Amazon has quietly re-opened a previously-controversial sharing feature that allows allow anyone to add to its directory of online educational materials, a platform called Amazon Inspire.
Inspire was launched with great fanfare in 2016, touted as a hub for educators to exchange lesson plans and other open education resources. But just after Amazon Inspire first launched, some teachers complained that other users had uploaded their materials without permission. As a report in The New York Times noted, Amazon appeared to have opened the site without a system in place to review whether users were violating copyright when they uploaded materials—systems that are standard on other collections of user-generated content.
Amazon officials took down the offending content and pledged to quickly put a review system in place, but in the meantime they restricted access to the service to a select group of beta testers and the site fell off the radar for about a year.
Then in July 2017 Amazon tried again, announcing a public beta version of Inspire. But this time the company disabled the “share” feature—a key component of the service. Amazon officials said that the ability to upload materials would be added “in the coming weeks,” but they would not specify when.
The company ended up restoring the sharing feature at the end of the summer. There was no press release, and one educator who was a beta tester said that the company seemed to be going out of its way not to talk publicly about the site.
When asked what system the company has put in place to review copyright violations, Stephany Rochon, a public relations manager at Amazon, replied: “As you know, we take copyright infringement very seriously and have put proactive and reactive measures in place to address it in addition to being clear in our terms and conditions that educators only add resources that they’ve authored and have the rights to.”
Under every resource, users can click “report an issue” if they see something they believe violates copyright, she added. Amazon officials say no one has reported any issues since the sharing feature was reinstated.
Amazon would not answer questions about how fast the service is growing. When EdSurge checked the collection in July, the site listed about 3,600 materials for Social Studies, and now shows about the same. It showed 7,200 results for English Language Arts, and now shows about 8,300. In math the number of resources listed seems to have gone down—from more than 13,000 in July to about 10,300 today.
“I haven’t heard much since it opened back up,” says Kristina Peters, public interest technology fellow at New America who worked with Amazon during a previous fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education.
Leaders of school districts and state boards of education have been looking for repositories of open educational resources in part to respond to a U.S. Department of Education challenge called #GoOpen, which encourages replacing commercial textbooks with openly-licensed online materials. Peters says that some states ended up deciding to pick other platforms, like OER Commons, in their efforts to organize and review open materials created or used by their teachers.
An Amazon account is required to use Inspire, and some state education leaders have expressed concern, says Peters, about the idea of teachers using personal Amazon accounts for school business. “CIOs at the state levels had some concerns,” says Peters, “because it’s a commercial entity” and there were questions about what Amazon might do with data it gleaned from users.
But some states have decided to stick with Amazon Inspire. One of them is Indiana, where a team of 50 teachers designated as “Rockstars of Curation” from schools around the state have been uploading OER resources to the platform.
For the past four years the “rockstar” teachers have met occasionally, and they also work on their own throughout the year to pick online materials—and they have uploaded about 600 resources to Inspire so far.
“As a department of education, we pay for them for [to have a] substitute teacher and their mileage to sit down with us at the department for a day to work on that curation process,” says Candice Dodson, director of eLearning at the Indiana Department of Education. She says officials from Maryland and at least two other states have been working with Amazon Inspire as well.
Dodson says that since school districts around Indiana use different learning management systems, using Amazon Inspire has provided a common platform where teachers can share resources.
“It’s something that teachers feel very comfortable with because most people know how to use Amazon,” she says. “We also didn’t feel like it was a fly-by-night kind of operation.” For a while the state was using a product called My Big Campus for the job, but that service was discontinued in 2015.