How valuable are Federally funded educational resources?



How valuable are IT job training materials developed by a community college in Texas? Or lesson plans developed by the National Audubon Society in New York, designed to integrate computer-based mapping skills with traditional learning objectives? What about English language learning programs administered through American Consulates abroad?

Individually, each of these investments provide tremendous value for the principal populations they are serving: those future IT professionals in Texas, the next generation of mapping experts growing up in New York, or prospective English language speakers around the globe. And these examples capture only a small fraction of the billions spent each year by the federal government—primarily through grants, contracts, and other cooperative agreements—to create educational resources spanning myriad grade levels, disciplines, and languages.

But while public dollars have been expended to develop these resources, their value is often limited to those primary populations they were developed to serve. In today’s digitally connected world, where educational resources can be made easily available online, public investments in these materials can, and should, have a much wider impact.

Today, a few initiatives and programs funded by individual government agencies have taken steps in this direction. Take, for instance, those IT job training materials developed in Texas. They are presently in development by a consortium led by Collin County Community College District in Frisco, Texas, being developed to decrease the cost of specialized textbooks, lab exercises, and other resources students need for their coursework.

The funding, made available through a recent grant program administered by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, was accompanied by a requirement that any new educational materials produced were made freely available online. With this new requirement, these training materials—including curriculum, courses, and online virtual labs—benefit more than just those students in Frisco. Community college students studying IT across the country (and learners across the globe, for that matter) can benefit as well. While this particular grant program—which just wrapped up its last round of funding—required materials with educational value to be made publicly available, that kind of requirement is nowhere near universal.

At the beginning of the current Administration, President Obama made a pledge to work toward “an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” Today, nearly one hundred organizations from the education, library, technology, public interest, and legal communities—including New America—recommend to extend that openness to the wealth of educational resources produced through federal funding. In a public letter released today, this coalition of organizations emphasizes:

Increasingly, as education focuses on preparing all students for college and career, including acquiring the skills required for job readiness, student access to instructional materials, whether online, digital or traditional print, is critical to improving learning outcomes. In higher education, as we invest in preparing workers for technical careers, continued access to reference materials such as textbooks is important for efficient training and competitive results.

While federal investments in educational resources valuable in and of themselves, they are worth considerably more when those resources are made publicly available. To maximize its investments, the federal government should work toward a comprehensive policy to require that publicly funded resources are made publicly available. Open access to this incredible wealth of educational resources would certainly be unprecedented.