Is OER really free?
Randy Wilhelm
December 19, 2016

A year ago, the US Department of Education launched a clear and focused effort to bring Open Educational Resources and other types of educational materials into the spotlight as an open education ecosystem. In the words of the DOE, this #GoOpen initiative and ecosystem makes educational materials and data around learning available for use without access, cost or copyright barriers. #GoOpen aims to elevate OER by guiding content owners/creators to a more interoperative and free exchange type of model.

How does OER benefit education?

The promise of #GoOpen and the use of OER is equality -- to make available free, relevant, quality learning resources, and to give teachers the tools they need for effective educational practice, regardless of zip code or socio-economic circumstance.

Unlike paid educational content, with OER, all students have access to learning resources because they are freely distributed to everyone. This level of equity across the US is unmatched in any other area of education and is viewed as a real game-changer for financially challenged districts and schools. By empowering teachers to use OER to adapt and customize learning materials for their classrooms without fear of license or copyright restrictions, OER has catapulted thinking about and advanced efforts to make personalized learning possible.  

How is OER used in the classroom?

In response to #GoOpen, the education community has started making headway in terms of supporting the use of OER for districts and schools. Publishers and content creators are developing better, more organized open resources in response to seeing the challenges involved with the adoption of OER. Many districts have urged their teachers to utilize open education resources and even removed textbooks from the picture entirely. The CoSN Horizon Report 2016 notes a significant surge of more than 2.7 million students in the US alone who are taking part in digital and blended learning. Within the first year of the DOE initiative, the transition to implementing OER into everyday instruction often took more careful preparation than anticipated. With heavy and sometimes exclusive reliance on OER, teachers now have to assemble course content -- they are responsible for finding, reviewing and managing educational content for their classroom and for individual students -- in addition to their daily teaching responsibilities.

In fact, TES Global cites in their Open Education Resources Survey that while demand for free online resources is nearly universal, discoverability and ease of implementation raises concerns. Results from the 1,000 surveyed educators showed approximately 83% of teachers aren’t sharing resources online and only 17% of teachers share most of the original resources they create.

Why is it so difficult for teachers to locate quality materials for instruction in this #GoOpen education ecosystem? There is a lack of systemic organization for OER; teachers can find a lot of free resources out there, but are challenged in determining whether they are educationally relevant or even aligned to education standards and the learning objectives that they must help their students achieve.  

“We’re seeing a need for concrete, ready-to-use materials that teachers can take and run with, but that also have a long-lasting impact on student learning,” explain Joey Hawkins and Diana Leddy of the Vermont Writing Collaborative. “Open source materials run the range and it can be a real challenge for teachers to navigate everything that’s out there.”

Is using OER really FREE?

Districts and teachers are investing precious time and limited resources to find OER for their students, review it for quality, align it to standards, focus on its rigor, and ensure supports for special populations -- at what cost? Let's assume that a teacher’s time in a given district equates to $38/hour and that teacher easily spends four or more hours each week searching out and maintaining the many different open educational resources they may require for the subjects and learning levels they teach. Over the course of a year, this can consume over $5,000 worth of their time, not to mention the lost opportunity to use that time more directly working with their students. Multiply this amount across a district and then across all schools in the country.

Forecasting the future of OER

As educators move toward a more personalized, student-centered approach in their teaching, there is no doubt that districts seek to integrate OER into curriculum; the challenge is developing a strategy for district-wide adoption. As with any instructional materials, quality is key. It’s imperative that these resources develop into adaptable, relevant, updated assets, and that school districts allocate the necessary time and development to properly implement open resources. In 2017, we can expect learning platforms to move toward consolidation, where vetted OER can more easily become a part of a district’s digital library.

Randy Wilhelm is a pioneer in making sense of the web for learning since 1999 and has predicted and embraced the print-digital transition for nearly 20 years. He is CEO and co-founder of Knovation, which helps schools and businesses tackle the challenges of OER curation, tagging, alignment and maintenance.

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