Wednesday, February 6, 2013

OERs: A National Strategy

Over the past few years, the idea of Open Educational Resources (OERs) has taken its place in the mainstream of the new online global distance education movement.   This posting will explore the 
potential for OERs to help address important educational needs in the United States.
            The Hewlett Foundation, which has funded several OER innovations over the past few years, defines Open Educational Resources this way:

OER are 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.

Internationally, the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO have launched an initiative “to increase the understanding of OERs by educational decision makers within governments and institutions, and to encourage the incorporation of the concept of OERs into their policies and strategies.” 
            In the United States, there are a variety of OER initiatives.  However, none have risen to the level of national strategic priority.   The opportunity is ripe to apply OERs in our public school system and in the process, to create new creative partnerships between higher education institutions and schools to help students meet critical learning needs.  
            It is not unlike the situation in the 1960s, when the baby boom generation was straining the resources of our public schools at a time when there was a growing demand for high school graduates to be able to move onto college.   Then, a nascent public television system—organized originally at the state and regional level—began to produce and broadcast television programs specifically designed to be used by teachers in the classroom.  Today, online media provide a new platform not only to deliver content, but to engage both teachers and students in learning communities around critical skill needs.
The Need
            Many states have moved toward standards-based testing for students in key curriculum areas.  The one that area that seems to be most in need of support is STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.    Schools vary widely in their ability to support teachers as they adjust their curricula to the new standards.  Given the importance of state standards in this environment, the OER initiative would naturally be structured within individual states, with colleges and universities developing materials for use by nearby school districts.   At the same time, producers can easily network to share content (where the content meets state standards and needs) and to coordinate delivery.
The Model
Here is how an OER initiative might work:
            The project would begin by one or more higher education institutions in a State collaborating with the Department of Education and with some selected school districts to identify specific standards that have proven to be the most problematic for schools around the state.  Participating institutions would then develop OERs that address these standards.  These could take multiple forms:
  • digitized video lectures, demonstrations, or experiments
  •  problems to be solved by individual students or collaboratively by groups of students
  •  elements from online college credit courses
  •  collections of existing online resources that teachers and students could use to gain experience in finding information, evaluating it, and using it to solve problems or create innovations.
            The OERs would be housed a central online “You-Tube”-type environment, along with downloadable teacher guides, lesson plans, quizzes, assignment ideas, etc.  
            Ideally, a K-12 OER initiative would be complemented by online learning communities—MOOCS—that would address two related needs:  (1) one that teachers could join to learn about how to use the OER collection and, equally important, to share their experiences as a community on how to implement them in the classroom, and (2) a MOOC for students to help them supplement their classroom learning or, possibly, earn high school credit.  Ideally, both of these could also be structured so that teachers would be able to earn graduate credit and students would be able to simultaneously earn high school and college credit.
The Long View
            As noted earlier, it is easy to draw comparisons between the OER initiative described above and the early days of educational television.   It might be helpful to look at that comparison in more detail to get a longer view of what might happen if a truly strategic OER initiative were to be organized around K12 needs.
            In the 1960s, educational television was a statewide and regional affairs.   Most stations had an “Instructional Television” coordinator and a formal relationship with school districts in their service areas.  The daytime schedule was devoted specifically to television programs that had been selected by teachers and broadcast for use in classrooms.  In Pennsylvania, where I worked, the State Department of Education funded the acquisition of programs for broadcast to the schools, as well as the production of new programs that met otherwise unmet needs.  Regional networks—the Eastern Educational Network and the Southern Educational Communications Association as examples—were collaboratives where stations could share local productions and group-purchase programs that would be broadcast in multiple viewing areas.  
            With the arrival of (1) the national Public Broadcasting Service and (2) satellite delivery of educational/public television programming, production and distribution became a nationally coordinated affair.  Programs like Sesame Street and The Electric Company arose to meet national needs.  Over time, however, this three-level system of national, regional, and local engagement faded as nonbroadcast technology—videocassettes and videodisc, cable television, etc.—bypassed the need for coordinated broadcast directly into school classrooms.
            Today, as we think about how to develop an effective system for production, delivery, and support of OERs to ensure that all students have effective access to learning resources that address strategic national needs, we should ask:  How might the lessons of educational television be used to help shape this new service?  It is impossible to predict.  However, we have already seen the emergence of several inter-state higher education collaborations—most notably the Great Plains IDEA and CIC’s CourseShare—that suggest the possibility that an OER initiative might help foster new kinds of academic communities for which, like the online environment itself, geography provides a focus but not a limitation.