Open Learning | Q&A

Running a School on Open Educational Resources

Open educational resources are a mainstay at Open High School of Utah, a Salt Lake City, UT-based public charter school that opened its virtual doors to students in 2009. Free for students, the institution was founded by David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University and the founder of OpenContent.org.

Wiley said he wanted to create a school that relied completely on open content for its instructional subject matter. His vision is playing out successfully at Open High School, which gleans about 90 percent of its coursework from such resources. Teachers are given six to nine months to gather materials and develop their own curriculum before presenting the content, which is housed entirely on the Web and accessible to users on a 24/7 basis.

Being one of the first high schools in the nation to rely almost entirely on open resources has been both challenging and rewarding for the staff at Open High School. Here, DeLaina Tonks, director, discusses the school's OER strategies and reveals how the innovative institution works through the challenges associated with open content.

Bridget McCrea: You were last interviewed for THE Journal in 2010, roughly one year after opening the school. How are things going?

DeLaina Tonks: We have grown quite a bit since then. We're up to nearly 400 full-time students and some part-time pupils as well. We're serving grades 9 through 12, versus just ninth grade, and our faculty has also grown along with our student population. Over the last two years we've also gotten a little better at figuring out how to effectively and efficiently use and build open educational resources.

McCrea: How much of the content is open at this point?

Tonks: It's about 90 percent OER because there were some courses that we just didn't have the capacity to build out in an open manner. Advanced Placement courses, for example, have to be approved by the College Board. We still create those types of courses in a traditional manner--mainly by purchasing them--but the rest of the instructional content is open.

We may build the AP courses ourselves down the road or explore online concurrent enrollment options once our core classes and electives are built up.

McCrea: How is the content developed?

Tonks: We use the state standards and Common Core as our framework. The development itself has been an evolutionary process: The way we're doing it now is not the same way we did it in 2009.

Initially we used instructional designers to gather the content for us. We then provided it to the teachers to use in their virtual classrooms. The problem is that the designers didn't know what kind of content would be most engaging for students. To alleviate this issue we switched our model and began having teachers build the curriculum. They have six to nine months to go out and find what they can from sources like CK-12 and OER Commons. They then align existing resources to the standards and build anything that is missing. There is an ongoing, data-driven curriculum improvement process that ensures that students needs are being met.

McCrea: What else happens before the open content is presented to students?

Tonks: Our curriculum director ensures that there's articulation between all of the modules and that the content is consistent for the student. This helps to ensure that we're not just throwing a bunch of resources into our learning management system and saying, "Okay, students, find your way on your own--this is sink or swim." Everything is purposefully articulated so that students know the paths that they're supposed to take. Once the courses meet this requirement they are activated in Moodlerooms [joule], our LMS, for students to access.

McCrea: A lot of people equate open content to free content. Is there a difference between the two?

Tonks: Open content is not to be confused with free content.

There are open educational resources that are free, but there are also copyrighted materials that are not free. Basically the "open" part of the equation means that the content itself is modifiable. You can get in there and adapt the content to fit the needs of your school or your students.

McCrea: What are the hard parts of being a virtual school that relies primarily on open content?

Tonks: Right now there is no shortage of open educational resources. There are literally thousands--a number that's climbing upwards into the millions--to choose from. As you can imagine, this is both a blessing and a curse. It's as if a bunch of people dumped their "toolboxes" all over the garage floor. The hard part is going in and picking up each piece, assessing it, and deciding if it's the right tool for what our teachers are trying to accomplish. To work through this challenge we rely on our curriculum director to sift through our list of approved resources and figure out which of them has the best, most relevant content for the project at hand.

McCrea: What would you say to other schools that want to integrate OER into their curriculums?

Tonks: Screen teachers and make sure that they are tech-savvy. Don't reinvent the wheel--you don't have to build everything from scratch. Look around at what's out there and use it as a framework for your own curriculum development. Finally, make the content as interactive and engaging as possible. No student wants to be glued to a bunch of text, whether it's on a computer screen or a worksheet on the desk. They want something that's interactive and that's delivered in small, manageable chunks, content that meets their need for flexible, student-centered learning.

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