Open Source | February 2013 Digital Edition

How Common Core Could Breathe New Life Into OER

Will the new state standards push more districts to start using open educational resources?

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's February 2013 digital edition.

OER and the common core

If anyone had thought to recognize a K-12 educational buzzword of the year for 2012, it would surely have been "open educational resources" (OER). Ed tech media (including this magazine) has fairly hummed with the topic, largely with exciting predictions: OER would give cash-strapped K-12 educators access to high-quality tools and content for their classrooms at little or no cost. Openly developed and licensed learning materials would be infinitely modifiable. And they would, once and for all, make traditional textbooks a thing of the past.

Now, as the implementation dates for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) loom large, many districts are facing the need to buy new instructional materials aligned with the standards, and OER is a hotter topic than ever. The inventory of these open resources is exploding, and advocates such as the OER Commons and Achieve are providing districts and teachers with tools for determining the degree of standards alignment of these materials.

All of which raises the question: Why hasn't every K-12 district in the country jumped on the OER bandwagon?

The Digital Divide
Perhaps the most obvious impediment to universal OER adoption is the simple fact that open educational resources are digital resources. No student or teacher can use them without a computer, tablet, or at least a smartphone.

"You do need the devices to make the most of OER," admits Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director for Maine's Department of Education. "If you want to leverage the fact that it's digital and that you can change the content for the better, then 1-to-1 becomes essential. Why would a district invest in this kind of content if the students don't have access to the devices necessary to leverage it? You can't even flip your classroom and do Khan Academy stuff without a computer, because you can't guarantee that the kids will see the videos."

Of course, schools lacking 1-to-1 programs could do what Utah did and simply print out open source textbooks. About 10 public high school science teachers in that state employed this strategy for the 2010-2011 school year. The textbooks were adapted from materials developed by CK-12, a nonprofit foundation that, according to its website, "creates and aggregates high quality, curated STEM content." Although some of the approximately 2,000 students using the materials were able to access online versions via laptops and iPads, most received printed versions, which they were free to mark up and physically modify. The state reportedly expects the strategy to cut curriculum costs by about 50 percent.

Although he views it as a step in the right direction, Mao believes that Utah's approach fails to take advantage of the essential value of OER. "The cost savings in a situation like Utah's is significant," he says. "But it's a short-term thing, a first-blush adaptive strategy. OER isn't just about providing a PDF of the book. It's about creating compelling digital materials that can be customized and improved over time."

"Open" Doesn't Mean Free
It's no surprise that Mao is a strong advocate of OER. He oversees the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), which was launched in 2000 by then-Gov. Angus King to implement the nation's first statewide 1-to-1 laptop initiative. The MLTI is now one of the country's largest educational technology programs.

In fact, the state of Maine is currently finishing work on its own first contribution to the growing catalog of open resources for K-12: an eighth-grade, Common Core-aligned math curriculum. Developed by Alex Briasco-Brin, a math teacher in Maine's Freeport Middle Schoo, "Eighth Grade Mathematics and Then Some" evolved over about a decade in a 1-to-1 classroom. In addition to text-based materials arranged in chapters, the program includes iterative applets designed to allow students to explore mathematics and discover numerical relationships.

The program has proved its effectiveness, Mao says. Before it was in place, about 50 percent of the eighth-graders taking a math placement test at the end of the year ended up in remedial classes the next year. Today, more than 90 percent of Briasco-Brin's students pass the exam and move on to algebra or beyond.

Of course, getting this promising program up and running required a significant initial investment by the school district. Briasco-Brin needed time to organize and refine his materials, so Maine gave him what amounted to a sabbatical: a year in the state's Distinguished Educator program. The state reimbursed his district for the full cost of his salary and benefits while he worked full-time on the project. That arrangement allowed the school to hire a long-term substitute to cover his duties. Mao estimates that the total cost was about $86,000.

Mao himself has also invested many hours of his time and tech talent in the project, which has involved rekeying text materials into a WordPress blog, as well as additional programming refinements using the GeoGebra math learning software and the Chipmunk Basic programming language.

"It's true that OER is not free up front," Mao allows. "Whether it's developed by a CK-12 or a cadre of dedicated educators, there will need to be an investment. But in our case, for example, we'll never have to invest that sabbatical year again. Alex's program is already being modified by contributing teachers. Soon it'll just live as an open source, iterative project that will be honed by a vast crowd of educators and keep improving over time."

Building an Open Source Ecosystem
Maine's upfront investment points to another impediment to using OER: the lack of a clearly defined business model. And yet, Geoffrey H. Fletcher, deputy executive director for the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), believes that a model may be emerging. (Fletcher is a former editorial director of T.H.E. Journal. He left the magazine in 2010.)

"My vision of OER isn't that there will be a bunch of teachers sitting around Saturday morning over coffee at somebody's kitchen table, coming up with lessons that they're turning into a digital textbook," Fletcher says. "Most of this material is likely to originate with entities like CK-12, an enterprise focused on developing open education materials. Then the teachers will be the ones who modify it and take it further. They won't often be the originators, but rather, the coauthors."

What Fletcher is describing is the open source software model, which makes source code available with a license that allows others to study, change, and distribute it--usually with the requirement that they share their changes with other users of the code. Open source software is free, of course, but companies make money on it by providing support and services apart from the software itself. Fletcher points to Red Hat, which supports the open source Linux operating system, and Moodlerooms, which supports the open source Moodle learning management system, as examples.

The comparison of OER with open source software raises another issue: Open software projects that thrive in the enterprise tend to have regulating authorities in place. Organizations such as the Java Community Process, the Eclipse Foundation, and the Apache Software Foundation provide market stability by establishing licensing and standard technical specifications, which also provide sure footing for developers.

Fletcher believes that the CCSS could offer at least a starting point for the development of such an ecosystem. "The Common Core gets a lot of people on the same page," he says. "It could be a unifying factor, and even an accelerator. But we'll need an alternative business model for all this. That's something we don't have right now. We're still stuck in the one-book-per-student-per-subject-area-per-grade-level modality. If we can break that apart--and I think we can--we can grow the market. We can grow new sectors of the instructional materials market that include services--such as professional development--that really focus on the Common Core Standards and provide not only the content to teach those, but also opportunities for teachers to learn about alternative ways to do those things."

Maine is in the process of developing a kind of ecosystem in the form of a multistate cooperative purchasing initiative. At the heart of the initiative is an alliance with other states through the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) to cooperatively purchase educational technology. The MLTI has published a request for proposal accepting bids for "equipment and services to empower a wireless, student-centered, digital learning environment that provides students with learning technology on a one-to-one basis." So far, Hawaii and Vermont have agreed to participate.

"What we're recognizing with this initiative," Mao explains, "is that if Maine remains the only state with a significant 1-to-1 program, then we'll be the only ones creating OER content like the math program we just built. Why would a district invest in trying to build this kind of content if their kids don't have access to devices to leverage it?"

The Evolution of Publishing
The concept of free textbooks for all is enticing, but where do the established textbook publishers fit amid all this openness? According to Chris Goodson, senior vice president of corporate affairs and social responsibility at textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH),"When we talk about these things, I find that there's this embedded assumption that the rest of the content community is standing still, while OER is moving and progressing." He sees that assumption as a red herring, adding that, "There's a lot of innovation among the textbook publishers in conjunction with, in parallel to--and, in some cases, on very different avenues from--where the OER pieces are going right now."

Goodson says that companies like HMH are addressing the changes in educational content technologies by evolving into learning services organizations. He says that it's more than just a branding exercise--it's an acknowledgement of market changes. HMH, for example, includes a leadership and learning center that focuses on change management, leadership management, teacher effectiveness, and professional development. Other groups within the company focus on teacher-to-teacher professional development, English as a second language, and other niche education markets. Goodson also points to his company's interest in Big Data and analytics processes that aggregate information to provide what he calls an "actualized adaptive learning platform."

"This [Big Data analytics] is something the big learning companies are going to be best positioned to take advantage of," he says. "It's a way of providing better resources, professional development, and learning experiences."

Another advantage that the old-line textbook publishers claim to have in abundance is credibility. "Whether we're talking about a textbook or content on an iPad, there are a certain number of muscles and talents that underpin those resources," Goodson says. "Those types of skill sets don't become less valuable. The research, the pre-evaluation of the book with experts on learning theory and pedagogy, the reviews of the materials at colleges of education, and then the checking of the efficacy of these materials in classrooms before we ever go to market with the product. These things continue to set us apart."

Goodson also disputes the claim, often heard among OER advocates, that certain subjects, such as math, don't need expensive, revised textbooks. "It's challenging for me to think of instruction ever becoming static," he says. "It's one thing to say that two plus two will always equal four. That's a fair statement. But as we look at active learning theory, gamification, adaptive learning, and different methods and modalities…it's hard for me imagine that someone will ever write the end-all be-all math book that will never need to be changed."

Mao from the MLTI begs to differ. "The truth is, if you look at what's in a Pearson algebra book and a Houghton Mifflin algebra book, they're not really that different," he argues. "There's not a heck of lot of deep scholarship at work here. Algebra has been around for eons. We all know what it is. The methodologies are the same, the concepts are the same."

But doesn't a teacher like Briasco-Brin who creates an OER math curriculum, for example, necessarily build upon decades of content developed by the big publishers? "I fully respect the work that (the textbook publishers) have done and are doing," Mao responds. "Traditional textbooks are examples of content and pedagogical knowledge interplaying with each other in the PCK sense--a subset of Mishra and Koehler's Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework. The publishers are now beginning to explore and create new preparations that would be more in the full TPACK realm by publishing not simply in a digital format, but by leveraging the technology."

Mao agrees that the complete PCK or TPACK that a publisher presents in a traditional book or digital form is proprietary, but "as far as algebra goes, none of us are really doing much there to extend and deepen that field as it relates to what we teach in the K-12 space." He contends that the emergence of OER is part of a nascent but fundamental shift in the way content for K-12 education is created, distributed, and consumed. And it's a change to which the textbook publishing industry will need to adapt.

"If the publishing industry is scared, that's good," he says. "They should be. It doesn't mean they will go away or that we don't need them anymore, but it does mean that they will need to think hard about how to leverage OER, the internet, and crowdsourcing. If the publishers play defense, they will lose out, because distribution and content creation/assembly is no longer the problem--and those are the things they do really well.

"What we need are better platforms that allow for ease of iteration of content in order to provide personalization and customization for individual learners. We need better platforms that leverage data to help connect learners to the right content. What the publishing industry needs to do is to help all of us become better publishers. That's a service I think people would buy."

A Tool for Aligning OER With CCSS
How can educators evaluate whether the open educational resources (OER) they're using are aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? That would be a tougher question to answer if it weren't for the efforts of two organizations: Achieve and the OER Commons.

Achieve, a nonprofit group supporting standards-based education reform, collaborated with leaders in the OER community to develop eight rubrics designed to help states, districts, and teachers evaluate the quality of instructional resources. OER Commons, an online repository for open educational resources, developed an alignment-and-evaluation tool to apply those rubrics to the learning objects on its website. One of those rubrics focuses specifically on the degree of alignment of a learning object with the CCSS.

The alignment-and-evaluation tool, available here, can be applied to any resource in the repository. The list of rubrics and video instructions on their use in the alignment-and-evaluation tool are available here.