Oct. 5, 2021
Well into their third pandemic-impacted school year, students around the country are contending with both personal and collective trauma like never before in their lifetimes. They’re watching complex political issues play out on the national stage of an increasingly divided country and attempting to make sense of them in their own communities and contexts. There has seldom been a greater need for high quality, accessible, and inclusive instructional materials to help students understand themselves and the world around them.
And yet, many instructional materials remain outdated, inaccurate, and deeply biased. A New York Times story from 2020 illustrates one example of how proprietary textbooks can vary significantly from state to state in both content and framing—even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to political and historical events. This year, state-level efforts continue to legislate representations of people of color and LGBTQ+ people out of textbooks, upholding the white, eurocentric lens that has long been central to pre-K12 instruction.
A recent report by New America explains another set of factors contributing to the issue: widely convoluted adoption processes, districts’ limited capacity to develop and curate new materials, and schools’ lack of time to prepare teachers to implement them well all contribute heavily to the persistence of exclusive and irrelevant materials. To make matters even more challenging, pandemic-induced online learning has exacerbated the need for better materials while also demanding the majority of schools’ time be spent on addressing urgent and unexpected health and safety matters. Both the need for better materials and the capacity to deliver on it are unprecedented.
One possible tool for meeting this moment—and sustaining inclusive learning down the line—is open educational materials, or OER. Unlike proprietary textbooks, OER are licensed with a Creative Commons license, making them free to use, adapt, and share. These materials typically live in online repositories, such as OER Commons, but don’t need to be used digitally; they are free to download, print, and use offline. Though still relatively niche, OER are already used by a number of states and districts maintaining their own repositories, which took off after the launch of #GoOpen, a federally-funded effort by the Department of Education to increase access to quality materials.
While traditionally conceived for higher education as a tool for mitigating rising textbook costs, OER present great potential for addressing logistical and financial challenges in K12 districts. They have taken hold particularly over the past year as online and hybrid learning models have demanded new methods for instruction and content delivery. Many educators turned to OER at the start of the pandemic when schools had to abruptly shift online with no plan for getting physical print materials to students. Before and outside the pandemic, the accessibility of OER make it a useful tool for supplementing textbook content broadly.
Aside from technical advantages, the ability for OER to be adapted and shared makes it a useful tool for creating culturally responsive content, or that which represents, reflects, and respects students’ lived experiences. Where educators are often bound by the examples and framing in proprietary textbooks, OER can be adapted by anyone and reshared for others to use. This means that a science teacher in Oklahoma, for example, might take a set of geometry word problems that were developed in California, and adapt the examples to reflect local geography or history. In this way, teachers can access the concepts and sequences necessary to meet standards and personalize them in ways that make them engaging and relevant to their own students. When someone creates content in this way and re-shares it under an open license, others can then use both the original and adapted versions. OER is an iterative tool; each use builds on what has already been created.
Despite an increase in awareness over the pandemic, however, OER remain much less known than some paid, unvetted sources, such as Teachers Pay Teachers. Part of the reason for its relative obscurity is that OER comes with its own challenges; adaptation and curation take time that many teachers don’t currently have. Ensuring content is vetted, aligned, and high quality also requires time and knowledge. What’s more, adapting content to be culturally relevant requires a knowledge and understanding of topics that not all teachers are prepared to engage with. Professional learning opportunities must go hand-in-hand with scaling up OER to equip educators to not only adapt the content to their students’ needs, but then engage students with it, too.
At school, students are desperate for content that is engaging and relevant to their lives. Often, where textbooks and traditional content stops short, they’re seeking information to learn about themselves and the world around them outside the classroom with very little guidance. By investing time and professional learning into preparing teachers to both better understand culturally relevant pedagogy, and to use OER as a tool for teaching it, schools could support students where they often need it most.
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