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iZone mentor Diedre Downing, a math teacher at NYC iSchool in Manhattan, walks Blended Learning Institute participant Juliana Matherson through Google' Autocrat application on July 18, 2014 in Manhattan. Autocrat lets teachers give custom feedback to students after an online assignment. The New York City Department of Education's Blended Learning Institute is a two-year training program taught by current classroom teachers on how to use the part digital, part traditional classroom style. (Photo: Alexandria Neason)
Credit: Alexandria Neason

A letter signed by more than 100 educators, scientists, lawyers and techies arrived last week on the digital doorstep of the White House.

The correspondence, which is written with constitutional flair, requests something that at first sounds simple: Make educational materials and professional development that are funded by the government free and widely available to the public.

“We, the undersigned organizations from the education, library, technology, public interest and legal communities are writing in response to the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s call for ideas to strengthen the U.S. Open Government National Action Plan,” the letter begins. “To ensure that the value of educational materials created with federal funds is maximized, we call upon the President to issue a strong Administration policy to ensure that they are made available to the public as Open Educational Resources to freely use, share, and build upon.”

Open Educational Resources are commonly referred as OER (pronounced O-E-R). And they might prove to be far more powerful in reshaping our schools than the banal acronym implies.

What is OER? In the simplest terms it can be summarized quite succinctly: free. Outside the education beltway of wonky, jargon-filled insider chatter, there is an example well known to just about everyone with an Internet connection: Wikipedia. It is a free, online encyclopedia that can be repurposed and rewritten by anyone, anywhere, without fear of violating copyright laws.

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But the OER crusaders have loftier goals than putting door-to-door dictionary salesmen out of business. They see a future where educational materials (read: knowledge) aren’t locked behind a gate. And the movement didn’t start last week. After nearly a decade, it has a growing list of case studies to share.

A nonprofit called CK-12, for example, has devoted considerable resources to the development of free digital materials for STEM, the shorthand used to describe four subject areas: science, technology, engineering and math. The organization is working to spread those free educational materials widely.

Some supporters believe OER is a critical ingredient for advancing the use of digital tools in classrooms. Among those signing the letter sent last week to the White House was The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit advocacy organization that offers technical support intended to, well, accelerate the adoption of blended learning. Among its many other projects, the organization is in the midst of running a competition to pick the most innovative ideas for OER.

Scott Ellis, CEO of The Learning Accelerator, told me in an interview that he is delighted with the contenders in the competition. So much so that he believes even those who are not picked as winners will have something valuable to offer. More broadly, Ellis, believes that the time is right for these digital tools. As more schools nationwide have fast Internet access and computers and tablets in their classrooms, the need emerges for new curricular materials, too.

The days of expensive paper textbooks, worksheets and teachers guides might be nearing their end. But education publishing is still a multi-billion-dollar industry. At stake are powerful interests and billions of dollars. Will the OER movement succeed in its quest to set information free?

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