Future of Learning

How to sort the good from the bad in OER

Online resources are overflowing, but reliable means to evaluate them and help teachers use them are rare

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Tuesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. 

Teachers often spend many hours at night or on weekends searching the internet for good instructional materials – or just good ideas about how to meld online learning into their classrooms. Sometimes, they consult curation sites that have evaluated these materials; sometimes they just consult other teachers on what they use.

The need for reliable evaluation has become more urgent with the flood of new, often free, online materials. These OER – open educational resources – may be good, bad or indifferent. How can school districts or teachers know?

“There’s more bad OER out there than good; that’s a fact,” said Rebecca Kockler, assistant superintendent of academic instruction for the state of Louisiana, at the annual SXSWedu conference last week in Austin, Texas. “We need to find the quality stuff and elevate it, for everyone.”

Along with quality classroom materials, there’s an urgent need for quality curricula, Kockler said. The idea of teachers searching the web for individual units of study, or even individual lessons, strikes her as a huge waste of time. When it happens, she said, “we try to weed that out of our districts.”

Instead, Louisiana’s Department of Education promotes an integrated curriculum and makes all parts of it available on the department’s website. When they have a whole curriculum, aligned to the state’s common core standards and flexible enough to be adapted for the schools’ own particular students’ needs, she said, teachers can spend the bulk of their time teaching. But she said professional development and support are essential, too. And they’re lacking.

There are few high-quality purveyors of whole curricula to begin with, she said, and “most curriculum developers don’t embed professional development and support” in their programs. Even fewer provide resources for teaching special education students or English language learners.

She and her fellow panelists mentioned a few OER sources that do provide teacher support (aka professional development) in their offerings. Among them: UnboundEd, a nonprofit created to continue the work of the Engage NY curriculum developers; Open Up Resources, a nonprofit whose K-5 English Language Arts curriculum and middle-school math curriculum have both received top ratings from EdReports, an evaluator; Great Minds, which makes the highly popular Eureka Math curriculum, and IBM Watson’s Teacher Advisor, which offers content recommendations and individualized help with lesson-planning for K-5 math teachers.

And on Tuesday, The Learning Accelerator and Yet Analytics announced the Learning Commons, a new, free website that will gather curated professional development resources for those who are working to implement blended or personalized learning in their classrooms.

Related: Open Educational Resources haven’t upended the way that K-12 schools get course materials – yet

The SXSWedu conference featured dozens of panels with variations on the theme of how to find accurate assessments of the quality of different course and curriculum options (at the college level as well as in K-12, and not just OER). Some speakers said the rush to embrace new technological tools, apps and other learning materials often sweeps aside high-quality evaluation – which by definition cannot be rushed.

MaryEllen Elia, the New York State commissioner of education, told one panel’s audience, “We need to slow down and give our teachers the time to implement [new technology], and to use it for long enough to see if it works well or not.”

Both the federal Department of Education and ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) also offer information about quality resources on their respective websites.

“Technology is an accelerator,” said Richard Culatta, a former federal education technology official who now heads ISTE. “If you apply it to bad teaching practices, you’ll get faster bad teaching practices; if you apply it to high-quality teaching practices, you’ll get faster high-quality teaching practices.”

In Louisiana, at least, the integrated approach to sharing best practices and best curricula, while supporting teachers with clear and frequent professional development help, seems to be paying dividends in students’ learning. According to a RAND study released in January 2017, the state has seen record growth in the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses, as well as in its high school graduation rate and its rate of college attendance. Louisiana’s fourth graders also had the highest learning gains in the nation in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test.

Using open educational resources has become a key part of this progress, even if it wasn’t the starting point.

“Using OER wasn’t our goal,” Kockler said. “Quality was our goal.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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