A week ago Oak National Academy announced the world’s first totally open source curriculum, as well as promising to open up their underlying source code.
I could bore you with the minutiae of Open Government Licensing and how it’s the UK equivalent to Creative Commons By Attribution (CC-BY 4.0) as well as about the MIT Open Sourcing licence.
Suffice to say these are real innovations, not just tinkering at the edges of education. I say education not edtech because the mistake most of Oak’s critics seem stuck with is that their focus is on tech not the educational impact.
Let me be blunt – there has been far too little innovation in educational technology in the last decade. I have listened and watched faux AI, moronic, impractical and unaffordable augmented reality (even Mark Zuckerberg at Meta hardly seems to mention it any more) along with a host of pretty, but mostly pedagogically lacking products that used to describe themselves as chocolate-coated broccoli. Yes, there has been some innovation and success but far too little. The work of Antonio Gould and the team from the Usborne Foundation who created Teach Your Monster to Read and Duolingo’s English test are two notable example of success and innovation.
After Oak’s recent OGL announcements there was the predictable statement of outrage from BESA, who fulminated that it will, “reduce the range and variety of resources available to teachers and pupils” and, “further hamper investment in the UK’s edtech sector”. Reality check – 30 seconds on Edtech Impact and I can quickly find 171 Maths products, 195 for English, 109 for Science, 102 for Computing, etc. There is an oversupply of low innovation, evidence-lite products and services in the K12 education market. Evidence is as important as innovation and it’s no coincidence that despite its lofty rhetoric, BESA doesn’t have any evidence requirements for its members.
Rather than narrowing the curricula, Oak’s OGL licence allows any UK school (and any overseas schools teaching the British curriculum) plus education companies to use, adapt, amend or reject it. It isn’t a mandatory product and I’m sure there isn’t a school in the nation who will use it exclusively. On the other hand, when we consider teacher choice and agency, they are totally free to use ONA or not, a choice they don’t have when their school buys an expensive edtech package which they have to use whether they like it or not.
As for reducing investment, BESA, the Publishers’ Association, Society of Authors and the NEU, who are making this claim, seem ill-informed about the edtech investment sector. The reality is that edtech investment has changed radically in the last two years. Out are lots of users and no route to profit and in are more sophisticated versions of my POPEYE model (Product Market Fit, Operational Capacity, Profit, Evidence, Experience & Youth). Investment in edtech is down in 2023 (compared to 2022) by 89% in China, 64% in the US, 46% in India and 28% across Europe (sources Brighteye Ventures European Edtech Funding Report 3rd Edition 2022 & 4th Edition 2023). Only this week Bjyu’s, the Indian $22bn edtech unicorn was humbled when one its major investors, Blackrock, slashed its valuation by 62.7% to $8.2bn.
BESA’s concern about lack of geo-blocking is naive. Anyone with a VPN can easily sidestep geo-blocking which is why the VPN market is already worth $44bn and growing at 15% CAGR with an expected market size of $130bn p.a. by 2030. Yes, companies can spend a fortune trying to geo-block but the cost benefit doesn’t add up. Smart edtech founders know that investing their scarce resources in innovation (of which OGL and open source code are two good examples) is a far better bet than wasting it trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to geo-block content. Add to this the use of Proxy servers, TOR and the like and you get the idea that Oak is right and BESA’s leadership is at best ill-informed.
Oak has shown that most edtech is a version of the Emperor’s New Clothes and that what users want is simplicity, a mixed market/choice, evidence that products work and finally real innovation.
BESA can argue that 92.8% of their members are against Oak, but I think 99% of their small and early stage members have a right to feel miffed that they missed out on the some of the £8m of which Pearson (a BESA member) won to produce more free content for Oak. For these BESA members, a contract for a hundred thousand or even a million from Oak could have transformed their business.
BESA is an important organisation in education and edtech, but so is Oak and they should be able to happily coexist.