OER reaches ‘inflection point,’ and states are leading the charge

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After years of dabbling with open educational resources (OER), educators have finally begun to embrace the concept as a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing and licensed curriculum materials — and they’re doing it in droves.

More than half of U.S. states — including Michigan, Indiana, Utah and Washington — are currently developing, or have already developed, digital libraries to house their OER. These states are also now encouraging teachers and entire districts to adopt free, openly licensed resources in lieu of costly, often-out-of-date textbooks.

Seemingly overnight, OER has grown from a way to supplement instructional materials into a global movement — one whose scope and support are gaining more momentum every day.

“I think we’ve definitely hit an inflection point,” said Lisa Petrides, CEO and founder of ISKME (Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education), a nonprofit that built and manages OER Commons, one of the largest OER platforms on the market. “I think the time has come.”

Because of the work states are doing with OER, school districts stand to save millions of dollars annually on textbooks. Cost-savings data vary and are not broadly available, but in states like Michigan, for example, one project to create open, online K-12 social studies textbooks has saved districts over $43 million in just three years — and that’s just for one subject.

Proponents believe OER has the potential to realign the cost structure of American schools by allowing districts to reinvest their textbook savings into other critical areas, from professional development to technology infrastructure.

A convergence of factors is propelling OER. States have started to adopt policies redefining textbook materials and even mandating OER, particularly as the cost of replacing out-of-date textbooks has become more burdensome to America’s nearly 14,000 school districts. It’s hard to overlook the appeal of free, digital alternatives.

However, educators say the real appeal of online educational resources is in keeping classroom instruction personalized, relevant and interactive in ways that traditional textbooks never could.

OER is also gaining wider adoption thanks to the near-universal access schools now have to the internet; the explosion of apps making it easy to create, distribute and find digital content; and the emergence of cloud computing that makes it simpler and more affordable for states to gather and host content.

“We’re seeing costs rise, education become less affordable, less accessible,” Petrides said. “It’s the perfect storm.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign, which was announced in October 2015, “certainly did a lot to raise awareness” around OER as well, Petrides added.

Teresa Mooney, a program associate with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) who works with states on their OER initiatives, said the federal government’s influence helped, but it wasn’t the catalyst.

“The #GoOpen community is really an important piece of this work and has allowed this conversation to thrive, but this movement existed before #GoOpen,” Mooney said.

“I can’t say exactly why there is a boom right now,” she added, “but I think a huge piece of it is that a lot of this work relates to state strategy. OER is linked to equity, high quality and saving money; all of those pieces are important to states.”

But the ability for states to tap into emerging cloud-based OER platforms and the national expansion of high-speed broadband have also contributed to the new momentum.

Two OER platforms in particular — OER Commons and Amazon Inspire — are providing schools the ability to access educational content on any device through any internet browser.

Over 94 percent of U.S. school districts now have access to high-speed internet, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway. That has paved the way for school districts to implement one-to-one initiatives, which equip students with devices that are key in accessing those OER platforms.

“One-to-one programs are a great enabler of digital resources,” Petrides said. “If students have that kind of access to digital resources, it’s going to be easier overall” to promote OER.

From those one-to-one devices, students can also log in to their district’s learning management system (LMS) to access OER. That’s where a platform like OER Commons comes into play. OER Commons features a library of more than 50,000 free public resources and uses learning tools interoperability (LTI) to support integration with all the major LMSs, including Canvas, Blackboard, Google Classroom, Schoology, Moodle and D2L.

“It makes everything we do as a library much more portable, and that’s really what we’re trying to do — get resources to learners who want them,” Petrides said.

Amazon has also entered the OER market with Amazon Inspire. Available since summer 2017, Inspire is Amazon Education’s repository of completely free and openly licensed digital resources. It resembles the tech company’s online shopping site, Amazon.com, in that it allows users to filter, rate and review resources on the site.

The concept behind OER is not particularly new, but the way openly licensed resources are used and understood today really emerged over the last 10 to 20 years.

In 2002, UNESCO coined the phrase “open educational resources” to refer to teaching materials that can be freely used, adapted and distributed by anyone. Around that time, the Hewlett Foundation, and others, began to fund the burgeoning field of OER. It wasn’t long before digital content libraries evolved. ISKME began beta testing OER Commons, for example, in 2006, and CK-12, another OER provider, was founded in 2007.

Educators, meanwhile, began discovering and experimenting with OER, downloading materials they found on Pinterest or whatever showed up in a cursory Google search.

Leaders at the state and district levels, however, began to worry that OER could hamper students’ learning outcomes if the approach wasn’t executed thoughtfully. They saw the need to establish parameters around OER — and eventually roll out formal statewide initiatives.

That’s what happened about six years ago, when officials at the Indiana Department of Education noticed that some districts were beginning to take advantage of digital resources available online. The trend emerged shortly after the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 that gave districts the freedom to choose the curriculum they wanted, regardless of the format.

A number of districts used the money they ordinarily spent on traditional textbooks to invest in laptops or tablets for students. But then they weren’t adopting new digital curriculum materials.

“They didn’t have new materials, but they also weren’t really sure how to go about curating their own,” said Molly Yowell, digital content coordinator at the Indiana Office of eLearning. “Their students had these devices, but they weren’t really sure how to get started or go about this process responsibly.”

State education department officials realized that if Indiana districts were going to continue to adopt digital instructional materials, the districts would need guidance. So, long before the U.S. Department of Education launched the #GoOpen campaign to promote OER in U.S. school districts and states, Indiana began the work of curating, authoring and organizing what would eventually become a statewide library of high-quality, standards-aligned open educational resources.

In the years since, the OER movement has continued to take hold in Indiana — and in a growing swarm of other states, including Michigan, Utah, Washington, Maryland, Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin. These states and others have made formal commitments to promote OER by joining the #GoOpen initiative.

Many have appointed individuals — and, in some cases, entire teams — to vet and/or create openly licensed materials. They’ve also established repositories for storing and sorting the digital resources.

“There are so many great digital resources already online; it’s just a matter of taking the time to filter through all of the junk and bring forward the quality stuff,” Yowell said. “We want to work smarter, not harder — which is why we decided to invest in our teachers and digital content curation.”

While each state has taken somewhat different journeys to OER, they have similar end-goals in mind — to increase equity; identify relevant, high-quality content; and save money. But with different state budgets, different structures, different priorities and different timelines, collaborating with one another to achieve these goals can be complicated.

With the help of some unifying organizations — like the CCSSO and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) — states are working together to exchange ideas, share best practices and eliminate overlap where possible.

Here’s how four states are moving forward and in some cases working together to make OER an effective alternative to traditional curriculum materials:

Michigan is an example of a state that’s making a decisive commitment to OER. Since joining the #GoOpen campaign in February 2016, Michigan education officials have been working toward fulfilling the tenets, which include:

  • Implementing a technology strategy centered on OER.
  • Developing and maintaining a statewide OER repository.
  • Building relationships with other states in the #GoOpen community and promoting professional learning.

In fall 2017, Michigan began building an OER repository, using OER Commons. It’s one of three states — along with Utah and Wisconsin — establishing a full microsite through OER Commons. The microsite, which is expected to go live in March, is a standalone website that allows the state to keep some resources private and others public and available to other states.

The first collection of resources added to the site is from the Michigan Open Book Project. Developed with a grant from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), the MI Open Book Project produces a series of open, online K-12 social studies textbooks aligned to Michigan standards. It encourages teachers to forgo traditional social studies textbooks and instead use classroom devices to view the learning materials from the MI Open Book Project.

As of December 2017, when the MI Open Book Project was three years old, the initiative had generated more than 480,000 downloads and saved educators across the state over $43 million, according to Ann-Marie Mapes, an education technology consultant at the MDE. The money is an important factor, Mapes said, but it’s not the only factor.

“We want this [microsite] to be the definitive place where Michigan educators can go to make their lives easier,” she said. “We can talk about the savings and the money all day when we talk about OER. But this is why we’re doing this.”

When the microsite launches this spring, Michigan educators will be able to visit it and see collections of curated resources that were approved for the site.

For now, department officials are focused on getting confirmation from other groups willing to host their resources on the site. As of January, they’d received a lot of verbal “yeses” but still need to lock down the details, Mapes said.

“It’s slowly unfolding, and we’re slowly making some headway here as we establish the repository,” she said.

Indiana’s push into OER, meanwhile, has continued to gain momentum.

When Public Law 73 was enacted in 2011, Indiana districts for the first time could explore the possibilities of using digital content and computer software as a substitute for traditional textbooks. This opened the door for districts to launch one-to-one initiatives and access the growing availability of digital instructional materials that could be downloaded on their new classroom devices.

Two years later, in 2013, the Indiana Department of Education’s Office of eLearning began guiding districts through the transition from print to digital with a number of professional development programs.

One year after that, as more districts were launching one-to-one programs and were looking online for OER, a group of 50 teachers and media specialists in Indiana came together and formed the Rockstars of Curation. The Rockstars vet digital materials against measures of quality, relevance and state standards. They spend the time combing through educational materials so other teachers in Indiana don’t have to.

In summer 2015, Indiana began conversations with Amazon Education, in anticipation of the rollout of the tech company’s forthcoming content repository, Amazon Inspire. State officials were quick to sign on with Amazon, knowing that Inspire would be entirely free, easily searchable and developed in the likeness of the company’s retail site, Amazon.com.

“It sounded really exciting to us,” Yowell said. “Amazon is so familiar to so many people. Plus, we trusted the name of Amazon Education.”

Though Amazon Inspire did not become available as soon as expected — it was launched in June 2016, then pulled back into invitation-only beta to tackle copyright concerns before relaunching in July 2017 — Indiana remained loyal to the company, as did Maryland’s and Oregon’s education departments.

Currently, the Rockstars, with the Office of eLearning, have uploaded 800 digital resources to Inspire — searchable by “INeLearn” — with plans to add many more.

Utah education officials are already moving from their first OER system to a second. Over the next six months, state officials will be transferring digital resources out of EQUELLA — the online education repository from Pearson — and into an OER Commons microsite.

The microsite will allow Utah to keep both its licensed digital materials and its OER in the same place. The OER will be available to anyone, anywhere, at no cost, while the premium, licensed content will only be viewable by Utahns with special login credentials.

Utah was an early adopter of digital educational resources, but it wasn’t until about three years ago, when OER really started to gain traction, that the state added openly licensed materials to its collections.

“What’s exciting to me is that OER sometimes outpaces the licensed content,” said Katie Garrett, manager of digital media services for the Utah Education Network. She added that of the 10 most popular resources on the website right now, eight are OER.

When Utah began looking for a new repository — a move prompted by Pearson’s decision to shut down EQUELLA — it evaluated a number of different options in the market. These included the two biggest names — OER Commons and Amazon Inspire — but others as well, like Kaltura MediaSpace and Canvas Commons.

“Amazon Inspire is one we gave a good look at,” Garrett said. “I was super excited about it. That’s something I’ve always heard from educators: ‘I want to search for resources the way I shop on Amazon.’”

But, she said, Utah wanted to have its own branded interface, and Amazon Inspire was not offering that option. Garrett said she also hesitated at the thought of requiring teachers in Utah to create Amazon accounts — a necessity for Inspire users. That “didn’t seem like something our teachers would warm up to,” she said, adding that it seemed politically precarious.

Ultimately, the ability to have both privately and openly licensed content, plus the branded interface, is what sold Utah on OER Commons, though the state did at one point upload over a dozen digital resources to Inspire, which remain on the site today.

Washington state’s OER initiative was born out of legislation passed in 2012, which directed the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) — the state’s education department — to develop a library of openly licensed courseware and to raise awareness about the availability of OER.

Unlike what Indiana is doing with the Rockstars of Curation, the Washington OSPI has focused more of its time and resources on creating new OER than curating existing ones. And the state is putting money behind the effort.

“Honestly, other states are doing that [vetting], and they’re doing it well,” said Barbara Soots, the OER program manager for the OSPI. Instead, Soots and the OSPI have invested in local Washington districts interested in authoring or adapting their own openly licensed materials.

They do this through a competitive grant program. Districts can apply for funding, and those that are selected are required to openly license any educational resources that result from the grant.

Department officials knew those grants would result in high-quality OER that needed a place to live — one where other districts in Washington could search for, find and benefit from the materials.

“We wanted a place we could share with other districts the good work they’re doing,” Soots said, so they found a solution that fit their needs. Washington uses OER Commons, but not in the same way Michigan and Utah do.

Instead of a microsite, Washington — as well as Pennsylvania, North Dakota and others — has something called a hub. An OER Commons hub is automatically shared with the general public — anyone who has access to the internet can use the resources living on a state’s hub. The Washington hub hosts the district grantees’ OER and any instructional materials created by the state.

The Washington OSPI has spent a lot of time and programming on professional development around OER — how to provide proper attribution, what an open license is, and so on. “We give this information upfront, so our grantees can develop their materials with the end-game of openness in mind,” Soots said.

Though Washington’s hub in OER Commons was created several years ago, it hadn’t gotten much attention or promotion until recently, Soots said.

“It’s only now that we have districts adapting and developing materials that we’re starting to use this to its full potential,” she said. “We’re really starting to advertise it now that we’re getting more and more resources up.”

Based on the districts awarded grants this year, some of those resources will soon include a history project focused on local Native American tribes and a conceptual chemistry course for high schoolers.

To date, Washington has invested $1.25 million in its OER initiative. But five grant districts alone can account for over $1 million in cost savings, indicating that the OSPI’s investment will soon pay itself off. And based on 23 OER projects carried out since 2013, the state estimates that almost 2,000 teachers and 70,000 students have directly interacted with OER.

Looking beyond Washington, Soots said that the biggest value added by inter-state collaboration is in addressing issues like accessibility and licensing; it’s less important which repository is hosting the OER, she said, because at the end of the day every state faces those same challenges.

“In the bigger picture I’m not sure it matters all that much what platform is being used,” she said.

What’s also contributing to the momentum of OER is the extent to which states are working together.

Michigan, Utah and Wisconsin — the three states developing microsites on OER Commons — have formed an advisory board to examine how they can share resources across the three states.

“We certainly would like to share specific collections if we know, for example, that those content standards are the same as Michigan’s and if Wisconsin’s resources, for example, are high-quality,” Mapes said.

By opening up communication between Michigan, Utah and Wisconsin, all 50 states stand to benefit, said Mindy Boland, senior director of OER services at ISKME.

“The advisory board is very exciting for us,” Boland said. “These states all have similar problems they want to solve, so it’s a great way for us to make that conversation more normalized.”

They and the 17 other #GoOpen states also join a monthly call organized by the CCSSO and SETDA, in conjunction with the U.S. Education Department. “Those three organizations have provided a lot of guidance and assistance as we move through this process,” Mapes said.

On the calls, which are led by Mooney from the CCSSO, the states take turns presenting on where they are in their OER work or discussing their different experiences around a specific issue, such as accessibility.

“We’re trying to make sure this community is collaborating,” Mooney said, “that it isn’t siloed and that states are coming together as much as they can.”

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