Complexities in utilizing free digital learning resources

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What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'? It's 'free' and so I'm taking it!
What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'?
'free' and so I'm taking it!

Here's a scenario I have encountered more than a few times.

Officials at a ministry of education in ___ tell me that:

They've bought lots of computers.
They've put computer labs in their schools.
They've connected (most of) their schools.


Lots of their teachers have (inexpensive)  laptops.
Now their students are getting tablets.
Along the way, they've been teaching basic computer literacy.

Which leads them to ask:

Now what should we do?

(In my experience, this query may be a result of an evaluation that showed little or no 'impact of technology on student learning’, despite massive amounts of money that have been invested … or it may simply come about because a lot of initiatives are coming to an end and the groups involved in them are looking for stuff to do. There are other impetuses as well, but I am regularly reminded that the motivations which animate this sort of question can vary quite a bit!)

In such instances, I usually respond by first congratulating them on all of these great accomplishments. A lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people was needed to make these things happen, and no doubt lots of difficult challenges popped up along the way.


As difficult (and expensive) as it may have been to achieve all of these things, in many ways they represent just table settings, and not the main course. In other words (and to adopt another metaphor, in case you didn't like that last one), they are some of the key raw materials that can be used to help do something purposeful with technology to supports learning that has real, demonstrable impact.

what a minute: where's the content?
what a minute:
where's the content?

It's about the content, not the container, after all. (That will be the last metaphor for a while, I promise.) As devices proliferate, and as better and more widespread connectivity enables connections to networks from different places using a variety of different devices, the value will decreasingly be in the devices themselves, but rather in the educational content they enable learners and teachers to access (and in the connections to communities of other people as well).

OK, they counter, if the value is indeed in the content, and not the container ... where do we get this content?

The textbooks we use do not have straightforward digital equivalents or complements.
We really haven't budgeted for any digital learning content.
We spent almost all of our money on hardware (and a little on related training).

We know that there is a lot of 'free' content available on the Internet that would be useful to teachers and students.

Can't we just use a bunch of this stuff?

And if so:

How might we go about doing this?


It is no doubt true that there are lots of high quality digital learning resources available on the Internet for free use (CK12 is one of many great examples of a collection of such materials). Some of them are indeed available for free, some of them are free because they have been donated, some of them are even available as 'open educational resources' (OERs), and some of them are free because they have been pirated. (It still surprises me that I occasionally have to remind folks that it's not a very good idea to consider using educational materials that fall into this last category.)

The emergence of free, high quality digital education content has been a great thing for many schools, teachers and learners around the world (especially where English is spoken). Education systems themselves, however – especially those in so-called ‘developing countries’ -- have often struggled to take advantage of this phenomena.

While such free resources are available in increasing abundance, whether there are:

  • 'free' resources that are in a country's language of instruction;
  • 'free' resources that cover the topics in a country's curriculum (in the right sequence); and/or
  • 'free' resources that are easy to map against an education system's curricular objectives

can be another matter entirely.

In my experience, many ministries of education focus mostly (and often only) on the first item:

These materials look really good, but they are only in English.
All we have to do is translate them and we'll be good to go.

OK ... maybe ... but assuming that you have already vetted this content for quality, you may want to temper your ambition here about what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in the short run. This stuff may not be as easy as it may first appear:

Before you start translating materials, you should ask:

  • Do you have the rights to do this?
    Just because something is available on the Internet doesn't mean you can just do with it want you want.

You should then consider:

  • Do you have a process and capacity in place to do this?
    Or: Do you know someone who does who can help you?
  • Do you have somewhere to put these materials once you have translated them all?
    Just because you 'have a web site' doesn't necessarily mean you actually have a place to host this stuff easily in ways that will ensure that people will be able to find it, nor that you will be able to keep track of what you have.

Let's say you decide to translate a large body of existing 'free' digital learning resources so that they can be used in your schools (perhaps you will do this yourself, perhaps you will use content translated by some other group).

As arduous and time consuming and expensive as the translation process may be, once this has been done, you will then be faced with what is in many ways a much more vexing question:

How are you actually going to use all of this stuff?

As part of the process of answering this question, education systems may want to consider:

  1. Mapping this body of digital learning resources, both in their entirety and one-by-one, against their existing curricula and curricular objectives
  2. Sequencing individual materials in ways that are appropriate and relevant for use by teachers and students
  3. Helping teachers orchestrate the use of these materials for learning.

Let's briefly consider each of these three actions.



Attempting to discover how well a given set of digital education materials developed eslewhere 'maps' to what you are already teaching, and what you hope student learn, can be (as the engineers like to say) 'nontrivial'.

Some countries have discovered that an attempt to do this exposes deficiencies in their own knowledge and understanding of their existing curricula and curricular objectives. In some education systems -- especially in some low income countries -- relatively few people within a ministry of education may have a good functional overview and understanding of this stuff. Instead, the related expertise may lie primarily with a publisher, or with the consultants or outside agency which helped develop the curricula.

Some questions for policymakers to ask themselves:

  • Can you go through the body of digital materials, resource by resource, and map individual items against your curricular objectives -- and is there a process and tool in place for doing this?
  • Can you annotate individual digital learning resources in some way, adding guidance and information ("meta data") about which curricular objectives can be addressed through the use of specific individual content (and groups of content)?
  • Are there any gaps, and if so what do you intend to do about them? (Not worry about them? Create new content? Search for and adopt/adapt digital content from another source? Digitize existing off-line content?)

Depending on the answers to these (and other) questions, there are many more worth considering as well.



When a ministry of education examines a set of 'free' digital learning content in order to assess the extent to which it maps (or doesn't map) to its existing curricula, it sometime notices that some of the sequencing is 'off':

  • the order may be 'wrong'
  • individual pieces of content may address multiple curricular objectives in a way not consistent with the sequencing of its own curricula
  • individual pieces of content may require prior knowledge (and so are essentially 'out of order')
I thought I would be done once I got over the paywall
I thought I would be done
once I got over the paywall

Along the way, it may become apparent that there are potential cultural issues with this new digital content as well, especially if it was developed somewhere else -- e.g. references to names and places that students and teachers may not recognize and/or pictures of people and places that are undeniably 'foreign' (in some places this is a nonstarter, in other cases this is not a big deal, but it is an area worth attention).

Ignoring challenges related to the sequencing of digital learning materials doesn't make them go away. Instead, this work is, as a practical matter, outsourced for teachers to figure out and handle themselves. This raises some additional issues, like: Are teachers capable of doing this themselves? Do they have the necessary skills and capacities, and tools, to do this well? Are they incentivized to do this? Do they even have the time?

In many cases I've observed, all of this is left to teachers to figure out on their own.

The result? Little happens. Computers sit unused. National digital learning portals are unvisited. On the rare occasion that impact evaluations are done, little impact (of 'computers', of digital learning resources) on student learning is found. A small cohort of 'super teachers' may be successful, of course, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Calibrating a country's approach to the utilization of digital learning resources across its entire education system based on experience with a small cohort of teachers at the far end of the Bell Curve may be a recipe for disappointment. What will work for the majority of teachers? That may be a more useful target cohort to consider.

Where there are challenges related to sequencing, it may be decided to create new content, either from scratch, or by breaking existing content into smaller pieces so that it aligns better with the sequencing of the existing curricula. Who will do this?

a common response:
Can't teachers take care of all of this themselves? Can't they just find the content they need, evaluate it, and decide how/where it fits into their needs? And where there are gaps, can't they just create their own materials? After all, they know what they are supposed to be teaching, their own classroom context, the needs of their students, etc.

Maybe. It depends:
  • Are they indeed able to do this (do they have sufficient skills and experience)?
  • Are they motivated (and possibly explicitly incentivized) to do this?
And, at a practical level:
  • Do they have the time to do this?
In education systems characterized by massive teacher shortages, and low capacity teachers, related challenges may be particularly acute. In such environments, most teachers are not content developers themselves, nor are they experts at evaluating the suitability of content. That said: Of course some teachers may well be very good developers of digital learning resources -- or can be trained to become so. Excellent teachers do this regularly around the world, and many countries have had teachers do this in an official capacity (e.g. Rio, Jordan).

It is perhaps worth noting that having teachers create digital education materials for use by other teachers may (sometimes, or even often) yield content that is, frankly, not that good. The World Bank has supported numerous efforts to train teachers to create digital learning content in places as diverse as Uganda, Nicaragua and Ghana, and the results have been decidedly mixed. Even where the content is, for lack of a more technical term, 'not terribly good', however, creating content themselves, and evaluating content developed by their peers, can be a very useful professional development exercise for teachers. Once a teacher has created her own digital materials, especially learning content to be shared with and used by her peers, she tends to be better equipped to analyze and evaluate content herself, no matter who provides it. She is a more 'educated consumer', if you will.

In many countries, these sorts of challenges around mapping and sequencing are often rather important. In my experience, few ministries of education with which I have worked have appreciated the size, scope and nature of these challenges before jumping in. (There is nothing like learning-by-doing, I guess!)



Let's say a large body of 'free' digital learning materials has been mapped against existing curricular objectives and made available and accessible in schools in sequences that make sense. What assistance and support is available to teachers as they attempt to orchestrate the use of the content as part of their teaching and their students' learning? The dirty little secret of many large scale efforts to utilize free digital learning materials at scale across an education system is that very few people may end up using them. A few great teachers and students may use them a lot, of course, but most may do so rarely, if at all.

This need not be the case, however! Education systems can employ a number of strategies to try to avoid this sort of calamity. One standard approach is to offer targeted teacher professional development and training in how to use these materials. This is usually quite necessary but at the same time not sufficient. One-off training activities in special training centers may indeed be helpful, but such environments may not be good proxies for the teaching and learning environments teachers will find themselves in once they return to their schools. Considering examples and use cases which take into account specific circumstances in local classroom environments can therefore be rather important. Providing opportunities for formal or informal 'coaching' as content is rolled out can also be useful, as can various sorts of related ongoing training activities. Offering user-friendly supplementary usage guidance (online, offline, and/or embedded in the digital learning materials themselves) is also strongly worth considering. One of the most useful approaches (but one which is often not considered, in my experience, or at least not often enough) is to help support and maintain peer networks so that teachers can communicate with and support each other. (If teachers are connected, why not take advantage of this connectivity?)


All this seems like a lot, you might say.

We asked you a simple question and you have responded by asking lots of other questions for which we don't have answers and raising ideas and challenges we hadn't considered. 
We thought we could just take a bunch of digital content we found on the Internet and we'd be good to go.

--> It rarely is that easy.

You might say: This seems like there is a lot to do.

This might well be true, especially given your existing capabilities and budget.

But, on the other hand:

Can you afford not to do this -- or at least not to start?

After all:

You already bought all of this equipment for your schools -- what do you plan to do with it?

(There's another big issue about aligning this with your assessments ... but that's a topic for another day ...)


It is worth noting that textbook publishers have traditionally handled a lot of these things in many places. In other places the ministry of education, or a special unit or agency under the direction of the ministry has done so (sometimes with the help of various types of technical assistance from publishers). The increased availability of 'free' digital learning resources on the Internet has led to a misunderstanding on the part of many policymakers, who conclude that there is no little or no value in what content creators and publishers (whether private companies, public institutions, nonprofits or civil society groups) do in providing a coherent body of learning resources in ways that are relevant to given curricula, sequenced in ways that align with these curricula, and where it is clear how to 'orchestrate' the use of this content as part of regular teaching and learning practices. Creators of educational content -- whether they are 'traditional publishers' or new developers of educational videogames -- have as a result noted that it's tough to compete with free. But just as the fact that some things are available for free doesn't mean they have no value, 'free' doesn't necessarily mean that there are no related costs. There is a difference between having a coherent whole and a collection of high quality parts, no matter how high their individual quality.

Of course, the educational publishing industry itself is evolving, and related business models are evolving rapidly as well. Many new players (e.g. for profit tech companies, non-profit providers of open education resources) are entering the market space, and the old ones are changing -- because of market forces, because of new technologies, and because of new phenomena (like open educational resources) that the diffusion of new technologies enables. This complexity and change doesn't make the jobs of policymakers and educators any easier, I'm afraid, even if at the same time there are lots of exciting, useful, high quality 'free' digital learning materials increasingly available to teachers and students.

But who said this stuff was easy?

You may also be interested in these posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image at the top of this post of a cat helping herself to some free material ("What do you mean, 'gratis' or 'libre'?  It's 'free' and so I'm taking it!") comes via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The picture of the two curious racoons at the Rotterdam Zoo ("what a minute: where's the content?") comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. It was originally posted to Flickr by photographer Tim Strater. The third image, of a rather large dog ("I thought I would be done once I got over the paywall") comes from the Wikipedian Pat028 via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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