The Art of Practice
Aug 18, 2017 · 13 min read
“Delft Technical University Library” by Travis Juntara (image modified by Andrew Malcolm); CC BY SA

Examining a Decade of Success and Challenges for the Open Platform that Changed Dutch Education

The open movement has fundamentally changed the market for learning resources in the Netherlands. Jan-Bart de Vreede and Professor Robert Schuwer are the architects that initiated that change. They’ve shown that a platform for Creative Commons licensed materials can solve market problems and improve learning resources, and now they’re continuing to promote the adoption of open in Dutch education.

After having conversations with de Vreede and Schuwer, I wrote this open movement case study to explore the complexity of their success and the reasons why some areas of education have yet to fully embrace the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. The OER movement is a global experiment, so it’s worth the time for anyone from around the globe (e.g Canada, where I’m based) to take a close look at the people who are showing what’s possible and what challenges they’re facing.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science Faces a Stagnant Market for Resources

Primary and secondary education in the Netherlands are based around learning goals that are tested using national exams for each subject. Schools can use any teaching method they want as long as their students are passing the exams. It’s a decentralized system meant to encourage individuality in Holland’s fleet of public schools, and creativity in the use of teaching methods and learning resources.

Historically the idea has worked, creating the kinds of smart ideas North Americans expect to hear from European Countries. In my interview with de Vreede he gave me a personal example: “My kid goes to a school where there’s three grades at the same table. In the first grade you’re not allowed to, or you’re not supposed to, ask the teacher for help. Instead you ask your table-mates. And the next year you’re helping the younger kids.”

While primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands represented a diversity of philosophies in education, in the mid-2000s the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science recognized that this was not the case when it came to learning resources. Teachers used materials that were standard for many schools and not representative of their individuality or creativity. Even worse, their learning resources changed very little year to year, prompting the criticism that a Dutch public school teacher who taught for twenty years didn’t have twenty years of experience, but one year of experience twenty times.

Schuwer explained to me that educational publishers were a big part of the problem: “In the Netherlands publishers are very strong. The government has formulated learning goals, and a national exam at the end of each topic. This decentralizes the teaching methodologies of the schools, but the publishers have translated high level goals to a set learning methodology. They sell a big block of books, a curriculum, which makes it easy for the teachers.”

The Ministry saw this stagnant market as a serious problem, particularly in an era when technology and the open movement were creating new, dynamic possibilities for educating students. De Vreede explained that the most powerful changes have come from open standards: “The open learning field is creating a lot of different opportunities for personalized learning. Open standards and how they allow for the exchange of grades between teachers and different resource providers, or finding the right metadata for labeling learning resources so teachers can mix and match providers, those changes have made a big impact.”

The Ministry’s problem was complex, and while the OER movement promised a wealth of solutions, it still left the question of how to introduce those materials. To fully understand the answer to the problem de Vreede and Schuwer created, we have to go back to its inspiration.

Caenorhabditis elegans Inspires a Platform for OER Materials

“Our biggest accomplishment was building that platform,” Schuwer told me in our interview. He urged me to push de Vreede to talk about the accomplishment, because de Vreede was modest and didn’t like to brag. They were both part of the project from the beginning, bringing to life the inspiration of Ronald Plasterk — then acting Minister of Education, Culture and Science. Plasterk, a former researcher, worked on the first sequencing of a full genome, that of the humble worm Caenorhabditis elegans. His approach was guided by the “Wisdom of the Crowds”, and the worm’s genome was ultimately sequenced by researchers and labs around the world.

The sharing ethics of the project would eventually help establish the Bermuda Principle, a set of rules for the rapid and public release of DNA sequence data. The Bermuda Principle was integral to the success of the Human Genome Project’s contribution to the public good. Guided by the principle’s three rules, every lab working on the massive collaboration released data to publicly accessible files within 24 hours of its acquisition.

In 2007 Plasterk was appointed Minister, and thus given responsibility for finding a solution to the stagnant market for educational resources. He was inspired by the possibilities OER materials offered, and saw the movement as establishing “the wisdom of the crowd” in education.

By that time de Vreede, through his position with Wikimedia, had made significant contributions to building open communities and inspiring sharing in the Netherlands, and Schuwer was already researching and promoting OER use in education. When Plasterk officially launched Wikiwijs in 2008 — his OER solution to the Ministry’s problem, and the first national project of its kind initiated by any government — de Vreede and Schuwer were destined to become the platform’s architects.

Wikiwijs (pronounced like Wiki-wise) is a free, publicly available platform for teachers to exchange learning resources under Creative Commons BY and Creative Commons BY-SA licenses, thus establishing an indexed library of OER materials for education at all levels. Teachers can search files uploaded by other users or search repositories of materials that museums, libraries and other public institutions have put into the public domain.

De Vreede was on the edge of his seat when he told me about a third way to use Wikiwijs: “The third branch is the most exciting: It’s the one Robert probably talked to you about — Wikiwijs Maken. It lets teachers build online lessons that can include tests, interactivity, videography and everything else. That’s the platform that’s seeing tremendous growth — 1.2 million visits a couple years ago, 1.9 last year, and this year we’re anticipating between 4 and 6 million.”

Teachers in Dutch public schools were creating supplementary learning materials before Wikiwijs, but tools like Wikiwijs Maken are increasing the value of their materials exponentially through sharing, in a very Wiki-like way. Although Wikiwijs isn’t technically a Wiki, de Vreede told me how Wikiwijs Maken is somewhat of an exception: “That part of the platform is more and more like a Wiki, with one big difference: a Wikipedia article tries to give the definitive truth, like this is the neutral part of everything, whereas a teacher wants his or her own version. So we make it really easy to modify lesson plans.

“We make sure the lesson plan is mastered, which means teachers can create new versions with modified sections and share them, but still others can decide they only want to use the updates from the master version, the ones made by the original author.”

“It sounds almost like a Github model.”

“It’s almost like a Github, with the forks, except you can’t reintegrate back to the master yet. But that’s really difficult because it’s not code, it’s text, so it’s really hard. It’s like a Github but it’s only downstream.”

The complex structure of Wikiwijs is what’s at the heart of how the open movement is changing the Netherlands’ market for learning resources, but it’s not the whole picture. Like most successful open movement models, this one is a mix of new ideas and traditional ideas, for profit goals and not-for-profit goals, and free content and paid-for content; also similar to most open models, it gets complicated.

Kennisnet and its decision to adopt Wikiwijs

Kennisnet, the publicly funded organization de Vreede works for, promotes and supports the use of Information Communications Technologies (ICT) in Dutch education; or as de Vreede puts it, they try to create breakthroughs in learning resources and other areas using ICT and Open Standards. He’s responsible for Kennisnet’s repository of learning resources, including that fast growing library generated by Wikiwijs, and he has a mandate to standardize and label all the material according to Dutch educational standards.

De Vreede described the complex relationship formed when Kennisnet, which is not specifically about the open domain, adopted Wikiwijs, which de Vreede and Schuwer built: “What’s interesting about Kennisnet is we’re serving the whole field. Anyone can access our open learning resources and use Wikiwijs, and at the same time we’re providing the standards to exchange grades with closed source solutions, and that keeps everybody, including the big publishers, involved.

“We’re balancing both worlds, because both those worlds are required to get students the learning resources they need at the right time — copyrighted, commercial material too. The change in the market is providing existing players with new opportunities, and it’s also lowering the bar for new players who are challenging the market.

“There’s only three or four methods for math in Dutch schools. If you’re able to tie your application to chapter four of the methodology, you make it usable for teachers. Before that it was a black box, but now I’m able to tie it to a specific chapter — that’s really important. It’s creating more movement than ever.”

It’s a success worth celebrating — a library of learning materials that’s growing faster and staying more relevant than ever before, and a technological disruption to the market that has done nothing but good for all players. When I started my interviews I had a question on my mind, could it do more? Because, despite this success, there’s one level of education in the Netherlands that’s seemingly uninterested in embracing open licensing.

Higher Education

Maarten Zeinstra, a Copyright and Technology Advisor with Kennisland, connected me with Schuwer and de Vreede, and he also told me about Article 25fa. The recently introduced Dutch copyright law states that an author of a short work of science funded partly or wholly by Dutch public funds has the right to republish their paper anywhere, as long as they mention the journal that originally published their work. It’s exactly the kind of law that’s needed in the scientific publishing industry, which is ridiculously profitable but altogether not good for science. So why have so few used the law to their advantage since it came into effect in 2015?

When I asked Schuwer how frequently Creative Commons licenses are used in higher education, he described a bleak scene among PhD students, who are more worried about the publishers that can make or break their careers than they are about open licensing, even if it’s what they study: “Most people doing open research are quite lonely. I was involved in an initiative that put PhD students studying OER materials into touch with each other by creating the Global OER Graduation Network (GO-GN). The network started in the Netherlands, but moved to the British Open University in 2015.

“Because I was involved in organizing those students, I attended the first conference. Something I noticed during those two days of meetings was that not one presentation used a Creative Commons license. I thought, ‘You are doing research in the OER movement, you could set an example by publishing your research with a CC license.’ Ever since I got involved in the movement in 2006, I’ve used open licensing on everything I publish. I refuse to publish in closed journals, but I’m near the end of my career, and not like graduate students who are concerned about publishing.”

That same desire to gain acceptance with big publishers (and not step on their toes) was the reason Zeinstra suggested graduate students hadn’t started ignoring the now defunct restrictions that came with the contracts for their published papers. But it’s not just graduate students that are resistant to getting involved in the open movement.

Openness in education is Schuwer’s passion. Fontys University of Applied Sciences, School of ICT have provided him a place and a means to conduct research on the adoption of OER materials. Earlier this year Schuwer released, with co-author Ben Janssen, a research report on the state of OER adoption and reuse in advanced higher education.

They interviewed 55 teachers, directors and administrators from four research universities and six universities of applied sciences with the objective of finding out what would lead to a wider adoption and reuse of OER materials. On the one hand, they found very little resistance to the idea of sharing. Many teachers share their learning resources already, but informally. That means they often haven’t bothered to research what licensing options are available; many don’t add metadata that would allow other teachers to find their materials, or even use a platform that would make that possible (commercial sites like Youtube and Instagram are common places teachers informally share resources).

Schuwer also investigated what was holding respondents back from embracing a more formal approach to sharing learning resources. While respondents recognized the open movement’s significance and future, they were reluctant to get more involved when their institutions had no policies that gave direction, motivation or resources for creating OER materials.

In our interview, Schuwer pointed out that there are exceptions: “The Technical University of Delft is very ahead. They’ve put open first, they have a business model, and they’re committed to improving quality through openness. They have a very clear strategy on how to use open to improve education.”

But it’s not surprising that Delft — the top technology and engineering university in the Netherlands — would embrace the open movement. After all, the movement began with software developers in the 70s and 80s, and although OER materials and Creative Commons licenses aren’t specifically for digital materials, those roots mean that still today the biggest advocates tend to have a high level of digital literacy. The biggest collection of learning materials made on Wikiwijs Maken, for example, are resources for teaching 21st Century Skills. If every teacher and higher education instructor that was willing to share their learning resources also attached the appropriate licenses and metadata, used platforms that made their materials easy for others to find and modify, and participated in open communities, then the OER movement would suddenly gain a much bigger following.

It’s interesting to note, however, that some of the most active users on Wikiwijs are instructors from vocational colleges, in particular those from the Dutch agricultural sector. In this case it’s not an established digital literacy, or established policies, that has instructors from across the Netherlands exchanging learning resources — OER materials are simply solving a problem.

Big publishers have for the most part stayed away from the market for vocational colleges. Learning resources for skills like running machinery in the field or sowing new breeds of seeds change rapidly, and they don’t cater to a very large market. So when Kennisnet presented an opportunity for colleges to come together and create their own dynamic library of OER materials, instructors embraced the movement.

De Vreede described the communities as some of the most interesting developments around Wikiwijs: “Some colleges have groups of people that meet every thursday, twenty or thirty people right from that platform, and they just meet to exchange experiences. It really is growing, they’re responsible for about fifty or sixty percent of the traffic right now. They’re an important market for open education, because it’s a market that didn’t have that material before.”

Will Wikiwijs eventually make the impact on advanced higher education that it has elsewhere? The answer: it’s complicated. What’s not complicated is that de Vreede and Schuwer have shown that the power of open can solve complex market problems and improve the diversity and quality of a market’s resources. For the final part of this case study, I’ve edited an excerpt from my conversation with de Vreede that I think perfectly illustrates what’s so challenging, but also what’s so fascinating about the open movement.

De Vreede: There’s one project we’re supporting at Kennisnet, that five teachers are carrying — WikiKids. It has students writing their own Wikipedia articles. The teachers are amazing and they’ve put a lot of work into the lesson plans for Wikiwijs. They came up with this one brilliant idea. They said how about we delete completed articles from Wikipedia once and awhile so students can write them again. Certain groups of students will always want to write about soccer or horses, but at some point all those articles are done.

Malcolm: That’s so interesting.

De Vreede: It is, but I was on the Board of Trustees for Wikimedia, so part of me was saying, ‘Wait, we can’t throw away those articles!’ In the end they didn’t because they decided that there will always be new topics that kids want to write about. But just discussing the differences between Wikipedia as a tool for students to find answers and Wikipedia as an opportunity to write their own answers — it was a real lively discussion.

Malcolm: I never thought about Wikipedia that way. Of course it’s valuable as a resource, but it’s also valuable as a process.

De Vreede: Yeah, exactly, especially for students, and writing citations and references, that’s a process in itself. And the program is really successful because it’s focused on lesson plans that are easy for teachers to use and find. So that kind of digital literacy is getting a lot of attention in education. Open licensing is really relevant, but explaining copyright to students is really hard.

Malcolm: Especially now because it’s changing through reforms and the debates are so complex. Europe’s going through reform, and we’re going through reform next year in Canada.

De Vreede: We had a product a few years ago that allowed kids to build their own website. They would say things to us like, “That kid stole my picture of Mickey Mouse that I drew with a little hat on.” And we’d try to explain, “Well the Mickey Mouse picture is actually copyrighted so, you know, you don’t own that picture.” “But I put a hat on that Mickey Mouse so now it’s mine.” “Yes…but no…”

Malcolm (laughing): As soon as you start trying it’s like, “I have to explain the history of copyright now.”

De Vreede (laughing): Exactly, and there’s only a few Creative Commons people who are really interested in the whole history of copyright. But students usually aren’t, I don’t know why, I just can’t imagine why!

The Art of Practice

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By Andrew Malcolm. All my writing is CCBY.