Special Report

Open Educational Resources Movement Scales Up

By Sean Cavanagh — March 28, 2017 9 min read
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Open educational resources typically have been offered to educators in bite-sized chunks—an individual lesson here, a classroom module there—and have been meant to fill in holes the core curriculum does not address.

But over the past few years, a number of organizations and state and local education agencies have begun creating openly licensed resources that they say will meet schools’ appetites for full platefuls of curriculum, covering entire subjects and grade levels, and not just slivers of them.

Efforts to fashion large-scale open materials are being led by organizations like Open Up Resources, a nonprofit that aims to wrest K-12 contracts from the control of commercial publishers, as well as by individual districts that are asking teachers to help craft open curricula and share it with other systems.

Skeptics of open educational resources have long questioned whether the free, remixable materials can match the quality of commercial content without revenue streams to pay for their continual revision and improvement.

What Is OER, Anyway?

Open educational resources are materials for teaching or learning that are either in the public domain or have been released under a license that allows them to be freely used, changed, or shared with others.

OER may include everything from a single video or lesson plan to a complete online course or curriculum and also include the software platforms needed to create, change, and share the materials.

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They’ve also raised doubts about how many districts are truly willing to jettison commercial texts—which publishers pitch as offering something close to comprehensive, one-stop assemblies of content—with open materials, which educators in many districts often spend hours vetting and customizing to meet their classroom needs.

Yet a number of districts are keen on giving large-scale adoption of open content a try.

One district taking the leap is the 49,000-student District of Columbia system, where teams of educators and administrators have been assembling open resources in English/language arts for at least six years now. Those materials have been in circulation among other districts across the country.

“For a long time, there was very little coherence in OER,” said Brian Pick, the district’s chief of teaching and learning. Increasingly, supporters of open resources are recognizing the need to make connections across topics, or the “importance of what happened the day before, and what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

The alternative is a “random delivery of lessons,” he said, which is “probably not the best approach for kids.”

Expanding an Idea

Open educational resources are typically defined as materials that either live in the public domain or are created through open licenses—in many cases issued by the nonprofit Creative Commons—that allow them to be shared and altered however users want. Open content is generally housed online, though educators routinely print out whatever lesson they need for use in classrooms.

Efforts made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put course materials online about 15 years ago are often credited as ushering in the open-content movement, which gradually migrated into K-12.

Today, attempts to scale up the use of open educational resources from supplemental to core academic content are playing out on several fronts.

One such effort is being led by K-12 systems like the District of Columbia public schools, which has sought to customize content to teachers’ needs and deepen their understanding of academic material by giving them a role in developing it.

The District of Columbia schools’ work developing open resources was initially supported with a grant from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program seven years ago, and the school system has continued to devote its own money to sustaining and improving that academic content. The district made its materials available to other K-12 systems, and it’s had some takers, including the Denver public schools, which recently adopted its English/language arts curriculum for grades 9-12.

Denver officials like the idea of being able to revise the open curriculum as they see fit and share ideas with District of Columbia officials, which they’re already doing, said Erin McMahon, the associate chief of academics and innovation in the Colorado system.

“It becomes a living document, not something that’s static,” McMahon said. “It can expand or contract, based on the needs of the student.”

At the state level, Utah has crafted its own open resources that span different grade levels in science, math, and English/language arts. Those online materials appear to be luring a broad audience with far-reaching needs. The biggest downloads of the open middle-school math offerings tend to happen at the beginning of academic quarters, suggesting educators are loading up on content for the months to follow, said Maggie Cummings, a math instructor at the University of Utah who has helped lead the project. Some educators use the content as core academic resources, while others use it to supplement existing lessons.

With the math curriculum, Utah officials have tried to give teachers a “framework—a way to organize their entire year,” Cummings said.

Other attempts to fashion large-sale open resources are being tried by both nonprofit and commercial organizations through platforms designed to allow users to assemble open resources on their own, in either small chunks or wholesale ways.

One example is OER Commons, a platform launched in 2007 by the nonprofit Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. It allows teachers, librarians, curriculum specialists and others to download, remix, and share materials, and build lessons up to the equivalent of full textbooks, with curated content drawn from about 350 different providers. The platform also has built-in features designed to help educators work together in groups, and form “hubs,” or more structured communities of practice, said Lisa Petrides, the institute’s founder and CEO.

The hubs, which offer discussion forums, analytics, and administrative dashboards, are a paid service, with revenues supporting OER Commons’ development, Petrides said. The platform’s other offerings are free.

The goal with large-scale open resources should not be simply to “replace an old textbook with a new one,” Petrides said. Instead, the process should lead educators to work together to create and improve full scopes and sequences of lessons that make sense to them, and boost the “capacity of teachers to strengthen their teaching,” she said.

Some commercial companies, meanwhile, are trying to give schools and teachers the ability to build big pools of resources with a mix of openly licensed and proprietary content.

For instance, Follett, a provider of print and digital content and educational technology, is planning to launch a new version of its Destiny platform that allows districts to put together customized collections and playlists of academic content, said Nader Qaimari, the president of the company’s school solutions group.

Most of the material will come from commercial sources, though some will be open, he said. The open resources will be listed in a separate tab within the platform so K-12 officials can identify them easily, he said.

The company is “agnostic” on whether the content originates from commercial or open sources, Qaimari explained. “If districts and schools feel that open educational resources are valuable, then we’re going to provide [them].”

Effort at Open Up Resources

Probably the most ambitious effort to expand the scale of open educational resources is being led by Open Up Resources, which has vowed to compete with commercial publishers for RFPs issued by districts looking to buy curriculum.

Open Up Resources offers a core math curriculum for grades 6-8, which is being piloted in six districts, and the organization is making a major push to expand in new K-12 systems during the 2017-18 school year. The math curriculum is available to districts for free, and they are charged for support services such as professional development, printing and delivery of materials, and access to phone and online help.

The organization’s bet is that the savings districts nab on the free curriculum will easily offset the cost of any services they buy—producing a big bottom-line savings.

Many open educational resources have required infusions of outside funding, typically from philanthropies—and Open Up Resources’ plans call for it to rely on foundation funding to support its growth. Revenues from the services the organization sells will pay for ongoing improvements to its materials. But when it designs curriculum from scratch, Open Up will still need outside support, most likely from foundations, said Larry Singer, Open Up Resources’ CEO, who is a former executive at Pearson.

Open Up Resources hired Illustrative Mathematics, a nonprofit led by William McCallum, who was a lead author of the Common Core State Standards for math and is on leave from his post as a mathematics professor at the University of Arizona, to develop its math curriculum. And Open Up recently announced a partnership with the nonprofit EL Education, which will provide an open English/language arts curriculum for grades K-5. EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, is known for providing content to EngageNY, a hugely popular set of open resources created by the state of New York.

Even educators who love open educational resources grow frustrated with the “Pinterest” nature of searching for and choosing from individual lessons created in isolation, McCallum said. Yet they’re also wary of the process in use in many districts, where there is a “completely prescribed” curriculum.

The pitch made by Open Up Resources and Illustrative Mathematics “represents a medium between those two,” McCallum said.

The commercial industry has some formidable advantages over Open Up Resources, Singer said, including a deep and talented sales force keenly familiar with K-12 buying processes. Yet districts that grasp the nature of Open Up Resources’ offer find it appealing, he said.

“It turns out no one really cares about it being free or costing less,” Singer argued. “Their first focus is, ‘Is this the right content to help kids learn?’ Educators care first about delivering a good education.”

Commercial publishers have for years devoted major resources to professional development and other support services that many open resource providers are only now recognizing as essential to districts, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ PreK-12 learning group.

Diskey believes commercial providers are better suited to meet the diverse state and local demands for content than open education providers are. But he rejects the idea that districts face an “either or” choice in selecting commercial products or large-scale open education materials.

The U.S. market has nearly 14,000 districts buying curriculum and other services, which leaves plenty of space for commercial and open providers with myriad business models to prosper, he said.

Questions about whether Open Up Resources will succeed or fail are off the mark. “It will probably do both,” he said. Whether open-resource providers can bring materials to scale “depend(s) on what they think ‘scale’ is.”

One district giving Open Up Resources a shot is the Buncombe County school system, in North Carolina. It has been piloting the curriculum over the past year.

District officials had been using a commercial math curriculum but grew frustrated because educators found it wasn’t covering North Carolina’s state standards as fully as they hoped, recalled Stefanie Buckner, math curriculum specialist for the 25,000-student system.

Teachers had pieced together some materials on their own and had used Illustrative Mathematics’ tasks to help, which led to the district agreeing to a full pilot.

Illustrative Mathematics math lessons are presented in an “interwoven way” that connects individual topics and concepts more than many commercial texts, Buckner said. The district is considering adopting the curriculum across all middle school grades next academic year.

“It’s very clear that Illustrative Mathematics started with a big picture and a blueprint before they started writing lessons,” she said. “It’s a coherent approach—it’s all there.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as Scaling Up Open Resources


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