George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

What the Heck Is OER?

If you don’t already, get to know the sheer volume of free online resources out there available to teachers. 

December 7, 2015
Photo credit: E Livermore via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

When I hear the term OER, I don't automatically leap to "Open Educational Resources." Perhaps it just doesn't trip off my metaphorical tongue. Instead, my brain automatically translates it to "free online stuff to use in my classroom."

Officially, however, the term OER, according to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, represents the "teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge."

I like my definition better, but I will admit that both allow for a wide range of scenarios:

  • There are the wonderful supplemental videos from TEDed, complete with their captions, discussion questions, and downloadable transcripts that students can annotate using such programs as Scrible and Notability.

  • There are entire MIT classes of recorded lectures and downloadable pdfs available on iTunes.

  • There are curated newsletters thrown together by educators at all grade levels and subject areas. For instance, I throw one together once a month for my staff using MailChimp. It's divided into subject areas, includes standards, and is made up largely by linked resources, including a single-sentence description of how one might use that resource in a content area's classroom. I share these on Twitter as well.

  • There are iBooks curated by teachers, departments, and many times, by students themselves. These include exemplars, student-created videos, questions, and answer guides -- and can be created by a class as a means to assess their own learning and to share what they learned with other students.

Why Now?

The OER movement has taken off for two main reasons:

1. There's so much out there! For one thing, the sheer volume of online resources out there is ginormous and needs some kind of purpose and organization for educators to truly tap into its ecosystem. With the growth of the concept of the democratization of information, the Internet has become an awesome petri dish of content just waiting to be discovered. But nobody can sift through it all and find resources easily, so educational resource curation took off as a necessity.

There are laws out there that demand equity for students regarding their textbooks and materials. In California, it's Williams vs. California, a law that states, "Every student, including English Learners, must have textbooks and materials..." Embracing the OER movement not only grants all students access to up-to-date materials, but participation also helps model Internet literacy by granting students a window into how adults tease apart the quality from the crud online.

2. The textbook adoption habit is just so expensive! The cost of textbooks and keeping material current has simply out-priced itself.

For instance, the textbooks in my department are falling apart. It has been about 10 years since we adopted a new textbook, and since then, each has been schlepped to and from school no less than 3,600 times, thrown onto bedroom floors and kitchen tables, shoved into backpacks, and left on blacktops at recess.

As a result, long ago, many of the teachers in my department began, with no withdrawal symptoms mind you, stepping away from the textbook addiction. After all, many of the stories and poems found in our anthology can be found at Project Gutenberg. Current, real-world informational reading that also addresses our listening and speaking goals can be found at sites like CNN Student News. Frankly, there's no need to purchase consumables year after year if we can now annotate online and find resources for free.

For this reason, many of the teachers in my department feel that when it becomes our turn to adopt new curriculum, if we have any say in it, we'd prefer an OER model that would allow us to pick and choose resources as one might compile an iTunes playlist of differentiated content.

But Is the OER Movement Ready for Primetime?

The fact is, however, that the quality of current materials out there varies. There are some that are great. But there are others that, while free, are best left to wither in the educational vine.

I think that if I were putting together a list of criteria for great Open Educational Resources, the resources would need to hit these three goals:

1. The OER resources encourage students to not just consume but create. The classes available on iTunes from many colleges and universities (like the one mentioned above) have much to learn from this point. Watching a recording of a lecture and downloading a static pdf document is not, what I would deem, a solid OER practice.

2. The resources inspire students to interact with the material itself. For instance, I prefer iBooks that allow students to slide, click, type, drag-and-drop, etc. The interactivity sparks more engagement.

3. The resources encourage sharing, collaboration, and commenting. Some resources allow students to upload examples and gain feedback. Others allow students to create a sharable bookshelf or portfolio.

Having said that, you might find a great resource, but it might fall to the educator to make these elements happen in his or her own lesson. One can, for instance, use a static video that is technically an OER and embed it onto a KidBlog or use VoiceThread to require verbal commenting. The bottom line is that it's up to the educator to use the resources in a rich way.

The question, however, of whether Open Educational Resources are really ready for primetime is irrelevant. The fact is that every new and miraculous movement must take its first steps, and we are present to watch this one happen.

But don't just watch. Participate. After all, the only way OER resources will grow and improve is if the pool of educators who utilize it grows.

Want to see another "What the Heck is..." post? Suggest a concept in the comments below, and I'll address it in a future post.

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