Rethinking teaching and learning with OER

Blog Post
July 10, 2018

Twelve months ago when I joined New America, my charge was to build and sustain momentum around the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) in PreK-12 schools across the country. I had just wrapped up a fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education where I led an initiative that supported educators as they transitioned from traditional textbooks to OER, or materials that are free to download, modify, and use. This movement provided a catalyst for school districts to reconsider their traditional textbook adoption process, but it had yet to reach even a full 1% of school districts in the U.S.

I was first motivated to do this  work in 2007 when I taught Kindergarten in Omaha, Nebraska. I welcomed 20 students into my classroom, 16 of whom were English language learners, and simply knew that the district-issued curriculum would not be sufficient for their learning. Like many other teachers, I found myself spending countless hours outside of teaching looking for additional instructional materials— all so I could help meet the needs of my students and make learning relevant.

Several years later, I joined the Nebraska Department of Education where I supported 245 public schools in urban, suburban, and rural settings as they worked toward developing robust digital learning environments. As I worked with districts on their strategic plans and professional learning around bringing devices into the classroom, it became apparent that access to digital content and curriculum would need to happen alongside digital hardware upgrades.

From my own experience searching for resources, I knew that OER was the way to go.

From my own experience searching for resources that I could use with my students, and my experience supporting districts in this regard, I knew that OER was the way to go. And luckily, teachers, instructional coaches, curriculum directors, and other educational professionals had been developing an abundance of OER—not only individual lessons and activities, but also full curricula, courses, and other professional learning resources.

But knowing they exist did not make them easy to find or implement. The curriculum procurement process in PreK-12 schools is entrenched in tradition and often dominated by publishing companies with large marketing budgets. OER represent a collective, decentralized movement without a marketing budget, so districts don’t consider them.

The education field is slowly starting to recognize OER as a viable option for instructional materials.

Three years after the launch of the national initiative to grow PreK-12 OER, the education field is slowly starting to recognize OER as a viable option for instructional materials. But there are still many challenges to address. Over the past twelve months, I sought out explicit focus areas around OER implementation, while sustaining momentum for broader awareness.

The first and most important focus area is building awareness. The national initiative was started by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology in 2015 and is often considered a “tech” initiative. But in reality, OER should be part of larger conversations about curriculum and instruction. These resources have the potential of helping districts rethink the goals of teaching and learning, implement new instructional models, empower teachers as subject matter experts, and provide timely and relevant materials to use with students. New America launched an In Depth site to provide basic information about OER, recognize districts across the country using OER, and provide a curated list of resources for getting started and professional learning. Our hope is that this In Depth broadens the conversation, shows the many uses of OER across the country, provides resources to get started, and continues to build awareness.

The second focus is discussing quality of content. OER has been largely driven by the contributing community, and because of that, content has continued to improve as the open license allows anyone to revise content to make it more dynamic, localized, and updated. There have also been more comprehensive curricula made available with an open license, such as Illustrative Mathematics. In January 2018, Ed Reports, an independent nonprofit that reviews K-12 curricula, reviewed the 6-8 math program and gave it one of the highest rated scores for any series. It happens to be OER and can be procured by a district for free, as well as further customized to meet the needs of their students.

The third focus is developing a core group of stakeholders to sustain momentum. The stakeholders involved already are diverse in roles and locations—state leaders, district administrators and teachers, researchers, nonprofit organizations, and foundations. New America and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) worked to bring together a vibrant mix of these stakeholders at two separate convenings this past year to focus on mentoring and support structures, sustainability, policy, and research. Together, this coalition committed to concrete action items that will continue to advance OER in the coming years.

From the New America ISTE convening.

OER has incredible potential in the hands of PreK-12 educators across the country and it is my goal to continue building momentum. As I reflect back on a year’s worth of work, I simply see the hundreds of faces of educators with whom I’ve worked alongside. I see district leaders making critical decisions about instructional materials that their teachers will implement in classrooms with populations of students that are incredibly diverse. I see teacher leaders doing the hard work of unpacking standards, discovering resources, and serving as subject matter experts to make decisions around materials that will best suit the needs of their students. I see OER as a way to rethink teaching and learning.