Navigating the Floodwaters of Open Education

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Don't get me wrong, books are great. Without them, Don Quixote, Huck Finn and Harry Potter would be anonymous figments of somebody's imagination. To Kill a Mockingbird would just be a really messed up thing for a hunter to do. Steal This Book would be…well it just wouldn't make any sense in Kindle form.

Books are important and a shelf full of them can look pretty smart. But what's inside them never changes. Educators who use the same texts year-in, year-out fully understand the implications of this fact, especially those in cash-strapped school districts that can't afford to update texts on a semi-regular basis. Indeed, if you are teaching from a history book that still refers to Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain, chances are it's been awhile since you've gotten a new shipment.

By contrast, the ever-evolving, constantly-growing, and bottomless compendium of knowledge available on the internet is valuable beyond quantification. The opportunities for education, enrichment, and enlightenment are functionally infinite. But of course, the other thing in infinite supply on the web is distraction. There's a lot of noise out there, and that cacophony can be quite overwhelming to the senses.

That makes the work of 21st Century educators exceptionally challenging.

An article in EdWeek estimates that there are thousands, possibly even millions, of free Open Education Resources (OERs) available to districts, schools, teachers, and students. While this is obviously a good thing, navigating them is not the easiest undertaking. Opportunities for access, enlightenment and personalized learning abound. But winding your way through these opportunities in search of the best and most optimal ones could be a full-time job in and of itself. (Most teachers I know aren't exactly rich with spare time.)

The internet is an unwieldy beast of words, pictures, sounds, videos, interactive games, and conveniently placed product plugs. There is no obvious start-to-finish way to approach education as mediated by the web.

So while the idea of using online educational resources to teach may seem like an obviously beneficial one, how best to yield these benefits can present a serious challenge to educators. Add in the pressure to align these resources with federal or state-mandated curricular standards and many teachers may view OERs with a mix of fear, suspicion, and hostility.

So how do educators make the most of what's available to them without tumbling down the virtual rabbit-hole? We'll do our best to tell you. But first, a little background on OERs.

What Is Open-Education?

Edudemic defines Open Education Resources as “learning tools like textbooks, lesson plans, and other media that are in the public domain or openly licensed, meaning that use you can freely use and adapt them. Unlike online resources that are free but not openly licensed, you can adapt OERs as much as you like to your own needs, which makes them an infinitely flexible tool.”

For all the well-founded philosophical assessments that education must be more flexible, malleable, and individualized to be effective, OERs make this ambition attainable. “Open” does not just mean free and accessible, though these are critical features. It also means that the best resources can be readily molded, shaped, coopted, and combined to create lesson plans, reading materials, and activities wholly unique to any given classroom.

And yes, “Open” also implies free and accessible, which means that for some districts, OERs could be the key to bridging gaps created by economic disadvantage.

Replacing text books is not cheap. For many schools both in urban and rural districts where money is tight, a single edition may remain in use for more than a decade. An article at describes this plight in Idaho, a state which has been without legislative funding earmarked for text books since 2010. The article, written in February of 2015, noted that students at the Vera C. O'Leary Middle School were using a science book published in 1993.

This means that students are learning science from a book that was composed ten years before completion of the Human Genome Project, written by authors who had no idea what an iPhone was, and probably containing language suggesting global climate change is something with which our great-great-great grandchildren might possibly have to concern themselves.

In addition to the issue of funding for text books, the transition to Common Core presents no shortage of compatibility issues. Magic Valley reports that since Idaho's adoption of the federal education policy, it has faced difficulty procuring new texts that align with its curriculum. The district of Twin Falls describes itself as basically just laying in wait for its textbooks to catch up with the new standards.

But there is another option, one that does't deprive today's children of current and compelling educational experiences. A surface glance at just a cherry-picked selection of online OERs demonstrates just how readily education can be at once current, dynamic, and individualized.

Take for instance, America On the Sidelines, a resource that allows students to assume the role and responsibilities of generals leading combat troops in World War II. For starters, you can differentiate between conflict in the Asian or European Theatre. After that, your experience will depend on the strategies you employ and the decisions you make within the application.

Or check out Classkick, a free tablet application “that allows teachers to assign student work, see iPad screens, and provide feedback as students work. Students can also edit and provide feedback to their peers.” Not only is this a major time-saver for the educator, but it allows every student to work at his or her own pace and gives students the chance to ask questions privately and without fear of embarrassment.

Then there is Educreations, a mathematics-driven application employing an interactive white board and a process called screencasting. Available for free download on iTunes, this application allows teachers to record lessons that can consequently be repeated, slowed down for English-language Learners, or paused altogether so that students can approach an instructor with individual questions. The screencasting technology also means that students who are absent can still receive the same level of instruction as their peers.

These are just a few droplets in the torrent of open education resources available for free to teachers. These tools reflect the next generation of teaching strategies and are helping to make possible a level of personalized instruction that was largely unattainable only a few years ago.

Of course, the challenges to providing students and teachers with access to these resources are greater than just navigational. Most of us have come to expect Internet access, like electricity, running water, and movies with Bill Murray. We can't picture a world without these necessities. But at any given time, 1 out of every 4 Americans will lack basic broadband access.

The Digital Divide

Do you ever contemplate what life would be like without high-speed internet access? Sure, you've been forced to experience it for a few hours at a time when you're waiting for the cable repair guy to show up or you've forgotten to charge your phone before leaving the house. No doubt, you can recall the frustration, possibly even the disquieting sensation of being disconnected from the world.

Over 20 years, the internet has transitioned from novelty, to luxury, to convenience, to necessity. The advantages it provides have become so omnipresent they are taken for granted. And they mean so much more than Twitter feuds and emoji-grrrrrr-face laden social media updates from your friends stuck in traffic.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, access to goods and services via broadband internet saves the average American consumer roughly $8,800 a year. Young unemployed web users, said the AEI, typically find new work about 25% faster than their counterparts who are out there pounding the pavement.

Unfortunately, those in lower income brackets are also inherently less likely to have regular web access. A 2012 Pew Report says that while 90% of households earning between $50,000 and $75,000 have access, the number is something closer to 62% among households bringing in less than $30,000.

For young students in particular, this can present a major obstacle to remaining on pace with their peers in affluent school districts. According to the Pew Report, teachers in lower income areas reported that their students experienced more difficulty using educational technology than did teachers in affluent schools. Similarly, while teachers in 70% of high income districts felt they had adequate technology support from their schools, only 50% of teachers in low income areas felt this way.

According to the Pew Report, 54% of all teachers surveyed said that their students had adequate internet at school, which is low enough. More startling was the finding, according to the same sample population, that only 18% of students had adequate access at home. The survey revealed that poor school access is more common in urban contexts and poor home access is more common in rural settings.

These numbers suggest that the cyclical challenge of poverty and poor web access is varied and nuanced. It should give us some comfort to know, then, just how varied the opportunities for online education are today. There is a resource or set of resources out there for every population, if only we can ensure that each of these populations has the basic web access needed to make it possible.

Spreading the Fibre-Optic Love

The Obama administration recognized the role that rapidly evolving technology and Open Education Resources will play in making information more accessible, educational opportunities more diverse, schools more equal, and students more interconnected than ever before. With the 2013 ConnectEd Initiative, the President pledged that 99% of America's students would have “next generation broadband” by 2018.

Perhaps as you are reading this on a computer, smartphone, or tablet at this very moment, you are only just learning how many students are out there now without the ready ability to access the extraordinary body of information, knowledge, news, and viral kitty videos that are at your fingertips. Clearly, these students are at a disadvantage.

The White House notes that private providers like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, in collaboration with the FCC and the federal government, have responded to the president's call to action by pledging a combined sum in excess of $10 billion across the following five years. Bringing high-speed connectivity to rural and urban areas and specifically to school libraries, the White House projects that 20 million additional students will gain access in the coming years.

Many of the same private companies dedicated to expanding broadband accessibility have also contributed directly to the array of Open Education Resources now flooding the marketplace. Since these contributions strike us as particularly important to districts, schools and educators seeking out the resources that best suit their needs, here is the White House's list in full:

Tech Companies

Publishing/Media Companies

These private sector contributions combine with a redoubled focus on technology-driven education at the federal level. Most recently, the federal government established the Office of Educational Technology, which is contained within the U.S Department of Education.

In September of 2015, the Office appointed Andrew Marcinek as its very first open education advisor. It is his responsibility to lead nationwide efforts to improve and expand public school access to high-quality, openly-licensed learning resources. Marcinek will serve as the chief advisor to schools and districts working to make the most of the resources available to them. In the spirit of Open Education, he's on Twitter if you want to talk to him.

Given the enormous breadth and variety of Open Education Resources, the support of Marcinek and his Office could be the difference-maker for a school otherwise remanded to outdated books, over-stuffed classrooms, and over-extended teachers.

Make no mistake about it though. Mr. Marcinek has his work cut out for him, as do schools and educators clawing their way into the 21st Century. To be sure, students aren't the only ones who have a lot of learning to do. Much of this will be novel to educators and administrators as well. The new, evolving, replicating, and multiplying crop of OERs is as daunting as it is exciting. There will be a learning curve, and resistance, but there is simply too much to be gained from what's out there. Such is to say, resistance is futile.

Better to familiarize yourself with your options. But be warned, it is a veritable hedgemaze of opportunity.

A Guide to the Guides

Here's the thing. There are far too many and varied OERs in circulation to list here. Therefore, it would be misleading to call it a Guide to OERs. But there are a few legitimate OER Guides that can effectively start you on your way. So we humbly submit a brief Guide to the Guides for those of you who are at the beginning of your search. The following list of portals and resources is drawn directly from Edudemic, which also provides a brief introduction to the concept of OERs.

OER Guides

The School Of Open
A logical starting point, this portal provides free online courses, face-to-face workshops, and innovative training programs all directly pertaining to digitally-mediated open education. Learn what OERs are and how they work before venturing to pick the right ones for your students.

Creative Commons
Most reputable OERs will be licensed through Creative Commons, so this is a good point of reference as you try to determine whether a chosen resource is reputable and compatible with your needs. Creative Commons also contains a directory of websites that use their licenses to offer free audio, video, and images, making it a valuable portal for open media content.

Edutopia contains a pretty comprehensive guide to using OERs with tips on how to get started, current articles on the subject, and links to open lesson plans, activities, and texts.

Common Core Hub
In light of the challenges specific to ensuring that resources are aligned with Common Core requirements, this portal is a valuable way to forage for compatible OERs. The Common Core Hub points you to adaptable curriculum for English and Mathematics, and offers a group forum designed to find, curate, and collaborate around Common Core-aligned OERs.

Office of Educational Technology
For some idea of the resources that the federal government recommends (“recommends” being the operative word, and quite a far cry from the word “mandates”), take a look at this resource. Here, you can visit the site and provide some basic information about your district. In response, this tool will present you with a tailor-made collection of videos demonstrating real open education tools in action. This is intended as a primer as you make decisions about the OERs that are best for your needs.

A useful search engine driven portal for seeking out OERs specific to any given discipline and subject matter. Includes a personal dashboard that you can use to build and customize your teaching strategy from a host of texts, activities, and lesson plans.

This one combines its catalogue—containing “millions” of open and free collections, courses, and resources—with real-time analytics about individual student performances in order to help teachers and students track progress and assess needs. It also offers a community in which educators can share ideas and distribute their own Open Education Resources.

The NROC Project
Produces and curates educational course content specific to both Math and English. NROC also links to HippoCampus and EdReady for those interested in additional open tools for personalized learning.

iTunes Creating & Sharing Open Educational Resources
This one is for educators who have learned enough about OERs to create and share their own. iTunes and Apple Distinguished Educators have created a collection of “Multi-touch resource books designed to support educators who are authoring content and/or guiding learners who are authoring content for publication.” Explore existing OERs, curate a collection of those most valuable to you, and learn how to license and protect your own OER innovations.

Book and Literature Repositories

A growing number of sites offer access to constantly expanding databases of e-books and digitized texts. Edudemic lists a few of the leading resources:

Math and Science Resources

Edudemic also lists an array of sites specializing in free and customizable Math and Science resources:

Embracing Change (and Each Other)

Scouring the mighty web for the right resources can be intimidating. Fortunately, you aren't alone. The great thing about Open Education is that it must be community-oriented by philosophy and by design. Each of the forums listed here above provides not just access to a fast-growing wealth of resources but to any number of colleagues with their own unique experiences and knowledge.

Tap into those experiences, benefit from their knowledge, make the most of their support. Though the Digital Divide means that there will be wide gaps in the relative comfort that each of us has in navigating this technology, the current surge in OER development is new to all of us. And it will require contributions from everybody.

Another thing that makes Open Education so valuable (and beneficial in a way that aging books could never be), is its constant state of evolution. Today's students and educators will contribute directly to this evolution, molding educational strategies to meet individual needs, creating global forums for the exchange of ideas, and busting through the crippling limitations of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic inequality.

Truly, the emergence of Open Education portends dramatic change for traditional educators. Embrace the change. The unbridled possibilities are worth it.

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