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SABIER Makes OER Work in K–12 Classrooms: A Conversation with Dan McGuire

Background:

Two indisputable facts of K-12 life: (1) In K-12 classrooms, paper-based textbooks are (on the way) out, while digital curricula are (on the way) in; and (2) 1-to-1 is (on the way to becoming) the new normal around the United States. These are humongous changes for all the stakeholders in the K–12 ecology — parents and students, teachers and administrators, publishers and curriculum developers, etc. and etc. It is well recognized in K–12 that the materials that are used in the learning process have a major impact on how learning takes place and what is learned. Thus, as textbook-based curriculum is replaced with computer-based curriculum, new learning goals are now possible, e.g., students can carry out more authentic science practices), new instructional strategies and practices need to be developed and adopted, e.g., students can work more easily in small workgroups, and new socio-cultural practices will develop in K–12 classrooms, e.g., dialogue will replace monologue as the key communication’s practice in classrooms that go 1-to-1.

Where is this computer-based curricula going to come from? Of course, the Big Three have digital offerings. But, what is most exciting — and challenging — is the opportunity for educators themselves to produce effective, digital curricula. Key in that production is the availability of OER — open education resources. As a reminder, OER are "free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research and other purposes." For example, gooru.org, a website that houses OER, claims to have upwards of 5 million pieces of OER! There are a number of other marketplaces where OER can be found, e.g., edmodo.com, CK12.org and opened.com.

Now, while there are some curricular units offered as OER (e.g., gooru.org has posted full courses made from OER), OER are typically pieces of content — not curriculum. For example, a video of sunspot explosions or a PDF describing sunspot explosions or a simulation that lets users explore sunspot explosions are pieces of content — not curriculum. It takes a creative process of instructional design to transform content into curriculum. While that transformational process is based on scientific research, experienced instructional designers will tell you there is a healthy dose of art required, too.  Indeed, not just anyone can create effective digital curriculum from OER content.

In this week’s blogpost we examine the MPCC, the Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum, a group that is engaged in just such transforming, turning OER into digital curricula. And, we describe SABIER, the Stone Arch Bridge Initiative for Education Resources, a nonprofit, that can be considered an outreach arm of the MPCC since SABIER provides a range of services (e.g., professional development) to K–12 schools based on the MPCC materials. We are fortunate to have Dan McGuire, founder of SABIER and a contributor to the MPCC, as a resource for this blogpost. After describing the MPCC, we post the answers to questions we put to Dan about the MPCC and about SABIER.

What does the MPCC do?

Begun in July 2013, the MPCC is an award-winning, "grassroots initiative" whose overarching goal is to: "to create a comprehensive collection of digital open education resources (OER). More than 200 districts have joined the project, with the goal to create digital course work for each of the four core subject areas — math, science, English language arts, and social studies — for grades 3–12."  Teams of Minnesotan teachers are paid to create the OER-based courses. The courses are aligned to Minnesota’s standards. The MPCC says that the courses they develop move from pilot testing to completed, but the courses are continuously being improved. (See a detailed course evaluation rubric.) The courses are available in Moodle, but schools that use Schoolology, Canvas, or another LMS can access the content through a Google Folder/Drive. 

In a video about the MPCC, Jon Voss, director of teaching and learning, District 287 (MN) and an MPCC spokesperson, says that one of the goals of the MPCC is to make device-agnostic course materials. While the materials can be used on iPads or Chromebooks, for example, Voss says teachers can also “display the materials” to the class, apparently for those classrooms that don’t have computers. To our thinking, this is an important point: If the OER-based materials can be used with or without students having computers, then the courses are going to have few — if any — learning activities that are truly "interactive," e.g., run a simulation, create an animation, etc. Yes, students can write on paper; yes, students can draw on paper — and even create a flip-book-style animation, but learning with paper-based activities is not the same as learning with computer-based activities. (See Dan McGuire’s response below, concerning this important issue.)

Another important point made in that same video, but this time made by a classroom teacher who uses the MPCC-created course, is this: Teachers are very happy that they have been given a whole course, a structure, to start with, but then teachers can easily make changes to the course since the materials are just digital files. We have argued in this blog that creating full courses from scratch out of OER is a major challenge for classroom teachers and that what is needed is to provide teachers with a baseline course of OER-materials that can then be changed, based on a teacher’s understanding of his/her students, the content, the curriculum, the local context, etc. On that score, then, serious props to the MPCC!  To our minds the OER-based courses created by the MPCC are "open" and easily modifiable — unlike curricula that are available on some commercial and even nonprofit OER marketplaces.  

As part of the support infrastructure, the MPCC has created a "Teacher Implementation Network" that is represented in a Google+ community. The MPCC is clearly on a mission; the button on the bottom of its about us page, says: "Join the Revolution.” Strong words — especially for K–12 educators!

A Conversation with Dan McGuire

In what follows, then, we pose a few questions to DM about the MPCC and about SABIER, a nonprofit he founded:

Q: How is the MPCC different than the OER marketplaces such as edmodo.com, gooru.org, etc.?

A: The MPCC is not a marketplace; it’s a collaboration of Minnesota teachers and administrators who are actively working in schools in Minnesota. The MPCC doesn’t sell anything. The courses are released as OER after an initial trial period in partnering schools.

Q: Are there other organizations like the MPCC in the U.S.?

A: To my mind, the MPCC is the leader in OER course development. Other states are in the process of developing coursework and repositories but none have as many districts participating or as many courses created.

Q: It appears that the MPCC courses primarily have students read text files (Google Docs editor) or slide files (Google Slides for presentations), or look at static images or watch videos. It feels like the MPCC courses are designed so they can be used in classrooms with limited access or even no access to computers. Teachers would then pass out printed copies of the files. How do you see the MPCC courses changing if the target classroom was 1-to-1?

A: The MPCC courses have been designed to be easily modifiable and can be used with various learning management systems. That’s certainly the case with the elementary science courses which are the initial focus of SABIER. The courses are being made available as Moodle Courses, Schoology courses, or Canvas courses, in other formats as districts request that capability. SABIER assists districts in implementing the courses using all of the interactive learning options for collaboration and formative assessment that a LMS provides.

Q: What does your organization, SABIER, do?

A: A nonprofit, the Stone Arch Bridge Initiative for Education Resources, SABIER, takes the goals in the five phases of OER-implementation identified in the #GoOpen launch packet and combines them into a custom professional development and curriculum implementation program for grade level teams in a district or teams coming together from smaller districts. We created SABIER to provide the professional development to support teachers in their open teaching practices and in the use of OER curriculum with web devices like iPads and Chromebooks.  

SABIER also assists the districts in acquiring funds to pay for the initial transition. I have found that philanthropic donors and foundations are eager to support well defined efforts within districts that are measurable and that also enable districts to implement STEM and PBL (project-based learning) activities. SABIER works in conjunction with a district’s instructional technology professionals to create a self-sustaining model of open education practice.

SABIER provides its professional development and learning services to schools in Minnesota, supporting the MPCC, and to schools nationwide. For example, we are working with schools in Iowa to implement OER-based courseware.

CN & ES: Thank you, DM, for sharing your observations about the MPCC and SABIER. SABIER seems to us to be a key resource in supporting MPCC’s visionary mission; we wish you all the best! 

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