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The OER Landscape has Something for Every District

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This is a guest post by Matt Miller, Superintendent of Mentor Public Schools in Ohio. 

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Patrick Larkin began a deeply important national conversation in Pressing the Reset Button on OER. Every Big New Thing in K-12 education deserves authentic dialogue, and I applaud Patrick for the straight talk about his early experiences with Open Educational Resources. I want to continue that conversation. 

At Mentor Public Schools, we have also been early adopters of Open Educational Resources (OER), and we similarly collaborated across districts in our OER work. With our fellow members of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, we kicked off what became known as the COW Project: a California-Ohio-Wisconsin collaboration with Vista Unified School District (CA) and Kettle Moraine School District (WI). Middle school teachers collaboratively developed units of study for social studies and science classes, designed around a project-based learning approach that incorporated cross-district student collaboration. I've been truly inspired by the team's work.  

When I talk about the COW Project with other districts, I get a range of reactions: from "Tell me more so I can try that," to "That's great, but I don't think we have the capacity to do that kind of work. Maybe we're not ready for OER." I want to speak to both perspectives because, like Patrick, I see OER options for districts on every point of this continuum. 

Our Takeaways About OER Curation

In year one of the COW project, we selected middle school teachers and instructional coaches to collaboratively develop course materials in social studies and science. They kicked off the project with a three-day in-person work session in July 2015, and continued to meet virtually via Google hangout every one to two weeks. Ultimately, the project team developed several units of study, as well as helpful skill-based content, as detailed in this ASCD Case Study.  

This year, we've expanded the project and "2COW" includes additional teachers, all developing science and social studies materials. 

What did we learn along the way? Our main takeaways:

  1. Culture Is Key. We told the project team that we were open to failing, as long as we failed quickly and course-corrected, which gave our teams the comfort to do pioneering work. In the words of Jayne Miller, one of our science teachers: "Our leadership said, 'If you make mistakes, you make mistakes,' and that safety was important. If things didn't work out, we had an opportunity to fix them."
  2. It's All About the Right People. Arguably the most important thing we did was focus on selecting teachers and coaches that we believed would be successful in course material creation, and motivated to do it. Our observation echoed Patrick Larkin's insight: not every teacher will find this work to be comfortable out of the gate.
  3. Time Is Essential. We built time for the initial collaboration and preserved an abundance of time throughout the school year for project work.
  4. Subject and Grade Selection Matter. We chose subjects - social studies and science - which are easier leaping-off points for OER than highly Standards-intensive subjects like Math and ELA. One thing that didn't go smoothly in our first year: our initial COW team was mixed-grade, ranging from sixth to eighth, which was sometimes a challenge. As a result, we've organized 2COW to include only eighth grade teachers.
  5. Collaboration was the Real Catalyst. Over time, the team came to see the collaboration - between teachers and student-to-student - as the most impactful part of the project. Social Studies teacher Sean St. Hilaire says, "In 2COW, we're less focused on the end project, and more focused on the collaboration." The team found that they needed to coach students on how to collaborate virtually with peers - yet doing so paid large dividends for our students.

Under the right circumstances - which include meaningful district support and investment - I've seen firsthand that OER curation can lead to powerful shared assets and professional learning.

Accelerating OER Use by All Districts

Now, what would I say to those districts that say, "I'm not sure that I'm ready to take on a COW Project?"

I get it - the COW Project's approach is leading-edge, and it requires investment and attention to the conditions I've described. In addition, some districts strongly prefer to use materials that come with third-party validation. 

Yet I'd tell those districts: there are OER options for you, too. Here, I strongly agree with Patrick's conclusions: the biggest opportunity for OER to take off comes with the arrival of strong curriculum-scale OER. 

Districts now have options to adopt high-quality OER curriculum as a baseline, using it as a springboard for collaboration. Our district is intrigued by the new Open Up Resources curricula; the nonprofit's focus on math and ELA brings content to the Standards-intensive subjects. Further, we can get validation on the materials from the districts participating in their beta, and eventually from EdReports reviews

My favorite aspect of Open Up's plans: the intention to create a national community of educators using the curriculum. The idea of math teachers supporting each other in the use of the new content, as well as shifts in practice, seems incredibly promising. We'll be reviewing these and other strong curriculum options as the OER landscape develops.

OER's Breakout Moment in K-12?

After seeing the power of OER - and collaboration around these materials - in Mentor, I am excited to find ways to accelerate its use, within and beyond my district.

To support districts curating materials, the COW Project districts will continue sharing our insights. We will also explore promising curriculum-scale materials, in hopes that new options help us go faster. I believe that any district can find options worth exploring somewhere on this OER continuum.

I don't see OER as a cure-all - in K-12 education, there is no such thing. Yet it feels clear to me that the new OER options represent improvements on the way that we have been doing business. I'm excited to continue this national dialogue, in hopes that more districts join the conversation.

Matt Miller is the Superintendent of Mentor Public Schools in Mentor, Ohio. He serves as a member of the advisory board for the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools and was named one of the National School Board Association's "20 To Watch" in 2016.

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