How open educational resources are coming of age

Keys to personalizing and sustaining open educational resources in your school district
By: | Issue: January, 2020
December 16, 2019
Among the benefits of open educational resources in Liberty Public Schools in Missouri is that students now have  access more recent resources than traditional textbooks.Among the benefits of open educational resources in Liberty Public Schools in Missouri is that students now have  access more recent resources than traditional textbooks.

Experimentation with the benefits of open educational resources is over at Liberty Public Schools 53 in Missouri, and the materials are now an essential component of everyday teaching and learning.

Administrators, like leaders in an increasing number of other districts, give Liberty’s teachers the open educational resources option when a subject or grade level is due for a new textbook adoption.

If teachers choose open educational resources, they must work together to create a three-year plan on how they will spend funds that would otherwise have paid for textbooks.

Among the benefits of open educational resources, is shift toward real-world learning and students’ use of authentic, primary sources, says Jeanette Westfall, executive director of curriculum, instruction, and staff development.


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“In our district, it’s about threading in passion-based learning, which you can’t do with a prescribed scope and sequence or when assessment scores are constantly shoved in your face,” Westfall says. “We don’t hate textbooks, we just want the best materials.”

Benefits of open educational resources: Multiple perspectives

Open educational resources have matured to become more than digital substitutes for textbooks; educators are now leveraging open licenses to make instruction more learner-centered, says Kristina Ishmael, senior project manager for education policy at the think tank New America.

The benefits of open educational resources are materials that promote diversity, equity and inclusion by selecting OER that offer new perspectives or feature authors and characters of color, Ishmael says.

List of OER resources

If you’re just diving into OER—or looking to build your collection—here are some suggestions:

  • Achieve the Core: Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) to analyze OER textbooks and other primary resources.
  • EdReports to check on supplemental materials and to winnow down OER choices.
  • Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) Rubric: criteria to gauge alignment, instructional supports, and assessments.
  • CommonLit, a collection of free reading passages in both literary and non-fiction genres.
  • Match Fishtank, a set of free OER curricular resources in social studies, math, and ELA.

“This approach to instructional materials emphasizes other perspectives, and offers a mirror in which to see ourselves and also a window to view into the lives of others,” Ishmael says.

In a Colorado district where Ishmael is consulting, middle and high school educators are creating an inquiry-based English language arts curriculum around three themes: identity, community and culture.


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An instructional design team is curating videos, learning prompts, worksheets and other open educational resources that lead students to ask critical questions, such as: “Who am I?” “What are my struggles?” and “What am I contributing to my community?”

In such a process, teachers can customize open educational resources to make activities more relevant to students. Adaptations might include using students’ names instead of generic ones to personalize questions on a worksheet so that students can see themselves in the problems, Ishmael says.

Teachers can also add artifacts and events specific to the region. For example, in Broken Arrow Public Schools in Oklahoma, educators teaching a unit on erosion replaced photos in an online science course with images of a mudslide that occurred on a local interstate.

Liberty Public Schools 53 in Missouri—a mostly affluent, homogeneous student population—uses open educational resources to encourage students to understand communities of color and other identities.

Meanwhile, in Garnet Valley School District near Philadelphia, ninth-grade social studies open educational resources were designed to teach students the similarities between major religions. The module includes videos, a sample quiz previewing the topic, and an activity in which students pair up to discuss what they’ve learned.

Open educational resources allow educators in Liberty Public Schools to create blended lessons that incorporate ed tech and also feature both digital and traditional resources.

Open educational resources allow educators in Liberty Public Schools to create blended lessons that incorporate ed tech and also feature both digital and traditional resources.

Finally, teachers in San Diego’s Grossmont Union High School District, which has a large ELL population, have seen the benefits of open educational resources when they’ve been able to choose culturally relevant materials in the students’ native languages that also cover experiences relevant to communities of color.

“OER is where we will be able to provide multiple perspectives and be sure we are discussing multiple identities,” Ishmael says. “Customizing material is easier when it’s openly licensed.”

Open educational resources examples: Choosing lessons à la carte

To reap the full benefits of open educational resources, teachers must collaborate to align the new lessons to state standards and to design the related assessments, says Anthony Gabriel, who, as former supervisor for learning, development and professional growth, spearheaded the adoption of open educational resources at Garnet Valley School District.

“It’s about reinvestment, reallocation and changing our systems—to put the money where it matters,” says Gabriel, now the director of learning and innovation at Centennial School District, north of Philadelphia. “Instead of spending $80,000 on social studies books, we said, ‘Let’s pay the teachers, provide them with professional development and let them do the work.’”

Four steps for adopting OER

Anthony Gabriel, director of learning and innovation at Centennial School District, suggests:

  1. Establish student learning goals.
  2. Collect OER materials that fit the outcome.
  3. Periodically review OER with teachers and curriculum designers.
  4. Revise every two to three years, at a minimum.

Also among the benefits of open educational resources is that educators can adapt the resources to support learning outcomes for specific students.

Typically, teams of teachers, instructional experts and ed tech specialists discuss what students should know and be able to do in a subject. They may write the curriculum, search for OER materials, and then evaluate tools to determine which align with standards and learning expectations. Once approved, materials are classified and integrated into a unit lesson.

Openly licensed materials are also stored in a digital library hosted on the district website or shared online in other forums, such as the OER Commons. The resources then require ongoing updates and revisions to ensure hyperlinks are still active, and content remains relevant.

It is also crucial to make sure all OER components, such as video or animation, work with district devices. Issues may also arise if websites containing the OER are blocked by a district filter or policies.

Thus, educational technologists and IT staff must be involved in OER adoptions to confirm that materials are available offline and, if not, to provide internet access to students when a live connection is required.

One Garnet Valley social studies teacher with whom Gabriel worked felt the available textbook was costly, and the one-size-fits-all approach didn’t align with her classroom goals. “I told her,

‘Let’s spend this year building out the curriculum with a scope and sequence and set of skills and outcomes for kids that you believe are worthwhile,’” he says. “‘We’ll go à la carte and pick resources to match your curriculum.’”


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