In the Tumwater School District, outside Olympia, WA, the use of digital resources in math often depended on which teachers were taking the initiative to find and implement them.
Online resources “were an avenue for additional practice problems” or a way to supplement the textbook, says David Parascand, a math teacher on special assignment who provides support to teachers at the district’s middle and high schools.
Then three years ago, the district began implementing a digital open educational resources (OER) math curriculum, not only because educators in the district felt it would better meet the diverse learning needs of students, but also because of how the program provides “way more teacher support on actually how to deliver instruction,” Parascand says, adding that they didn’t want teachers to spend their evenings searching through Pinterest to find the materials they needed.
With the funds the district normally would have spent on textbooks, officials are giving teachers release time from class and paying them for extra hours so they can observe and learn from each other.
“Our big focus is not just on going and seeing someone teach, but being able to reflect afterward on what specifically happened. The reflection piece is how you get to transference,” Parascand says. “In our district, we’re trying to move away from pockets of excellence.”
Finding a "happy medium"
The Tumwater district’s progression from hit-or-miss implementation of supplementary materials to a comprehensive OER math curriculum for middle and high school students demonstrates not only the growing frustration with traditional instructional materials that quickly become outdated, but also the flexibility that curriculum specialists and teachers now have with OER to create and customize teaching resources for their specific students and goals.
But whether the digital tools are proprietary and can’t be altered or are openly licensed for others to adapt, there are still some practices that experts have found to be effective at equipping teachers with skills to integrate digital resources into their instruction.
“There is a lot out there,” says Kecia Ray, the executive director of the Center for Digital Education, which released its Guide to Choosing Digital Content and Curriculum two years ago. “Teachers need to know where to look for good instructional materials.”
High-quality features of digital content include qualities such as crisp and clear graphics, pathways of learning tailored for individual students, built-in assessments, an interface that provides “intuitive navigation,” and a “cognitive load” that doesn’t overwhelm students, according to the guide.
The guidebook also describes how school librarians are often the initial source for teachers when they begin to incorporate more digital tools and materials into their teaching.
Donna Sullivan-McDonald, the library media and instructional technology specialist at Orchard School in South Burlington, VT, started giving “tech in two” demonstrations at faculty meetings when she realized that teachers favored brief, two-minute introductions to online resources. She also sometimes uses the materials with students in the library to pique the teachers’ interest and let them see how the resources might fit in to their own classrooms.
Sullivan-McDonald, president of the Vermont School Library Association and the former president of the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) Librarians Network, is a “fan of peers teaching one another,” she says. “Once I've shown a teacher a new tool or procedure, I ask that they share their knowledge with their teammates.”
It’s ideal for schools and districts to hit a “happy medium” of teachers discovering useful resources on their own and then sharing it with their colleagues, says Jamie Knowles, the senior manager of educator professional learning programs at Common Sense Media, which provides ratings on educational technology. “Then it becomes a working group that is using it all together.”
If a new digital resource is being introduced as part of a workshop or professional development day, it’s important for trainers to show teachers how it can be used with different types of students.
“Adult learners can tell how relevant or concrete the [professional development] is going to be,” Knowles says, adding that trainers have to “hook them right away with an approach and a tenor that really speaks to them.”
Over the past 10 to 15 years, he says, districts have also invested in one-to-one technology and personalized learning initiatives that have emphasized getting the devices into students’ hands. Officials, however, have not always had the same urgency toward training teachers to incorporate the devices into their instruction.
“You need to have alignment as an organization over how you’re going to use that tool,” he says. “We preach that technology is not just an independent activity; it is also a tool that is integrated into the curriculum you’re using.”
Top down and bottom up
Educators who have made the shift from using digital resources as supplemental materials to creating or modifying content as part of an OER initiative have some different professional learning needs.
First, they need to know how to choose quality resources that help students meet the standards in their individual state. The International Society for Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) has created a vast digital library — OER Commons — where educators and curriculum supervisors can search for resources that are aligned to their state’s standards.
They can also find multiple versions of materials that have been modified for different populations of students, such as English learners or students who need a more challenging lesson, and the site features bundles of resources for specific states, regions or content-specified groups, making it easier for teachers to find what they need. The CK-12 Foundation and Open Up Resources also provide already-packaged OER resources.
But teachers involved in adapting and creating OER materials also need support in working with content experts to design lessons. Lisa Petrides, the founder and CEO of ISKME, says it’s important to have someone at the district level who is overseeing the process.
“With any kind of change effort there needs to be a champion,” Petrides says, but adds that that individual can be anyone from a librarian to an information technology leader to a curriculum supervisor.
Joseph South, the chief learning officer at ISTE and formerly the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, says most districts begin using OER materials within one grade level or content area — often after they’ve experienced some “sticker shock” when it came time to purchase new textbooks.
While saving money is one reason why districts are adopting OER materials, teachers realizing that they have the expertise to create materials is also contributing to the growth of the OER movement.
“This will become successful not because of top down, but because there is a lot of bottom up momentum,” Petrides says, adding that most of the professional development ISKME provides is bringing teachers together with content specialists or librarians. “Our work is about creating these communities and creating the infrastructure so sharing and collaboration can happen.”
She shares a recent example of working with teachers from the eastern Caribbean who were inspired by the fact that they could create content reflecting their own history. “This is sort of the promise of OER — harnessing very rich content that is not typically available,” Petrides says.
Experts say that one assumption about OER is that schools must have a one-to-one device program or that all materials are digital. That’s not the case. In fact, Barbara Soots, the OER program manager for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington, says teachers need to think about what materials will need to be printed to ensure that students have equal access to the materials if they don’t have reliable internet access at home.
Focusing on student outcomes
In the 42,000-student Cherokee County (GA) School District, north of Atlanta — where OER is being used to some extent at all grade levels — leaders have taken a comprehensive approach to supporting teachers as they integrate more digital resources into their instruction. The district has six teachers who serve as instructional technology specialists, and each one is responsible for an “innovation zone,” which includes a high school and its feeder schools. The specialists provide one-on-one, small group, whole-school and even zone-wide training on how digital materials fit into lesson planning. They also raise awareness about the ISTE standards.
In addition, the specialists are also working with instructional lead strategists at each school who focus more on content standards, areas of need among students and how OER materials can meet those needs.
“The ultimate goal is to improve student outcomes,” says Bobby Blount, the chief information officer for the district, “so the [strategists] focus on effective pedagogical practices, lesson design, instruction, assessing and reflecting upon the lessons being delivered.”
While training on traditional, district-adopted materials can be delivered in a standardized way “on a mass deployment scale,” Blount says, he added that one challenge in moving to OER is that the content is so “vast and varied” that professional development needs might be more unique to a specific course, grade level, classroom or even a teacher’s preference.
Learning to read the fine print
Then there are the legal issues. For years, teachers have shared resources with each other, sometimes not fully understanding the copyright issues connected to the materials. Even Amazon had to remove some materials from its Inspire site in 2016 when educators noticed that some of the lessons were copyrighted. With OER, some of those concerns no longer apply, but teachers still need to become familiar with licensing issues, and just because an online resource is free doesn’t mean it’s open and can be adapted, Soots says.
Under a Creative Commons license, there are multiple levels which specify whether a material can be shared, altered, “remixed” or used for commercial purposes. In most cases, even if a “derivative” of the material is allowed, the original author must receive credit.
Whether districts decide to adopt OER or use a combination of OER and traditional materials, South says it’s important, as the Tumwater district did, to use the savings for teacher collaboration and professional learning.
While some teachers initially feel intimidated by creating lessons or building upon someone else’s work, he says, “I’ve had more than one teacher say, ‘This is the most invigorated I’ve been in my profession in years.’”