TechDecisions spoke with Robert Rayburn, Coordinator of Assessment Services at Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District in California about open educational resources (OER).
TD: A lot of schools have turned to open educational resources (OER). Can you first explain what OER is?
RR: OER are free instructional resources covering a wide range of curricular topics that are largely accessed online by educators. The organization Creative Commons describes them as teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.
TD: How do administrators make good decisions when it comes to OER and what should they look out for or be cautious of?
RR: With any type of OER potentially being used for educational purposes and integrated into a given curriculum, I have a checklist of questions I ask:
- What is the motivation of the OER provider? Do I believe they are trying to help students?
- Is there an independent, high-quality, research-based evaluation available for the materials?
- Are the materials complete, or are they only a sample designed to get educators to purchase a more robust program?
- What security procedures are in place to protect the data of students and staff who use these materials?
- What information is collected about the users, especially students?
- Do the materials actually address the needs of the students with whom I intend to use them?
- Do the materials create learning outcomes that are aligned to the standards?
When evaluating OER, I err on the side of caution. I want our teachers to be able to innovate, but I also want to ensure that the OER content is appropriate before we implement. I also stress the importance of ensuring that any transfer of data or information is handled in a manner that keeps all parties (students, teachers, and families) and our schools, devices, and networks safe.
TD: Are OER typically safe for the school network and school-based devices? Is there a way to ensure OER are research-based and vetted for teaching and learning?
RR: While our district devices have malware detection software, I worry about non-district devices constantly, as “free” resources can disguise malware or carry malware onto a device very easily. I also have reservations about freely giving up student, teacher and/or family data without a healthy understanding of what exactly the program is collecting and how it stores and shares data and information. All of us are at risk and students are our most vulnerable, because they have less awareness about their data fingerprints.
When it comes to vetting resources, the extent of our process really depends on the resource we are considering and the developer of that resource. For example, our district has a longstanding partnership with Curriculum Associates which produces two free apps to accompany the i-Ready program. The company is very reputable and its apps are free, high-quality, and unquestionably safe. Resources from other companies and sources that we don’t already work with or have never heard of, however, may be unverifiable or harder to asses for safety purposes.
Teacher resources, support, and access to high-quality training are also not easily handled by OER providers because it causes significant scale and business model challenges. Sustainability for the business providing the resources has to be considered if they are going to be able to continue to be a provider of relevant, up-to-date materials for the long term.
For companies claiming that their resources are research-based, I think it is also important to see who funded and conducted the research, and to look for any bias in these claims.
TD: When should teachers use OER? When should they not rely on OER?
RR: I would hesitate to use OER as a core component of a curriculum unless it is something like the California Digital Library materials which were developed by verifiable, high-quality sources. It is important for educators to also be aware that if an entire program is built around OER, the rug could be pulled out from underneath it if those resources suddenly become unavailable for any reason. This could cause great disruption to the teaching and learning process.
TD: When it comes to assessing knowledge acquisition, how do educators ensure that students are learning when using OER?
RR: It would depend on the source, but I have never seen OER that has built-in monitoring that is highly vetted, reliable, and correlated to the standards we are required to teach and that students need to learn. As a result, other non-OER learning resources usually must supplement OER to assess knowledge acquisition. This takes coordination and planning.
TD: What other considerations should teachers and administrators think about when it comes to implementing OER?
RR: It is a tightrope act to keep innovation happening with students and educators while ensuring that the resources they are using promote sound educational practices, safe access, and device and network integrity. That said, with OER, it is important to look for quality resources that are sustainable, dependable, research-based, correlated to learning standards, easy to use, and can be deployed across an entire school or district enterprise.