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Pressing The Reset Button On OER

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As a longtime advocate of Open Educational Resources, my early experiences with OER in the field have altered my perspective about the most effective way for districts to Go Open. Being a proponent of educators sharing both wins and fails, I would like to share our experiences, along with the strongest opportunities that I currently see to expedite this work in schools.

In my district, we hoped to be at the forefront the OER movement, given its potential to drive teaching & learning to new heights, while also saving districts money over time. We loved the core principles of the OER movement: teacher collaboration in the development of materials, and the opportunity for continuous improvement of materials as "the wisdom of the masses" would drive higher quality iterations over time.

Our First Crack at OER in 2012

Starting in 2012, we began an annual Summer event which we called The Massachusetts Digital Publication Collaborative, intended to kickstart our OER work, and the OER work of other educators from around our region.  We brought teachers together for collaborative time, "to work together by content area to curate and create digital resources, materials, lessons, and assessments." Our expectation was that we would plant a seed during these Summer workshops, and that teachers would continue the collaboration during the school years that followed.

Unfortunately, this didn't work out as we'd hoped.  

At the workshop itself, we found that our teacher teams had a hard time getting started. The creation of new curricular materials sounded like a cool opportunity to our leaders, but it felt like a daunting challenge to most participants. A few outliers grasped the work out of the gate, but most participants struggled with how and where to get started.  While it seems obvious in retrospect: curriculum development isn't in the course material at teaching colleges. The model most educators were trained in included a textbook as the main curricular resource. By taking the traditional textbook away, we were asking teachers to do unrealistically serious stretching. Few left feeling that the work of constructing new materials from scratch was easily attainable.

One factor that supports this view is the fact that after the workshop, we found that teachers weren't returning to the project during the school year. I'm sure the main culprit was time - we hadn't dedicated time for the work, and of course time is an educator's most precious resource. But the capacity gaps were probably also a factor. Ultimately, the seeds we planted didn't blossom into many new materials during the school year that followed.

Where We Went Wrong

As I reflect on what the Go Open movement can learn from our experiences, I think we underestimated the capacity-building that needed to be done with teachers to get them comfortable creating curricular resources. In addition, we needed to give more consideration to the limited experience that teachers have in collaborating due to the traditional structure of most schools. We have spent too long giving teachers a script and were shortsighted in thinking that suddenly asking teachers to begin improv would be a recipe for success.

So, what could a better approach look like? I think we need to provide a bridge for teachers. Rather than saying, "Please curate units or curricula from scratch using openly-licensed inputs," we will get better, faster outcomes if we say, "Here is a template: a set of materials to use as a starting point. Please collaborate on ways to improve these materials, and/or ways to create engaging student experiences around these materials."  Such scaffolding feels like the right entry point for teachers - and the best way to use OER as a catalyst for capacity-building.

A New Starting Point for OER Efforts

With this evolving lens on OER, the new critical question becomes: where can districts find  scaffolded-yet-open starting points for collaborative teacher work?

I've been intrigued by the debut of Open Up Resources (formerly the K-12 OER Collaborative), a new, nonprofit provider of openly-licensed full course curricula which will be published under the most flexible license - CC BY - allowing districts to improve the materials as they are used. In fact, a group of districts will be helping to improve the materials this year during a year-long pilot.  The program provides an OER starter kit with materials have been authored by experts like Bill McCallum, the respected standards author and founder of Illustrative Mathematics.

In addition, Open Up Resources plans to build a national community of educators using the materials, with platforms for collaboration and sharing. This could be a very promising springboard; it's a starting point that even our new teachers could access with success. I'll be following the nonprofit's work, and will keep an eye out for comparable materials.

In the meantime,  remain an OER optimist. I believe we can utilize openly-licensed materials to improve the way we do business. I simply think the path will be different than we first imagined. In fact, as materials emerge that allow districts to adopt entire OER curricula - then layer on improvements - OER could spread more powerfully and rapidly than we first anticipated.

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