Cultural Relevancy meets Open Education

New Guidance for Teachers and Content Creators
Blog Post
Nov. 30, 2022

Research shows that students learn best when they have educational materials that reflect their own backgrounds and open windows for seeing people who are different from themselves. But where do these educational materials come from? How do teachers find them? And could the use of openly licensed materials help fill the gaps?

These are the key questions at the heart of this year’s two-part webinar series: Creating Culturally Responsive Materials with Open Educational Resources. The series, hosted by the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property (PIJIP) at American University in partnership with New America, was designed to highlight the advantages of open educational resources (OER) and how they can help in the quest for educational materials that are culturally relevant to today’s students.

The first webinar, Beyond Commercial Publishing, began with a summary of a recent New America report about research on the representation of social groups in U.S. educational materials and why it matters. The report’s findings align with Rudine Sims Bishop’s framework where “mirrors” reflect students’ own daily experiences and “windows” expose students to other cultures and contexts. When materials are high quality and teaching is done well, students learn about language, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and cross-cultural knowledge; and build identity when they learn about societal expectations of themselves and others. Research findings indicates that outcomes include enhancing student engagement, improving academic achievement, supporting learning a variety of subjects, and influencing career interests.

And yet the reality is that the frequency of racial and ethnic groups are under-represented in educational materials, or that if they are shown, the portrayal may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Meredith Jacob, Project Director of Copyright and Open Policy at American University said that the economics of publishing, which favors a “one-size-fits-all model,” and the current system of copyright restrictions make it unlikely that publishers can shift to meet the need for more nuanced, tailored, or individualized materials.

By contrast, Jacob said, “openly licensed resources can be one way that educators, who are already putting a lot of effort into creating individualized resources, can work within this ecosystem to create resources that are broadly shareable and enable collaboration.”

Jacob explained how creators of OER will need to draw on materials in the public domain (those created in 1925 or earlier); use materials that have Creative Commons licenses; and be aware of how to use “fair use” regulations to pull information into educational resources.

The second webinar, Examples and Implementation, delved into more specifics and helped show what the process looks like. It pointed out, for example, that a teacher could use an New York State archive on immigration that includes many public domain images from 1880 to 1930, images that are old enough to be in the public domain. But teachers who would want to teach, say, about the Chicano movement of the 1960s would need to rely on fair-use policies, which would also be relied upon if teachers wanted to include stories and photographs from the students’ families.

Speakers at the second webinar included education leaders in two states — Pennsylvania and Virginia — who have helped teachers use and develop resources to support the needs and interests of students, designing them so students can see themselves reflected in the materials.

“In Pennsylvania, OER initiatives are very much a grassroots movement,” said Becky Henderson, curriculum services supervisor at Westmoreland Intermediate Unit. Some are district wide and others are happening in small pockets with teachers who are passionate about OER. Regardless, Henderson said, the commonality is that educators use OER to support the needs and interests of students, and design resources so that students can see themselves reflected in the materials. Her work supports school districts and help them make sense of digital and physical resources, and how OER aligns with goals and existing projects.

Jean Weller, a retired educational technology specialist with the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, made a similar point that relevant learning is key to engaging students and getting them excited to learn. (One example is the Woodson Collaborative, a hub of open materials for teaching African American and Virginia history that Weller helped to jumpstart in Virginia. It was developed by groups of educators, scholars, and museum curators over the past two years to bring more accurate and relevant materials to classrooms.) “We think this revitalizes the teacher too,” Weller added, “because it gives them a chance to have a creative say in how they go about getting their students engaged.”

The webinar series ends with many resources to help educators and creators get started. Amee Godwin, a senior advisor for the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, highlighted OER Commons, a public digital library of open educational resources, and noted that ISKME provides professional development to K-12 and higher education classrooms, and supports networks including #GoOpen National Network and K-12 Open Voices. Recently a subgroup of K-12 Open Voices members created OER-DEIA Action Plan for K-12 District Implementation a series of informational sections and reusable templates aimed at supporting district leaders and educators in creating structures, making decision and plan, and advancing new strategies for integrating open educational resources and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), as a comprehensive approach to improving teaching and learning for all.

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