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Education Funding Opinion

How to Harness the Tremendous Potential of Open Education Resources

Districts are often on their own with OER. Here are some guiding lessons
By Dan McDowell — January 29, 2020 5 min read
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As they face more challenging academic standards and an increasingly diverse student population, many schools and districts are finding that a tool central to almost every classroom—a textbook—is no longer enough.

I saw this firsthand. As our California district transitioned to 1:1 technology, teachers began abandoning textbooks in favor of digital resources—videos, primary source materials, and interactive tools—that were better fits for inquiry-focused and project-based activities. The unanswered question was whether those self-curated resources, which individual teachers collected online, were consistent in quality.

That’s how the Grossmont Union High school district became part of the open educational resources, or OER, movement, using openly licensed textbooks and learning resources that are intended to be freely used and adapted. Three years later, five of our high school courses are textbook-free, drawing from a central OER text and a variety of supplemental resources, activities, and lesson materials. These resources were chosen by teams of teachers in four subject areas assigned to vet and curate OER materials. Teams are now working to adapt materials in additional subjects.

OER implementation is less about saving money than it is shifting learning away from off-the-shelf curricula and toward student-centered classrooms."

Far from just replacing costly textbooks, OER materials have the potential to provide more relevant, engaging materials adapted by teachers to meet the needs of their specific student populations. Nationally, a growing base of research suggests that both K-12 and higher education students perform as well—if not better—when teachers use high-quality OER. And momentum is growing: 121 districts in 20 states have joined the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen initiative, which supports “the use of openly licensed educational resources to transform teaching and learning.”

The reality, however, is that districts are largely on their own in this work. Federal and other outside resources are limited. Most states also leave curriculum development and vetting to districts, meaning they have to take the lead when it comes to supporting—and funding—the use of OER.

But OER implementation is less about saving money than it is shifting learning away from off-the-shelf curricula and toward student-centered classrooms. Those who see OER as a cost-savings effort will be disappointed, as adopting these materials effectively requires ongoing investments in time and training. And districts which leave decisions up to individual teachers won’t scale the benefits to teaching, learning, and student engagement—or understand whether materials are valid or being appropriately used.

The national nonprofit Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education has developed a free open-source guidebook for school librarians involved in OER curation, informed by lessons from my own district and 14 others. (This OER-curation framework was developed in partnership with Florida State University’s School of Information and supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.)

When planning to harness the power of open educational resources, we found that district leaders should start with the following factors:

Well-resourced libraries and professionals. Because of their expertise in content curation and helping students navigate online resources, librarians play an important role in expanding the use of OER. This role, however, comes at a time when school libraries and librarians have been marginalized, despite research showing “correlations between high-quality library programs and student achievement,” particularly in districts serving low-income and minority students. According to a 2018 analysis by the Education Week Research Center, the nation’s public schools have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, with districts serving students of color hit the hardest.

It’s hard to see how districts can make OER work without strong libraries and librarians. In our district, we’ve realized how important librarians are in cataloging resources and identifying supplemental materials with the right fit for our programs. As we start the curation process with new subjects, librarians are now involved from the beginning.

School district and school building leadership buy-in. Leaders must not only support initial OER adoption, but champion how this work advances desired changes in teaching and learning and set clear policies that identify the roles educators will play in curating materials. Librarians and educators must be empowered by district leaders and principals to create and nurture collaborative networks to drive the curation work, which includes finding, modifying, evaluating, and making accessible OER content.

Dedicated funding. Districts must redirect cost savings from eliminating textbooks to support educator staffing and time to develop the materials. Support for training and curation require ongoing investments in time and money. In our district, cost savings have also been used to purchase additional supplemental materials that amplify the benefits of OER materials. From the beginning, we also worked with our teachers’ union to include in our collective bargaining agreement provisions to pay teachers for their time planning and curating OER materials.

Joining the open educational resources movement is never going to be seamless, but it offers real returns. In our district, OER has supported broader efforts to bolster student engagement. We know students learn more when they see themselves in the classroom. The use of OER enhances educators’ ability to adapt materials in ways that meet the needs of their individual students, improving equity and engagement. That’s an important benefit which, instead of overblown promises of cost savings or digital classrooms, can bolster support from parents and the community.

It also doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. OER can serve as a valuable supplement to established curricula and proprietary learning programs. Teachers often find that pre-designed curricula and learning materials have gaps or miss opportunities to connect lessons in a relevant way to their students. OER offers an opportunity to supplement those materials to make them more timely and relevant to students and current events.

One of our biggest lessons was that good OER use mirrors good classroom practice. In our district, OER has accelerated our emphasis on inquiry and project-based learning. Teachers have said the curation process itself has helped them think more deeply about not just the materials they teach, but how they teach. When implemented well with educators in the lead, OER can become a vehicle to rethink instructional practices in ways that serve our real students rather than the imagined students for whom the textbooks are written.

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