Common Core Drives Interest in Open Education Resources

By Katie Ash — October 15, 2012 10 min read
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In Utah, the state department of education is pulling together textbooks aligned to Common Core State Standards made up entirely of open educational resources, or OERs. South Dakota officials have created a repository of open education materials aligned to the common core for teachers. And at the national level, the education organization Achieve has launched a set of rubrics designed to help educators evaluate both the quality of OERs and their alignment to the common standards.

“I think the common core has been a catalyst for OER—for examining it, for discussing and developing and adopting OER,” says Reginal J. Leichty, a partner in EducationCounsel, a Washington-based education law and policy-consulting firm. “There are windows for policy change, and common core has just by its nature necessarily caused this conversation to begin.”

Spurred by the adoption of common-core standards by nearly every state the movement for open education resources is seeing a surge in interest as districts re-evaluate and realign their curricula. OERs, which are free to use, remix, and adapt, also engage teachers more fully in curricula, allowing them to more easily differentiate instructional materials for students, advocates of the movement say.

“As a consequence of this historic national transition to these common standards, there are a lot of states going through the exercise of, ‘OK, how do we ensure that our resources are the right ones? How do we do that in a way that’s affordable? How do we work with our peers to develop it?’ ” says Leichty. “With OER, you don’t need to adopt one rigid model that was adopted by one of the major states. You can adopt and adapt and tailor those resources to unique state needs.”

EducationCounsel is working with schools to help provide policy advice to those that are embracing open education resources.

Karen Fasimpaur, the president of K12 Handhelds, a Portal, Ariz.-based company that focuses on mobile computing in education, is also an advocate for open education resources.


Created a series of eight rubrics that evaluate the degree to which each open educational resource’s (OER) aligns to the Common Core State Standards, as well as the quality of each resource.

Launched a free Algebra1 course aligned to the common standards. The course includes real-world examples, projects, interactive online tools, videos, and targeted feedback.

A repository of OERs that can be searched by standard or subject. Includes an explanation of the evaluation rubric used to determine each resource’s quality. By registering for a free account, teachers receive an online locker where they can store OERs they are interested in using.

OER Commons
A repository of OERs with collections of resources aligned to the common core, including lessons plans as well as implementation tools. OER Commons houses the rubrics created by Achieve to evaluate the alignment to common standards and the quality of OERs.

“There’s a renewed interest in [OER], particularly at the state policy level, because this is such a huge challenge, particularly with the budget situations as they are,” says Fasimpaur. “A lot of policy folks are really looking at OER as an opportunity to improve the tools we have for learning, but also to do it in a way that’s affordable and more flexible.”

While the cost savings of OER may initially draw interest from policymakers and state education officials, there are many reasons why OER fits well with the common core, she says.

“With everyone on the same page about standards, it’s going to be more and more about sharing resources, which is what OER is all about,” says Fasimpaur.

“A lot of districts are looking at purchasing brand-new curriculum to address common core, and it’s so expensive, and it’s also burdensome on teachers,” she says. “One of the things about OER is that it really empowers the teachers more and addresses their professionalism in choosing resources that work best for their kids.”

Teachers Need Training

Federal policy has also contributed to greater interest in open education resources, says Barbara Treacy, the managing project director for the Center for Online Professional Education at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center.

“It is becoming pre-embedded in almost every federal grant that the product of the grants needs to be shared as an OER,” she points out, allowing all states to leverage the tools that are produced by states that receive certain federal education grants.

But teachers also need support to use the resources properly, says Treacy, addressing one of the challenges of the OER movement. Critics of open resources contend that even though the materials are free to use, they may not be as easy to implement in a classroom as a ready-made, prepackaged proprietary resource, such as a textbook.

“Even with this huge amount of curricula and these lesson-plan websites aligned to the common core, that is still not going to do the trick for having teachers make the shift … without the PD,” Treacy says. “Teachers still need training for how to find the stuff they need, how to understand what they find, and how to adapt it for their students.”

Because of the vast array of open education curricula available on the Internet, teachers need to know how to wade through the material and evaluate its quality to determine how it might work in their classrooms, she says.

Another challenge of bringing OERs into classrooms is making sure that the resources teachers are using are high-quality and aligned to the standards. Because anyone can create and contribute a resource to the broader OER repositories, the resources vary widely in quality.

One tool to help educators determine the quality and alignment to the common core of a particular resource is the OER rubrics developed by the Washington-based Achieve, a nonprofit education policy group that helped write the Common Core State Standards. The rubrics are hosted by the OER Commons, a repository of more than 30,000 open resources created by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, or ISKME, based in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

The rubrics evaluate resources on eight different aspects, including their alignment to the standards, the quality of technological interactivity, and the quality of the instructional tasks and practice exercises. Each material is evaluated on all eight rubrics, scoring from a zero to a 3, with zero being “very weak or none” and 3 indicating “superior.”

“Our goal is just that whenever people think about which resources to use for instruction, that they consider all these different aspects,” says Jennifer Childress, a senior adviser for science at Achieve. “It’s a rigorous way to determine quality so that multiple users can know the same criteria.”

Through the Learning Registry, a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Defense that provides a platform for technical protocols for aggregated resources, each time a resource is evaluated, it is encoded in that material’s metadata, so that no matter where the resource is being viewed on the Internet, it will still contain the rating information.

Although the rubrics were written with the common core in mind, says Childress, they could be used with any set of standards.

“The evaluation rubric was meant to be portable so that other people could use it in their own collections,” says Lisa Petrides, the president and founder of ISKME.

And the rubrics are detailed enough to help lay the groundwork for improving resources that may not rank high, she says.

For instance, some materials receive low rankings because they do not include an assessment component, which could be added by another teacher to make the material more robust.

Open Textbooks in Utah

Some states, such as Utah, have embraced OERs as a way to provide teachers with the curricula they need to make the shift to the common standards.

Considered a pioneer in the OER movement, the Utah legislature has supported the adoption of open resources by adding language in policy that allows districts to use the free digital materials.

In Utah, curricula, including textbooks and OERs, are adopted by each district rather than at the state level. But the Utah State Office of Education offers guidance through a state review process that provides lists of recommended materials.

In fact, the state has created entire textbooks from OERs in science, English/language arts, and math for middle and high schoolers, with help from open-textbook creator CK-12, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based nonprofit organization.

Pilots of the open textbooks were so successful that the Utah Open Textbook Project received permission from the state office of education to go statewide during the 2012-13 school year.

“As a state that really views teachers as professionals, both in content and pedagogical knowledge, we really appreciated the empowerment” that came with allowing teachers to use and create open education resources, says Tiffany Hall, the literacy coordinator for the state education office.

Hall is quick to point out that not all districts are adopting open textbooks, and that proprietary publishers have much greater resources at their disposal to create curricula, which can make them a good option for schools as well.

“Whether it’s open or from a publisher, whatever fits best with the curriculum and standards that we have for our students, … that’s the resource that we want to have available to teachers,” she says.

In addition, Hall says, regardless of whether the curriculum is open or proprietary, everything is vetted and reviewed by the state education office first.

“We’re going to continue to provide support as this gains speed and ground to make sure that teachers are able to do what they need to do, and we can also provide assurances to our school boards and parents that the materials students are using are vetted,” says Hall. “Just because it’s an OER resource doesn’t mean it has carte blanche.”

‘Customize the Learning’

In South Dakota, the nonprofit professional-development organization Technology and Innovation in Education, or TIE, which is based in Rapid City, is pulling together resources, such as the Achieve evaluation rubrics, to create a repository of open education materials for teachers called MyOER.

“The Internet affords us such a rich opportunity that we can actually curate what we need, and that was really the impetus of starting the work,” says Julie Mathiesen, the director of TIE. “Even if you’re the best teacher in the U.S., it’s still not possible for you to customize all day, every day, without the use of technology.”

Using open-source software created for the Michigan Online Resources for Educators, or MORE, TIE created the MyOER repository to house open resources for teachers. MyOER also incorporates an evaluation rubric, based on that of Achieve but simplified, says June Preszler, an education technology specialist for TIE who has led the work around MyOER.

Preszler has pulled together 80 educators in South Dakota—40 from math and 40 from English/language arts—to find and evaluate resources for the website. Like the Achieve rubrics, resources are rated on a scale of zero to 3. Only resources that score a 2 or 3 are included on the site, says Preszler.

MyOER has also imported resources from the Khan Academy and Thinkfinity, bringing its total number of resources so far up to about 3,000.

“[Teachers] can really diversify, and they can find resources for standards that are a variety of levels, so they can customize the learning for their students,” says Preszler.

And MyOER can be used by any teacher, not just those in South Dakota, Mathiesen emphasizes.

Such projects are exactly what the common core can now make possible, says Kim Jones, the chairman and chief executive officer of Curriki, a nonprofit K-12 repository for open education resources based in Cupertino, Calif.

“We’re seeing a lot of teachers starting to contribute OER materials that are aligned to common-core standards,” says Jones. “We’re very excited about that and think it’s going to make a huge difference in allowing people across the U.S. to leverage what teachers are doing in other places.”

Curriki is also involved in the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative, which is being co-led by the Wilmington, Del.-based Association of Educational Publishers and Creative Commons, a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit that has created a variety of legal open licenses to enable the sharing of resources, with the goal of creating a common vocabulary with which to tag and categorize OERs. The initiative is intended to make it easier to search for and find materials.

The project will pull some of that vocabulary from the common standards, although it will be designed to work with any set of standards, according to the learning-resource initiative.

“It’s an exciting time for education, between OER really crossing the chasm and common-core standards coming out, and just the work that’s going on around technology,” says Jones, from Curriki. “It’s all coming together at a great time, and it’s really going to have a positive impact on education going forward.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Open Educational Resources Surge


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