewlett Foundation, openly sharing resources is one important component of our commitment to transparency. We will be building off our experiences in the Education Program to expand a policy around open licenses in other programs as well over the coming year and hope to continue learning along the way about the constraints and the opportunities this presents to amplify the work of our grantees.

Interested in learning more? Check out this video from Creative Commons in New Zealand for more information on the licenses and this video for more examples of the benefits this kind of licensing provides in practice. To adopt an open license, you simply go to the Creative Commons license chooser, select your license, and add the license to your work or web site as a replacement for the traditional © symbol.  Details on marking your work with a CC license can be found online. For additional background, read this full description of the Creative Commons licenses.