Open Educational Resources: High-Quality, Empowering and Free

Open educational resources are proving to be an effective way for educators to access high-quality digital instructional content. But skeptics have concerns.

by / April 13, 2017

In this series on educational technology game changers, I focused my first blog on one-to-one computing initiatives. Next I'll look at open educational resources (OER), because once all students have digital devices, they can access digital OER. From what we’ve learned so far from school districts using OER resources, the outcomes are promising.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (early philanthropic OER investors) defines OER as "teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others."

Additionally, OER proponents highlight these benefits:
Equity – All students can have access to high-quality learning materials.
Content is relevant and high quality – Districts need no longer deal with outdated textbooks.
Empower teachers – Teachers can adapt and customize their learning materials.
Save money – OER content is free.

Budget conscious educators find OER attractive because it is free. But as a colleague of mine used to say, “free” can also mean “free like a puppy” — implying there are significant hidden costs. For teachers, carefully evaluating and curating these no-cost resources can be very time-consuming — and even more so if they have to construct the content themselves.

There's an additional concern when teachers rely on OER content: They need a fully structured, end-to-end course scope and sequence, not just a few good lessons. OER skeptics doubt teachers’ have the ability to both curate their full standards-aligned curricular content and also teach it. OER skeptics also believe that curating and teaching are two distinct skills, that curriculum development is a complex field where most teachers aren’t experts, and they suggest these important content selection tasks are best left to curricular specialists.

Some districts that are moving away from purchased textbooks and transitioning to OER agree, at least partially, with the skeptics’ views. Mentor Public Schools in Ohio hasn’t purchased print textbooks since 2012 and is a lauded OER success story. A recent Hechinger Report opinion piece by Mentor’s superintendent outlines why Mentor chose to go the OER route — and it wasn’t primarily about saving money. Rather than put the burden of OER content selection on individual teachers, the Mentor district has a central team of content experts who do that heavy lifting. 

The 2017 Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) K12 IT Leadership Survey Report provides insights into current OER status and near-term intentions. Almost 80 percent of the responding school districts say OER is currently a part of their districts’ digital content strategy, according to the report. Over the next three years, 22 percent said their shift to OER would be substantial or total, while 36 percent said proprietary (purchased) content would become their primary or only digital content. Forty-three percent project their districts will have a 50/50 balance between OER and proprietary content.

All of these numbers are consistent with CoSN's 2016 report, so the OER landscape hasn’t changed dramatically in a year. But given that the districts CoSN surveyed identified mobile learning as their top priority for 2017, it will be interesting to see how mobile one-to-one computing influences the use of OER in coming years.

Realizing that OER development requires significant effort and expertise, various high-profile government and nonprofit entities are getting on board to help. Some are promoting or funding the cause, while others are assembling teams of content experts to develop high quality OER content for schools. Notable players include:
#GoOpen – The U.S. Department of Education offers support for districts’ transition to OER and has released a helpful #GoOpen District Launch Packet.
Open-Up Resources – A nonprofit offers a full K-12 Math curriculum, with a K-5 English Language Arts program in the works. 
CK12 – A nonprofit founded in 2007 offers strong STEM-focused OER content.
UnboundEd – A nonprofit with an ambitious agenda for its English Language Arts and Math curricula.
OER Commons – An established nonprofit that pulls together wide-ranging OER content from 350 unique providers. 

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.