Open Educational Resources

Vetting OER for the Common Core

Karl Nelson is the director of the Digital Learning Department for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Karl Nelson is the director of the Digital Learning Department for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). In this Q&A, he talks about how his state is using open educational resources (OER) to help support Common Core State Standards.

The OSPI's OER Project was launched in 2012, when the Washington Legislature passed HB 2337. According to Nelson, the legislature saw OER as a chance to both save districts money and improve instructional material quality, so it directed OSPI to identify a library of openly licensed courseware aligned with the state standards. The legislature also asked OSPI to provide guidance to school districts using OERs.

THE Journal: What strategies have you used to support districts’ use of OERs?

Karl Nelson: We've reviewed existing open educational resources, and posted the results of the review here. We've held a number of events for teachers to help them understand how OER can be used in schools. These events are nicely integrated with our state's overall efforts to implement the Common Core. In other words, we don't see OER as a distinct effort from our work in helping districts identify high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to our state's standards.

We've run a small grant program to provide funding to Washington school districts who are either creating OER, adapting existing OER or adopting OER.

THE Journal: What Common Core standards and grade levels are covered by the materials you have gathered?

Nelson: Our OER project is focused on both math and English language arts (ELA), K-12. To date, we've reviewed high school resources in math and ELA. We're currently in the process of reviewing middle school math and ELA resources.

THE Journal: What types of materials are available?

Nelson: We focused on full-course math resources and unit-level ELA resources. For math, we wanted to focus on resources that districts could consider adopting right away, rather than having to piece together a course from lessons and other smaller pieces of content.

In ELA, we focused on unit-level resources, as ELA teachers have a history of picking and choosing from a wider variety of materials. In both cases, we felt like there were a number of useful OER repositories that maintained smaller grain-sized materials, and that we could best help Washington teachers by providing reviews of larger grain-sized materials.

THE Journal: In what way, if at all, are the resources specific to the state of Washington?

Nelson: The resources really aren't specific to Washington. Instead, they're drawn from national nonprofits, other states and a variety of other sources.

THE Journal: How do you vet OERs before placing them on your site?

Nelson: This is really the key to our work. To conduct the reviews, we've gathered teams of teachers from across the state. The reviewers use five different rubrics to evaluate the materials:

  • Achieve's EQuIP rubric is used to measure the alignment of individual units against the Common Core;
  • Student Achievement Partners' Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) is used to evaluate full-course materials against the Common Core. We only use this for math resources, as it is only appropriate for full-course materials;
  • We use portions of Achieve's OER Rubrics that don’t overlap with EQuIP or IMET;
  • A Common Core alignment worksheet is used to ensure that the materials are addressing the standards; and
  • Reviewers also include extensive written feedback on the "Reviewer Comments" rubric.


THE Journal: Do you rank the materials in any way?

Nelson: Although we do publish the scores and comments, we're not ranking the materials. The goal with this process is not to identify the single best OER, or to create a list of options that districts must choose from. Washington is a local control state, so each school district can choose instructional materials on its own. Our goal is to provide as much information as we can for teachers and district leaders as they're working to identify OER that may work in their district. We're also hoping that the results of our reviews will help the content developers continue to improve their resources.

THE Journal: How many educators have used the resources?

Nelson: Because we post reviews and link to the developer's website for the actual resource, we don't have specific usage information. But a number of districts in Washington have adopted OER resources, including Spokane, Bethel and Evergreen. We've seen interest and adoption of OER grow over the almost three years we've been working on OER.

THE Journal: What is your mechanism for feedback from educators? Have you changed anything you do based on external feedback?

Nelson: The primary mechanism is through our OER reviewers, who are either classroom teachers or curriculum specialists or directors.

THE Journal: What's next for the project?

Nelson: We're currently reviewing middle school OER, and looking forward to posting the results of that on our website. Beyond that, we're planning on continuing to support districts around their use of OER.

Finally, I'll note that I've been saying "we" throughout all of these answers. I did that because this has been a team effort: Barbara Soots is our OER program manager, and she's coordinated the reviews and the events I described above. We've also had significant help from our Teaching and Learning department, especially our math and ELA directors, Anne Gallagher and Liisa Moilanen Potts. In all, we've had a team of more than 10 people working on various aspects of the OER project.

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal.