Listen to my interview with Karen Vaites (transcript):
For as long as the internet has been around, teachers have been able to find free resources online. But while it’s great to not have to pay for things, free instructional materials don’t exactly come without problems.
One major concern is quality. When a resource is free, it’s often hard to tell whether it was created by someone with a solid education background or if it’s going to be really effective in teaching what you want to teach. It’s also quite possible that the resource wasn’t properly proofread and contains errors both in mechanics and in content.
Another issue is copyright. Just because a resource can be downloaded without a fee doesn’t mean you have permission to use or share it. Digital resources, including those that cost money, can easily be distributed online with just a few clicks, and once a stolen resource is “out there,” it can be difficult to get it taken down.
Finally, there’s the problem of cohesiveness. Grabbing one-off materials from various sources can help you satisfy immediate instructional needs, and variety is a good thing, but if you’re looking for something more robust, more sustainable, you’ll have a harder time finding it without paying for it.
With these problems in mind, I was skeptical when I first heard about the #GoOpen movement. This initiative, launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, encouraged schools and districts to adopt free, openly licensed instructional resources. Sounded nice in theory, but I didn’t see it working: Where was the quality control? How would teachers be able to tell if they were getting good stuff? In a crowded sea of free resources, how many hours would it take to even find what they needed?
Then, earlier this year, I went to a conference and met Karen Vaites, who calls herself a “curriculum evangelist” and is an enthusiastic promoter of OERs, Open Educational Resources. Talking to Karen over cheeseburgers at one of the diviest bars in Austin, I was convinced to give OERs another look.
In our podcast interview, which you can listen to above, Karen and I talk about how OERs have gotten really, really good over the last few years, what some new platforms are doing to solve the quality problem, and where teachers can go to find outstanding materials—from single-use resources to full-year curricula—that are 100% free.
What are Open Educational Resources?
The U.S. Department of Education defines OERs as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under a license that permits their free use, reuse, modification, and sharing with others. Digital openly licensed resources can include complete online courses, modular digital textbooks as well as more granular resources such as images, videos, and assessment items.”
So unlike materials that your school needs to purchase from a publishing company or independent seller, OERs are completely free.
Vaites cautions teachers to pay attention to licensing when looking for OERs. “All things that are OER are given away for free,” she says, “but all things that are free are not OER, so if you go to Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers and you find a free resource, that resource may not actually give you the permission to edit and modify as you see fit.”
True OERs will be marked with a Creative Commons license, which gives users permission to use the resource for free. There are six different levels of licenses, each of which comes with its own restrictions. The licenses are pictured below and more details are available about each one at the Creative Commons website.
Why Should Teachers Pay Attention to Open Resources Now?
Free resources have always been around, but over the last 10 years or so, they have gotten a lot better and more comprehensive.
Vaites explains the whole spectrum of available OERs with a graph, where the X-axis represents the size of the resource.
“On the left side of that continuum you have supplement-scale materials: everything from a math practice item to a poem to one lesson. On the right you have curriculum-scale materials: teacher and student materials for a full grade band for a full year, complete with scope and sequence, and usually with assessments.”
The Y-axis would represent how aligned those resources are with specific standards. Some subject areas, like ELA and math, are held more tightly to specific standards, while others, like art, have fewer specific requirements.
Over the last few years, that top right quadrant has grown. “A big shift is this movement from there not only being lots and lots of open resources that were available that were maybe smaller in grain size—more like supplements—to us actually having OER curricula,” Vaites says.
And many of the newer resources are excellent. “We see a lot of intentionality around creating a more student-centered, hands-on, active learning instructional model.”
How Can Teachers Steer Clear of Free “Junk”?
Despite the existence of outstanding materials, the task of finding them in a sea of potentially low-quality resources can still be overwhelming. What can busy teachers do to make sure they are finding the best free resources out there?
When it comes to the smaller, one-off resources—the supplement side of the continuum—where “it’s still a bit of everything,” Vaites says educators mostly have to rely on user ratings.
“You can definitely find some things (on Amazon Inspire, for example) that have a pile of high star ratings, and just like anything else when you’re searching on Amazon, that can be a really useful proxy for quality. But you also don’t know who gave those star ratings, and did they give it because they liked the design or because it’s instructionally nutritious?”
“It’s a lot easier on the curriculum side of the continuum,” she says, “because we have organizations that do third-party reviews, all created by teams of educators.”
One of these organizations is EdReports, a nonprofit that puts together teams of educators to review full curricula. “They put out reviews of all kinds of programs,” Vaites says, “whether you’re looking at OERs or even commercial products, they’re just a wonderful resource to separate the good from the just OK to the not so great.”
Where to Find the Best Open Resources
Platforms with supplement-scale resources that are rated or curated:
Curriculum-Scale Open Educational Resources:
Available today and highly-rated by EdReports:
- EL Education Language Arts – and check out the modEL Detroit companion resources created by Detroit Public Schools
- Core Knowledge Language Arts
- Eureka Math
- Open Up Resources Math
Eagerly-anticipated curricula, for which strong reviews are anticipated:
- MVP Math (integrated math approach) – solid version 1 available today, enhanced version soon to be published as OER
- Bookworms K–5 Reading & Writing – version 1 in many schools today, enhanced version soon to be published as OER
- Illustrative Mathematics High School and Elementary Math