Teachers Creating and Curating OER-Based Curricula: An Example from Tullahoma City Schools

[Note from Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway: Expanding the conversation around "Reinventing Curriculum," in this week’s blog post, Dan Lawson explains how his district is creating OER curricula. Dan’s post is a thought-provoking response to our earlier blog post about the challenges teachers face in creating OER materials. Thank you, Dan, for stepping forward!]

While sitting in the recliner reading Norris and Solway’s blog post related to educational technology and specifically to the creation and curation of open educational resources (OER), I decided to become an active participant in the dialogue. The authors suggested that the practice of expecting teachers to create and curate quality content was in fact not sustainable. Furthermore, the authors went on to opine the following:

  • "The emperor has no clothes.  The assumption that teachers, somehow, will find the time and find the know-how to create effective OER-based curriculum is a dangerous one – for our children and for the teachers themselves.  Putting more work on the backs of teachers is folly."

I took exception to the proposition that teachers don’t have time to accomplish the formidable task of creating and curating high quality OER for their classes and our schools based on the experiences I enjoyed in my school district in Tullahoma, TN.  While "the emperor" may be without clothing in many schools and districts, I would like to share a model that is serving us well and certainly is portable to other schools and districts. My observations are those of an incumbent superintendent who has served in a small town community with seven schools and approximately 3,500 students for the past two decades. I have a keen understanding of the assets and limitations that we as a school and community face. 

In our creation and curation of OER-based curricula we believe and support the concept of district-led and district-funded responsibility rather than a piecemeal approach to publishing accomplished by guerilla curators. So, how does our plan work and how can a district effectively support teachers in an effective OER transition? 

Tullahoma City Schools (in Tennessee) began our work in the 2012-13 school year with the statewide adoption of social studies standards and a belief that we could effectively implement a high quality OER migration. We identified curricular needs to be met in our proposed transition and identified nine social studies courses (third grade to high school American history) in need of OER content. We then interviewed and ultimately selected eight teachers to serve as our first generation of content creators/curators. The TCS team knew that they had the ability to provide the quality of work expected, and they also knew that the district needed to support and invest in the OER migration rather than simply provide a tacit nod of approval or endorsement. 

As a superintendent in an "adoption state," my staff and I are well aware of the statewide adoption cycle and the mandated changes in our state curricular standards. Furthermore, based on our experiences, interactions and relationships, we are keenly aware of staff members with the expertise and attitude to take the district support and produce great materials. Given the "known" variables of the "what" was to be developed in OER, and "when our team wanted the products delivered," I was tasked with the questions of "how" to best support our curators and "who" to select to lead the curation.

The essence of Norris and Soloway’s blog post opined that the supports are not in place to sustain quality creation and curation with the abundance of other time-sensitive responsibilities we place on our exceptional educators. I agree with the authors that our teachers do not have time during the school day to create and curate OER curricula. But, instead of waiting for someone to come up with a solution, we crafted a plan of operation to create and curate OER and provide both time and money for our participating educators. 

Tullahoma City Schools (TCS) committed to accomplish providing support to our content creator/curators by providing time and modest financial remuneration. For our purposes, we advised our educators that our content should include materials available in the public domain often with "Creative Commons" attributions. Additionally, our educators were led to operate in a manner that encouraged creation of new materials and lessons that aligned with our standards and local needs along with curation of existing materials available worldwide.

Rather than any expectation of effective creation/curation happening in days or weeks, we allow up to 12 months of "lead time" to accomplish the creation/curation activity.  During the lead time, the lead creating/curating teacher and a collaborating team of teachers are given release time (typically one day per month of our school year) to share problems and solutions, identify curricular gaps and directly address alignment issues that they have collaboratively identified.  While the utilization of digital tools is invaluable in our work, face-to-face collaboration is equally essential in providing value and support to teachers who, too often, may feel alone and isolated in the creation/curation process. Interestingly, I have found that the team release time provides some of the best job embedded professional development our school district has ever funded.  

Once the initial work product is substantially completed, the teacher(s) responsible for the creation/curation of that OER is also responsible to provide the professional development to the other teachers in the district utilizing those materials. Furthermore, dialogue takes place as to how other users can supplement and revise that OER to best meet their class and student needs.   

In addition to the time provided, we know that our curators are sacrificing time at home to accomplish this important work, and we believe that the time they are investing has a value for which they should receive pay. To align our belief with action, we developed a "differential pay plan" that compensates our teachers for their creation/curation on their time away from school responsibilities. Our investment is quite modest, but the stipend is appropriate and greatly appreciated, and in my opinion makes our teachers feel that the investment they are willing to make is valued by our school district.

TCS has learned a tremendous amount from our first "dip" in the OER creation/curation pool and made several changes in our program as we built our second generation of curricular content in math (K-11th grade). Currently, our third generation creator/curators are working on ELA in grades K-11 and we plan to post that content both on our website at CK12 for all to access and use as school opens later this summer.

We are providing relevant, standards-aligned OER to our students in a systematic fashion and the structure we in Tullahoma City Schools put in place to create those materials is, we believe, sustainable. I am confident that utilization of OER will continue to grow in Tullahoma City Schools and in other school districts.

In sum, then, here is the take-away from our experience: School and district leaders need to modify their visions, their compensation plans and their priorities, and recognize that support for OER creators/curators needs to become a normal mode of operation in their schools. With modification of visions, resources, plans and priorities, high quality creation/curation can become a reality almost anywhere and the "emperor can be gloriously adorned!" 

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