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Open Licensing Is Changing the Way Teachers Find and Use Instructional Materials

By Nicole Krueger
September 21, 2018
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On a cold January day, a teacher from Ethiopia braved the snow to visit Mountain Heights Academy in Utah.

He wanted to personally thank the faculty for making their curriculum openly available online. Unable to afford instructional materials for his all-girls school back home, he’d been relying on the Utah school’s content, which was free, rigorous and better than anything else he’d found online.

Director DeLaina Tonks was stunned. Less than two years ago, her charter school had opened its doors with a commitment to use all open education resources, or instructional materials that are freely available for the public to adapt, modify and redistribute. She’d been skeptical of founder David Wiley’s vision: Pay teachers to build their own curriculum, and then share it with the world for free.
No one, she thought, was going to want content from some podunk school in Utah.

“You have your dreams, I’ll run the school,” she told him.

After months of intense instructional design work, the faculty published their first year’s worth of curriculum online and used the materials with their students. Then they promptly forgot about it – until the educator from Ethiopia showed up at their door.
Caught off guard by her visitor from the other side of the world, Tonks checked the analytics on her school’s website.

“I sat and cried with ugly sobs,” she says. “There were hits from just about every country in the world. Everything David said was true.”

Seven years later, open education resources (OER) have progressed from an idealistic vision to a growing global movement. Schools from around the world are turning to OER when money for textbooks just isn’t there. In the United States, more than 20 states and 110 districts have pledged to support the use of OER in their schools, and some have begun developing and sharing their own textbooks and curricula.

The proliferation of open resources has dramatically shifted the way teachers approach instructional materials. Just 20 years ago, 98 percent of teachers used published textbooks at least once a week. But that’s no longer the case, says David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Today’s teachers curate a blend of instructional materials, supplementing formal published curricula with online and self-created materials. Around nine in 10 elementary and high school teachers report using their own materials, or those developed by colleagues, on a weekly basis.

But the OER movement isn’t just about using free resources, which may or may not be copyrighted. The term specifically refers to educational materials that are openly licensed. Like open-source software, OER exist in the public domain so users can remix and redistribute them at will. Initially, most OER consisted of worksheets, lesson plans and learning activities; that scope has increasingly broadened to encompass full textbooks and comprehensive curricula.

The mounting demand for OER is just one small part of a much larger trend toward the open sharing of digital materials. From opensource software to Creative Commons licensing, creators are increasingly choosing to release their endeavors to the public so they can be used and improved upon for the benefit of all. Some even consider it a moral imperative.

From a global perspective, OER can be a lifesaver for impoverished schools, allowing unprecedented access to high-quality learning materials such as textbooks, curriculum and lesson plans.

“OER are a game changer in the equity paradigm because they do provide a level of access where previously there were cost barriers to get good, robust content for kids,” Tonks says. “A lot of schools have to rely on self-made materials because the cheapest things they could buy are textbooks that are 25 years old. I do think OER push the envelope in the equity arena.”

The rise of OER

Mining online resources for classroom use has been a common practice ever since teachers got their hands on the internet. They just didn’t have a name for it.

“Teachers do it every day, whether we know it or not,” says Jeanette Westfall, curriculum director for Liberty Public Schools in Missouri.

OER didn’t reach public consciousness, however, until one school decided to buck prevailing material values and give away its product for free.

When MIT announced in 2001 that it would release nearly all of its course materials to the public, it astonished many people – including the school’s president, who admitted in a press release that he wasn’t expecting his team to come up with such a bold and innovative plan.

The announcement made waves in the education world. By the following year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had convened the 1st Global OER Forum. The term OER, and the movement surrounding it, was born.

The push to open up K-12 educational materials to the public domain didn’t catch on stateside until 2010, however. The newly minted Common Core State Standards had just arrived on teachers’ doorsteps. Their adoption thrust schools and districts across the nation into a quandary, since most of the instructional materials available at the time were poorly aligned to the rigorous new standards. As teachers scrambled to meet the demands of the Common Core, some states and districts started developing and using open resources.

New York was one of the first. With $700 million in grant money to spend, the state developed its own comprehensive curriculum aligned to the new standards and made them freely available online. Louisiana later used New York’s materials as a springboard to develop its own course content, and the OER movement began picking up steam, although it still existed primarily in small pockets in schools and districts across the nation.

Then the U.S. Department of Education launched its #GoOpen campaign in 2015, encouraging educators to use OER. Some states, such as Michigan, took up the banner. Districts across the country began reconsidering their traditional textbook adoption process to give OER a seat at the table.

As more states and districts invest in creating their own instructional content, OER advocates are calling for policy changes to support this new landscape of educational materials. Many districts still adhere to outdated policies that insist all teacher-created materials belong to the district, preventing teachers from sharing their work outside their school community. OER advocates are working to change that, which is why the U.S. Department of Education now requires all copyrightable intellectual property created through its discretionary grants to be openly licensed.

Despite the momentum around OER, fewer than 1 percent of U.S. school districts have joined the movement so far, says Kristina Ishmael, who led the #GoOpen initiative as the K-12 open education fellow at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. Now a public interest technology fellow at New America, she continues to work toward helping that number grow.

“I firmly believe in the power of OER,” she says. “Not only is it putting resources that can be localized or customized into the hands of students, but I also see what it’s done for teachers. They have license and control over what materials are being brought into classroom. They’re not just handed a textbook and told, ‘Here you go.’ ”

Enhance or replace?

If you visualize OER as a spectrum, Mountain Heights Academy stands at one end as an extreme example of a school that has eschewed publisher-created materials almost entirely, replacing them with openly licensed textbooks and curricula.

The vast majority of schools and districts fall somewhere at the other end of the spectrum, where individual classroom teachers supplement the established curriculum with OER lesson plans or activities found online. A growing number of schools and districts have begun venturing toward the middle, using some combination of traditional textbooks and teacher-created OER.

“In our state, we have some pockets where we’re trying to use online textbooks or resources to drive the digital 1:1 transformation, but I don’t think it’s ever going to replace publisher content,” says Michigan educator Jennifer Parker, co-founder of the 21things Project, a series of websites for free and open professional learning resources for educators. “It would be major shift in paradigm for teachers to leave textbook behind.”

Even in schools that encourage the use of OER, teachers might still opt for traditionally published content. Sometimes they don’t have the time or expertise to create their own. Sometimes it’s not worth the effort. Materials for a class such as keyboarding, for example, don’t need regular updating or customization, so it doesn’t make sense to pay teachers to reinvent the wheel.

Using OER isn’t about going all in or all out, says Westfall, whose district allows teachers to choose whether to buy a textbook or create their own. It’s about widening access to educational resources so teachers can choose the most effective materials for any given learning objective.

“We’re trying not to make it about the resource,” she says. “We’re always in search of the very best resource that fits the learning.”

Proponents of open resources tout a range of benefits. Teachers get more control over the materials they use. Schools can update their curricula every year rather than waiting a decade or more for the next textbook adoption. Unlike copyrighted materials, OER can be easily adapted to local standards and customized so they’re more engaging and relatable for students.

With OER, “I have the ability to empower teachers to make those decisions at the level closest to the kids,” says Ben Churchill, superintendent of Carlsbad Unified School District in California, where teachers asked him to put the customary textbook adoption process on hold two years ago so they could compile their own instructional materials. “They have the expertise and the passion.”

But there are also pitfalls. Since the concept is still relatively new, open resources can be hard to find. Although repositories such as OER Commons have cropped up to gather OER into one place, many remain scattered across the web. They often lack clear information about who created them or when they were last updated.

Whereas proprietary textbooks are created and thoroughly vetted by experts, OER don’t always come with credentials. Because of this, teachers often don’t trust OER in the same way they trust their textbooks.

As a librarian who serves on the committee that approves curricular materials for the state of Utah, Carrie Rogers-Whitehead isn’t as sold on OER as many of her colleagues.

“It’s kind of a Wild West right now,” she says.

Her biggest concern is inclusion. Although open resources don’t have to be digital, to maximize their potential for remixing and reuse, many of them are. And while their availability is helping to move the needle on equity for many schools, their digital nature means they can also widen the equity gap for students who don’t have internet access at home.

“As a librarian, I would see students all the time who didn’t have access in their home to computers or the internet, so they couldn’t do their homework,” she says. “One of the most concerning things about digital materials is they can exacerbate inequity between students.”
Many of these problems can be addressed during the vetting process. When Utah State Board of Education Curriculum Content Specialist Alan Griffin evaluates open resources, he uses a special rubric to scrutinize materials based on three key areas:

• Is the content aligned to state standards?
• Are the materials accessible to all students?
• Do they incorporate pedagogical tools such as teacher guides, lesson plans and assessments?

Saving the world – not money

While OER by definition are freely available for anyone to use, it’s a mistake to assume they don’t come at a cost.

Creating OER requires a deep investment in teacher time and development, and the transition to a comprehensive open curriculum can take years. Even schools that adopt existing materials still need to put work into vetting and aligning them with their standards. And many teachers need support and training to use open resources effectively in the classroom.

While OER can save districts millions in textbook purchases, a significant portion of those savings end up getting reinvested in teachers and the infrastructure to support them – at least in the beginning. Liberty Public Schools, for example, uses the money it saves on textbooks to provide professional learning for teachers.

“What we’re doing is taking out the middleman,” Westfall says. “Our issue isn’t the money. Our issue is: Is this the very best we can give our kids? Is it making our teachers stronger or weaker?”

Advocates argue that OER make teachers stronger because it requires them to flex their instructional muscles. While traditional textbooks have their advantages, plug-and-play curricular materials make it all too easy to go on autopilot. The process of aligning open resources to state and local standards can help wean teachers off the widespread over-reliance on textbooks in the classroom.

“Our educational culture is built on the fact that the textbook drives instruction. We have a long way to go to get people to realize the standards need to drive instruction,” Parker says.

For Tonks, the point of transitioning to OER has less to do with cost savings and more to do with saving the world. By freely sharing her school’s materials, she hopes to improve the lives of children across the globe.

Copyrighting educational resources “doesn’t fit into the paradigm of the future, which is based on sharing knowledge,” she says. “If it betters the world and accelerates the learning process for hundreds of thousands of other students, why not do it?”

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Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.