What Are Your Thoughts on OER?

Gooru Learning recently posed the question, “What are your thoughts on OER?”, and given our role in OER systems development and research over the last 15 years, generating a comprehensive answer seemed like a valid exercise. 

Diagram of OER Providers

OER can be an emerging key ingredient in helping all schools and all teachers formulate a more rich and diverse learning environment for students. OER can help negate some of the last remaining expenses standing between students with need and a quality education, yet can add expenses elsewhere if not thoughtfully approached. Today’s openly available learning resources have been technically designed for easy integration, and can often be readily adapted to suit a given teacher’s instructional styles and strategies. For many skilled teachers, a key piece to creating rich learning experiences lies in finding and assembling materials, snippets of content, demonstrable examples, targeted video segments, and the like to best help students with initial context and understanding of concepts, processes and development of skills in which they have limited prior knowledge. How does one simplify a square root? How did transcontinental travel transform regions? What are comparative equivalents to the space between electrons and their nucleus? How can you structure and produce effective descriptive writing? Who was Alexander Hamilton, and why has he become so popular?

Many of our team members and our technical colleagues around the nation have focused largely the last decade on solving issues around sharing and discoverability. In order to help teachers find, and utilize resources, the work of making things more discoverable digs deep into establishing extensible taxonomies and schema, data structures and sharing protocols that work to better catalog and transmit information targeting:

  • Where the native OER materials/content is stored?
  • What the native OER is in terms of file-type and/or object type?
  • Who the OER was designed to benefit in terms instructor guidance (lessons, curriculum models, units) or direct student learning support(manipulatives/interactives, learning content, assessments)?

Much of this work from the educational technology community has been underpinned by the belief that a highly discoverable, well designed and adaptable ecosystem of learning resources, with complete metadata specifications that can transmit resource information to external platforms or environments supporting educator communities of practice, will compel the education community at large to move towards increased use of OER as a core content source. This is a tricky assertion, and requires continued examination of how teachers are conditioned to consider, select, and integrate new types of learning resources. The technology and teams working to create more quality open learning resources and content along with tools to better integrate them into strong instructional practice and online content, are certainly holding up their part of the deal as the quality and adaptability of OER continues to improve. However, a key shift that will open more classroom doors to OER use comes in the form of designing tools to better integrate the teacher as the lead orchestrator directing the use and instructional design of the resources. Research we have been involved in producing and using to inform OER tool development for educators along with research published by the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access (SCLDA), along with findings of top researchers Kurt Squire and April Luehmann.

Consider just a handful of the projects, programs, and agencies working to help teachers create inspiring and dynamic learning content and experiences with their resources. Along with our partners at SCLDA,  we spent years observing, assessing, analyzing, and applying the needs of teachers in combination with student use of digital resources to integrate the nation’s most rich collections of objects, artifacts, and expertise from their partner museums with tools to allow the practitioners and learners to structure their own learning experiences.

Smithsonian Learning Collection – Transcontinental Railroad

Similar efforts from teams we know at the National Archives have resulted in their specific learning site Docs Teach, matching their historical documents and media with activity tools, along with the Digital Public Library of America team that has amassed over 20 million objects freely available for classroom use.

There are also programs working to aggregate and distribute more quality resources expressly for education like the great folks at OER Commons and CK-12 who have expanded their collections and curriculum organizer tools. One of our favorite aggregators, OpenEd has nearly a half million free, designed resources aligned by standard, grade, and curriculum element. And then there is specialized content like the popular TED series that has now combined with instructional tools and supporting media as an extended education platform TEDEd Lessons where their materials can be modified and personalized by teachers or students directly.

Of course the widely used Khan Academy is a go-to for many students wanting to learn and practice pin-point skills along with more continuous, adaptive learning sequences that can be integrated as whole parts of a given curriculum – and obviously Gooru for prompting this write up today and providing great work in this space for almost a decade now.

Curriculum Institute – led by Jodi Halligan 

The path to getting more high-quality, appropriately designed OER to students, will inevitably involve teacher adoption and practice, despite all other issues technical or otherwise. Where we have seen OER best managed and integrated within daily teacher practice have been programs that apply a format of Curriculum Development-as-Professional Development. Cohorts of teachers are focused on specific curriculum development using identified repositories along with materials of their own. The cohorts are networked with common tools and processes as a community of practice where the resulting OER infused curricular products are then shared as readily usable, direct resources for all teachers within the district or state. These deeply structured curriculum models present the larger teacher community with “classroom ready” resources that also serve as blueprints for the use of OER.

This is a powerful framework for learning-design that blends teacher exploration and experimentation, building digital resource familiarity and use, and weaves in a teacher’s individual instructional skills and natural inclination to create robust learning activities with their peers. In California, we spent years implementing and refining this Curriculum Development-as-Professional Development. To help integrate the use of OER into strong career ready instructional practice across secondary, and now postsecondary programs. As a purely voluntary community of practice, CTE Online now hosts over 100,000 CTE and STEM educators that are involved in creating or adapting curriculum models that exclusively use OER as the primary content for delivery of instruction. CTE Online Overview Video.

The ongoing evolution of OER has much to do with technical efforts related to specifications like LRMI or SKOS, or research from iNACOL, or in testing LTI integrations with PowerSchool or Canvas Learning Management Systems for a district. But OER is clearest to us, and holds more promise when we see rooms where the time and expense has been forged to gather:

  • 30 middle school teachers across various disciplines looking at increasing PBL in their school, or
  • 40 postsecondary instructors working with 35 secondary instructors on increasing OER integration into grades 9-14 sequenced pathways.
  • A handful of K-2 teachers from the same school working on Next Gen. Science Standards-based assignments
Allison Frenzel, Windsor High School Teacher – Curriculum Writing Institute

And in these instances, we continue to hope to see resulting curriculum examples that integrate resources from NASA or EdSitement or Merlot or the California Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students, where the resulting models are documented and shared out for use with Google Classroom, or as open and eloquent learning content/activities with Smithsonian’s Learning Lab or OER Commons or Gooru or distributed via LTI through Canvas or PowerSchool, etc. This is how OER can eventually become the principal source of compelling, quality, diverse resources that helps make sure all learners have access to exceptional content regardless of their income or community. And on our team, we tie the continued growth, distribution, and efficacy of OER commensurate with equitable access to high quality education and an inextricable piece of preparing students with 21st Century learning skills required in both academia and industry. 

So in short, what are our thoughts about OER?…Simple. It is important to be clear on what you’re looking for and knowledgable about what’s available and how it works.

It is also more complicated than providing lists of digital resource sites, playlists, or collections of online materials sequenced with basic tools to distribute digitally to students. Educators need annotation tools to blend their pedagogical strategies with the OER, and agencies need the means to manage and observe the OER being used, the methods by which the instructors frame the OER use, and the eventual ways the learners apply the OER and instructor’s treatment successfully or not, to mitigate learning needs. Falling short of this approach wont prevent any one system or agency to move forward with an OER-rich/ text-book free coursework implementation that reduces the overall financial expense to the learner. That can happen independent of the fidelity we’ve alluded to above, yet there will be an additional expenses gained for those that were lost. It is the expense of not knowing what is being delivered, not knowing how it is being delivered, and not knowing what models are bearing the greatest results. And that is an expense none of us can afford.