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5 priorities for OER in K-12 Education

King's Cambell Park Elementary School visit

CC BY 2.0 / Source Flickr: US Department of Education

Yesterday, the US Department of Education launched the #GoOpen campaign to advocate and encourage use of openly licensed educational materials by educators and educational institutions. This is nothing short of, to quote Donald Trump out-of-context, HUGE. This is a landmark achievement in more than a decades' worth of work of hundreds of leaders in education and technology in this space. This also marks the beginning of a new era of educational publishing, one where textbook publishers and textbooks are not the centerpiece of our narrative. It is not going to be long before these ideas permeate education systems around the world, especially in places where cost of educational resources can have significant implications in access to K-12 education and beyond.

As we reflect on our journey so far and celebrate this success with DoE-branded cupcakes, we must take some time to reflect on the bigger challenges that lie ahead of us, primarily as they relate to K-12 education. We might want to consider resisting the urge to look at the product announcements of large technology vendors and nonprofit organizations to believe that the solutions to all our problems are around the corner. Many of these have existed in the past in some form or another.

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We have highlighted 5 key priority areas that we believe need to be addressed within the near future to magnify the implications of this policy advancement.

  1. Interoperability
    One of the biggest challenges that remains to be solved well is interoperability. Despite the existence of hundreds of thousands of well-indexed open educational resources (OERs) out there, it is still very difficult for teachers to make two resources in different formats made by different publishers work together. It is also difficult for education "remixers" and curriculum developers to bring these resources together and build consistent experiences for teachers. Interoperability goes well beyond simply formatting, although format and formatting are large glaring problems. The more complex problem is one of coherence. The question that we need to answer sooner rather than later is: how can we make resources built in different contexts for different audiences coherently serve a teacher who is using them for the first time?

  2. Local-need context based discovery
    Over the past 5-7 years, a number of different online repositories have made it easy to find and sift through hundreds of open resources that a user might find useful based on a keyword search or topic / concept drilldown. However, talk to the teacher who you are closest to and you will likely hear complaints of "not being able to find what I am looking for". This is a serious problem - one which we have experienced consistently. It remains very hard for teachers to find relevant resources in the context they teach in: the values of the school and classroom environments, the student demographic, the ELL needs, the sequence they are teaching, the instructional strategies, etc. Our priority must shift from mere shallow discovery of content to a more deeper context-based one, if we are to make lives of teachers and instructional coaches easier.

  3. Quality and rigor
    If our room is full of teachers fighting the good fight in classrooms day-in-and-out, and the speaker is an OER advocate, there is an elephant in the room. That is one of quality, alongwith rigor as it relates to alignment to standards and career and college-readiness testing. A large number of resources in the above-mentioned open repositories have not been vetted in very good ways, and completely fail to comply with proficiency expectations. Additionally, a large % of the resources in these libraries were created before states started adopting Common Core or NGSS or reformed state frameworks. Anyone who has a detailed understanding of Common Core knows that it requires a fundamentally new thinking towards development of instructional materials, and it is difficult to easily modify resources made for state standards of the past. So while "millions" of resources are accessible, are they really ones we want to see teachers use?

  4. Rethinking processes and curriculum planning
    A shift in the choice and nature of the physical resource artefacts schools, school districts and teachers will use in the classrooms requires a shift in processes around procurement, alignment and planning. In the past and for large parts today, textbook vendors sell perfectly coherent bundled programs with thoughtfully laid unit sequences, supplementary teacher materials with differentiated and paced activities, and rich student workbooks. In our new world of open remixability, early adopters are devoid of this luxury atleast in the near future, which many would argue is for good reason. Nevertheless, this requires districts to beef up their instructional teams and fundamentally shift their processes around planning and mapping curriculum to content, skills and assessment, and tying all of them back to the standards. All that while preserving teacher autonomy and putting student achievement at the center. There are no easy solutions or obvious pathways to doing this, at the moment.

  5. Participation
    Our story in the world of OER so far was driven by foundation or state-funded educational materials publishing with a goal to fill gaps of lack of open materials in different subject areas and grade levels. We have made massive strides there. But this was cognizantly done to bootstrap the movement, and recognizably an unsustainable endeavor. To make OER truly open and participatory, individual teachers would need to be able to create, collaborate and distribute as first-class citizens. This would enable an ecosystem where the needs of teachers are met by fellow teachers in a few hours, even if they are across the country. This is already happening in small pockets today; however the challenge remains amplification, equal access and reach. This shouldn't sound completely utopian: in the mid-90s, about a decade into the proliferation of open source software after the idea was first introduced, and even despite the lack of complex adoption processes in organizations, the most successful open source initiatives then were made by large tech companies. But that began to change once the foundation was laid and tools and processes were established. Today, an open participitory culture is far too ubiquitous.

While each of these problems is very complex and there are no easy answers, there is some good news. It's that despite the lack of an abundance of individual financial incentives at offer, several very smart, passionate and committed individuals are giving their 200% to solve these problems and more. This excitement is viral, and we couldn't be more optimistic and bullish about the future.

Which begs the question, what are you doing to #GoOpen?

ps. We will be writing another post in the coming week or so to discuss how OpenCurriculum is specifically planning to attack each of these problems

Varun Arora
Varun Arora is the Founder and Executive Director of OpenCurriculum