The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 124 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

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. 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 this episode, 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.

Before we get started I’d like to thank Chill Expeditions for sponsoring this episode. How do you maximize student travel experiences? You partner with outstanding experiential educators in the field! This is what Chill Expeditions does: partner with great teachers like you to customize student travel experiences.  They work closely with you to create customized, in-depth experiences that match your excellence in the classroom. Build a school in rural Rwanda. Study dolphins with local biologists in Costa Rica. Gain language skills in a homestay in a tiny Spanish village on the Mediterranean coast. Without the team of educators at Chill Expeditions, including expert trip planners, highly trained guides, and visionary local collaborators- these experiences wouldn’t be the same!  Chill Expeditions has the finest professional field educators in the business because The educators you travel with Matter. Learn more at

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The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family is the home of dozens of different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. Check out all of our shows at

Now here’s my interview with Karen Vaites about Open Educational Resources.

GONZALEZ: So hey, Karen. Welcome to the podcast.

VAITES: Thank you for having me.

GONZALEZ: We are going to talk about open educational resources, or Open Up Resources, more specifically. And so before we get into that, why don’t you just tell our listeners a little bit about what you do.

VAITES: So I’m a curriculum evangelist. I have had the great fortune of seeing these, this new breed of really excellent curriculum, many of which are openly licensed, coming into classrooms. So seeing teachers tweeting excitedly about their experiences with the materials it, it changes you. So the evangelist mantle fits. But most recently I spent a few years helping to launch Open Up Resources, which is the leading provider of openly licensed curricula, which are given away for free with an open license, which helped me to really develop this deep understanding of the OER landscape in addition to curriculum.

GONZALEZ: Right. So is the, is that, is evangelist your actual job title, or is that something that you have given to yourself?

VAITES: It is, it was actually the title I gave myself when I was at Open Up, and it’s the mantle that I wear now where I’m, officially I am the founder of Eduvaites, which is an organization that does math and literacy and curriculum advocacy work, but I feel like chief evangelist is the best way to represent who I am in the world.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And it’s basically to point people toward curriculum resources that are going to be really great for their teaching?

VAITES: Absolutely.

GONZALEZ: Got it. Okay. So to make sure that we’re all understanding the terms the same way you and I and anybody listening, give us a definition of open educational resources and also tell me a little bit about how the whole OER movement has evolved over the past decade or so.

VAITES: It’s a great question, because there’s been a lot of evolution just in the last two or three years alone. Open educational resources are best defined, you know, in the driest sense, we talk about them as assets that come with a particular type of license. So if something is an open educational resource, it is being given away for free, but it’s also coming with an intentional permission that the creator has articulated that this resource, be it a lesson or be it a full curriculum, is being given away with a permission to edit it, reuse it, remix it, as long as you attribute that resource to the original source. And there are a couple of different types of licenses for OER, one of the more commonly used ones is a very permissive one called CC BY.

GONZALEZ: Oh, okay. I was going to say, this sounds just like Creative Commons, but these actually are using Creative Commons licenses?

VAITES: These are using Creative Commons licenses.

GONZALEZ: Got it. Okay.

VAITES: So a CC BY license, if you see that, that means that you can edit, reuse, remix that content any way you want, even for commercial purposes, as long as you attribute to the original author. There are other OERs that are given away with different licenses that allow you fewer modification rights and/or fewer rights to use them for commercial purposes. So you would want to be checking into, what’s the license of any resource that I’m using? And a quick check-in to see what permissions come with that on the Creative Commons website or on the provider’s website to understand how much can you reuse and remix.


VAITES: And it’s always worth mentioning, the easy clarifying statement is all things that are OER are given away for free, but all things that are free are not OER, so if you go to a Pinterest or a 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. So you want to be looking for that license, that OER license stamp to understand, am I looking at free? Am I looking at OER? What rights come with you?

GONZALEZ: Got it. Got it. And so should it be assumed that if it is, if it’s got the OER stamp that it is the most restrictive it would be would be CC BY?

VAITES: There are more restrictive licenses out there that allow fewer types of, you know, fewer revision rights or fewer republishing rights in particular. The, the ability to use something for commercial versus noncommercial purposes isn’t as relevant to educators who usually aren’t trying to sell something that they’ve remixed.


VAITES: But it can come up if you’re distributing things on Teachers Pay Teachers, you’ll need to know if there’s a commercial limitation, which would come with a CCNC license, which means yes you can reuse, remix, but not for commercial purposes, NC is for non-commercial.


VAITES: So always worth just checking into the details if you’re working with an OER asset.

GONZALEZ: Okay. And so for as long as there has been an internet, and even before that, you know, we could all find stuff out there that was free, whether it was the teacher down the hall made it and you could borrow it, or once things got online, you could just look stuff up and find free things online. So when, when did this sort of become an actual thing that had a name, you know, OER versus just people randomly sharing free stuff online?

VAITES: Gosh, that’s a really good question. And I would, I would point someone to the Creative Commons website if they really wanted to dive into, you know, the deeper history. But it’s been in the last 10 years that we’ve seen, we’ve seen enough of these materials coming, to become available, created by different providers that actually OER started to become a thing worth paying attention to for educators. So I’m sure that the licenses predate the last decade, but in the last decade we’ve seen the GoOpen movement, which was an effort to help educators realize that these new materials were available, and more notably, I want us to come back and answer the second half of your question before around how was the landscape changed?


VAITES: Because 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. And I’m going to just take a second to kind of draw a map for you, if you will.


VAITES: I’ll actually send you this, my favorite visual about this, that you can put onto your blog for any listener who wants to go take a look at this and see the landscape with their own eyes.


VAITES: Imagine along a continuum, an X-axis, if you will, that on the left side of that continuum you have supplement scale materials, and then over on the right hand side of that continuum you have curriculum scale materials for any given subject and grade band. So a supplement scale material, if you go to many of these OER sites, you’ll find everything from a sample math item or a math practice item to a poem to one lesson to one assessment or one sort of worksheet equivalent. And over on the curriculum scale side of things, if we say that something is curriculum scale OER, that means it’s going to have all of the materials, teacher and student materials, for a full grade band for a full year, complete with scope and sequence, and usually complete with assessments. So if you picture that continuum, and then you start to draw another axis, you put a Y-axis on the thing and say, along the Y-axis any teacher thinking about finding resources for the classroom is going to find that they’re either teaching in a really standard, centric subject, like math or ELA, or in some states science under the NGSS, where the standards in that grade and subject are a major reality, or they’re teaching a subject like art, where I’m unaware of any state that has an art standard. So for any teacher going to look for resources, they’re somewhere on that landscape, either looking for supplements in a really standard centric subject or looking for curriculum in a standard centric subject. What we’ve seen is that 10 years ago there were resources upon resources that were in the supplement scale arena, and you could find them across more websites than it would even be worth sending folks to, because we all know that when we’re looking for resources, we want to find our way to quality quickly, and me telling you about dozens of places you could find lots of little things is honestly where things are maybe even a little less useful. In the last 10 years we’ve seen, for the last five years, really, we’ve seen two things. A few platforms have emerged that have done better jobs of helping educators curate materials and/or find goodness. So we’ve seen the Amazon Inspire platform, which has star ratings and that’s one proxy for what did some educators think about these things, and there’s easier searchability, so Amazon Inspire is one good place to be seeing how peer-reviewed supplements are looking. And then there’s also the Knovation platform, which has actively curated high quality resources, but again more on the supplement side of things. But the big revolution is actually on the curriculum scale side where a number of organizations, particularly post Common Core when we just had in some arenas just major weaknesses in standards-aligned curriculum as of about five years ago. So philanthropists help to fund and states help to fund the creation of full-course curricula that because it was philanthropically and state-funded was given away for free. So now we have a number of really great options up in that upper right hand quadrant of this visual that are both curriculum scale and actually in those standards intensive subjects of math and ELA, and we’re just starting to see advances in the sciences now that we have the NGSS. I’m predicting that in the next few years we’ll start to see this wave come to the sciences as well.

GONZALEZ: Got it. So it’s been sort of like the Wild West for a while, and just now sort of, organizations are starting to curate things that are made by lots of people, and then there are also philanthropically sponsored teams, basically, that are creating, deliberately creating full curricula that aligns with standards that is because it’s already funded by someone else is free to anybody who wants to use it.

VAITES: Indeed. And when, if you look at the way that the curricula have been created, it’s usually a philanthropic organization or a state providing the funding, but looking to go, often in RFP has done and some set of organizations that, you know, are experts in math or experts in literacy step forward to say, hey, I could offer this content. Many people know the EngageNY materials, for example, which were created by, you know, funded by the State of New York. What few people realize is that those same nonprofits that created the EngageNY materials often kept authoring and polishing those marbles and making better and better and also additional grades, additional grade bands, new resources, so you’ll find that these resources tend to come from nonprofits, many of whom actually operate schools or spend a lot of time in schools. So it’s a very different breed of curricula than you’re going to find from the commercial publishers.

GONZALEZ: Okay. Hey, I just want us to scroll back a little. What is RFP? You said somebody would do an RFP, I don’t know what that means.

VAITES: Thank you. It’s a request for proposal.

GONZALEZ: Oh, okay.

VAITES: I know, sorry. I’m, all this insider lingo.

GONZALEZ: Okay. So all right. You’ve already sort of answered this question, but I want to address it directly. For a lot of people, and this includes me, experience has taught us that the word “free” can often be synonymous with “crap,” which makes us doubt the quality of OERs. And, and based on what you’ve said just now about some of this stuff being intentionally created and also curated and finding, you know, places that are actually giving us reviews of products, that already kind of helps, because when I hear, like, when I first heard about the GoOpen movement, I thought, oh lord. It is going to take so long to find the good stuff out there, if we’re pushing so hard. Just because as somebody who has created educational products, I know that I would not put 200 hours into something if I just gave it away for free, because I, you know, everybody has to feed their families. So you’re explaining already a little bit more about where the funding actually comes from for this stuff, that it isn’t just generous teachers who are, you know, making $40,000 a year and just making it out of the goodness of their hearts and sharing it with the world and it happens to also be amazingly awesome. It’s coming from other, other places, I guess. So what else have we already not said about this topic, in terms of the funding and the quality?

VAITES: The short answer is that when we’re down on the supplement side of the continuum, it’s still, it’s still a bit of everything. It’s —


VAITES: You’re going to find, if you go to Amazon Inspire, for example, you’ll find everything from resources that have been created by some expert organization that is putting them out to things that have been created by teachers that are giving them away out of the goodness of their own hearts, or they’re, there are notoriously a few districts that have created materials as part of district projects, and then have given them away for free via Amazon Inspire. So you’ll find an entire range. What sets Amazon Inspire apart is that they have a star rating convention. I was just skimming it this morning, and some things don’t have star ratings, so there’s, there is still some user discretion, but if you do some searching, you can definitely find some things 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.


VAITES: But you also don’t know who gave those star ratings, and did they give it because they liked the design or give it because it’s instructionally nutritious? It’s a lot easier on the curriculum side of the continuum, because we have two organizations that do third-party reviews, all created by teams of educators. I hope everyone that’s listening knows EdReports, which is a review nonprofit organization that does nothing but organize teams of educators to do quality reviews of full course curricula. So in math, ELA and just recently in science for the first time, they put out reviews of all kinds of programs.


VAITES: Whether you’re looking at OER or you’re even looking at commercial products —


VAITES: — they’re just a wonderful resource to separate the good from the just OK to the not so great, and the State of Louisiana, seeing the power of what EdReports did, they created a review system as well that looks at many of the same quality variables, and they put out under the Louisiana Believes mantle, sets of curriculum reviews as well. And what’s interesting and also unsurprising, actually, is that if you look at any given curriculum and you look at its reviews in both places, it tends to either do really well in both places or do really poorly in both places. Turns out the teams of educators come to consensus about what good looks like.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Okay. I want you to repeat that. I had never heard of EdReports until just this second when you said it. So I’m guessing a lot of other people have not heard of it either, and that sounds fantastic. So is that like or something?



VAITES: And they, they review materials for alignment to standards in particular. They have a couple of gateways, so if you look at their website, you’ll see that if something does well on the first initial gateway, it’s about quality reviews in both math and ELA, then they keep reviewing. And across three gateways, which are slightly different in math and ELA, but we’ll hear people talk about materials that are all green on EdReports, which means you got a green or highly aligned, very positive score across gateways one, two and three. And my personal way of talking about curriculum is all the things that are all green are the things that are worth looking at. We actually talk about there being a curriculum renaissance in the last two years, because for the first time, there’s depth of choice in the all-green curricula in most math and ELA categories. So whether, OER, you know, within the OER space and beyond the OER space, it’s really worth looking at EdReports and also Louisiana Believes, which has a tier one, two and three system, at those all green in tier one curricula, because they tend to be pretty new, and tend to be much better than what we saw before. What’s wonderful about having EdReports and also Louisiana Believes is that they do help us see what’s quality and what’s not, and interestingly, the openly licensed curricula are some of the ones that have risen to the top of those EdReports in Louisiana Believes reviews. As quick examples, the highest rated curriculum for K-5 English Language Arts is an openly licensed free curriculum, the EL Education language arts curriculum. The Core Knowledge curriculum is also one of the very chart-topping curricula in K-5 English Language Arts and has exceptionally strong reviews for K-2 ELA. Over in math, the Eureka math curriculum in K-5 was the first curriculum to earn green reviews from EdReports in K-5 math, and that is also openly licensed. And then the Open Up Resources middle school math curriculum, which was developed by Illustrative Mathematics, is actually the highest reviewed curriculum of any math curriculum that EdReports has ever reviewed, regardless of grade band, with an almost perfect score.


VAITES: So this idea that a new breed of nonprofits has created these awesome resources and put them out isn’t just my opinion, it’s actually what these third-party reviews are showing us.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Well, and that actually leads right into my next question, which is that, you know, it really does sound like you’re kind of getting the best of both worlds. This stuff is free and it’s also really high quality. So, you know, can you maybe dig into a couple of examples of some of these so that listeners can hear about what exactly is it about some of these that’s making them so great? If we can maybe hear about some of the lessons that are in them or the approaches that they’re taking, so we can get a better sense of what’s in these materials.

VAITES: Yes, yes, yes. So what’s really wonderful about many of these materials is that we see a lot of intentionality around creating a more student-centered and/or hands-on active learning instructional model. So there’s a ton of thoughtfulness in the instructional model. There always should be with curriculum, but sometimes if we looked at the textbooks of yore, it wasn’t always necessarily easy or natural to figure out, how do I take these materials and actually create those active learning experiences around them?


VAITES: Many of these curricula are purpose-built for that. So in addition to being aligned to math and literacy best practice generally. So one of the examples that I like to talk about, if we talk about math, that Open Up Resources middle school curriculum is really designed with a significant number of lessons that have really hands-on active learning, it’s a problem-based curriculum, but students are solving these problems often in pairs or in teams. So you’ll go into a classroom and a typical lesson revolves around two to three different problems that students are solving that often look like activities. So students might do a card sort for a few minutes, and they are expected to be discussing their mathematical reasoning with each other. So they’re pushing each other’s mathematical thinking and also coming to articulate their own mathematical reasoning. They are able to see those times when their partner comes to a, the same answer via a different route, and so that, there’s that development of conceptual understanding even in that regard, but many of the activities are also designed to foster conceptual understanding, which is one of the goals that we would have in math generally. A critique of math curriculum is often that it can be so procedural.


VAITES: And in ratios, for example, in that middle school math curriculum, students will start the ratio unit with lessons that include, a lesson where students are taking yellow colored water and blue colored water and mixing it in different ratios in vials to see the different greens that come out as they’re exploring ratios. And another lesson in the same, in the same sequence, students are mixing drink mix in different ratios and then sitting there tasting it and tasting the really watered down versus the really strong.


VAITES: And understandably that’s a really make it stick way —


VAITES: — of driving home the principles of ratios, so as students get into the more procedural part, the unsurprising thing that happens is actually that many of the students who struggle with math, seem to be the ones who get the most gain out of those practices, and those are the stories that we’re hearing out of classrooms.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So this is definitely not just sort of workbooks full of, of problems to solve or anything, or just PowerPoints with lectures. They’re giving teachers actual hands-on activities to do with students also.

VAITES: This is the furthest thing from just content.


VAITES: Because we’re talking about curriculum that should bring really awesome instructional experiences for students. There’s thoughtful design around what does that look like? This is not just math problems. This is actually a wonderful math experience that’s being designed for students to foster learning.

GONZALEZ: Nice, okay.

VAITES: If we shift over to literacy for a second, before I go into maybe those, those sort of active learning principles, it’s worth taking a moment in this day and age where there’s so much concern about literacy practice and for example, a lot of national focus this year on phonics and do we have the right phonics practices for students? And are we supporting all students with decoding, but are we supporting dyslexic students? One of the things you’ll find is that the programs that are those all green on EdReports programs have some of the strongest daily systematic phonics components that you’ll find. The Core Knowledge curriculum is absolutely phenomenal in its phonics progression. If, if a district was using a different curriculum, but even wanted to go in and leverage just that component of Core Knowledge, I’ve seen districts do that, and it’s a wonderful approach, it’s a free openly licensed curriculum.


VAITES: EL Education is also lauded for its foundational skills development. Both of those curricula are actually designed around science and social studies themes. So students are developing their content knowledge, which many people don’t realize is a key pillar to support reading comprehension and to support vocabulary acquisition, so we can have students intentionally reading about and learning about frogs and about history and that happens to foster engagement, but it’s also tremendous for literacy principles and also for districts that are struggling with finding time for science and social studies at the elementary level. So you have all these wonderful things that are nutritious about these curricula generally, but from a secret sauce perspective, I love talking about the EL Education curriculum, because they build this really intentional set of social emotional learning supports right into the materials. It’s part of the design principle of their schools that they’re building habits of character for students. So there’s a tremendous amount within tier one ELA of intentionality about how do we get kids, how do we get kids pushing each other’s thinking? How do we move beyond even collaboration and discussion to helping students verbalize and express their feelings about things? I would not be able to do this topic justice, so I’m going to send you a link that we can link from the, of a really rich interview that was just done with their curriculum author. But when you go into their classrooms, the degree to which students are being nurtured as people and nurtured and being able to express themselves as good citizens, as an additional layer on top of tier one ELA is really distinguished.

GONZALEZ: That’s wonderful. Yeah, it does, everything you’re saying just sounds very, very thoughtful. So if a teacher wants to start looking at these, where would you send them, where would be some of the best places to go to find high quality open resources?

VAITES: Yes. So same thing, back to your blog, I’m just going to make sure that I send you a, a nice pile of links that folks can go to so that if they are searching for supplement scale resources, I would be saying head on over to Amazon Inspire for a free platform. If a district is really looking to invest in curated supplement scale resources, the Knovation platform does exist, although I’ll, I should note that it is actually a paid platform, albeit all those resources inside of it are free. So that’s one call out. From a curriculum scale perspective, we have this long and growing list of openly licensed curricula that can all be accessed online via the web. And so we have the EL Education curriculum. I want to make a quick point about a special project that just happened, that’s a great illustration of why OER’s are so cool. It’s a project called the modEL Detroit Project. And Detroit public schools community district actually took, they adopted the EL Education curriculum, but they recognized that it’s really rich and robust, but that can sometimes make it a lot for teachers to take on in year one. So they received philanthropic funding to work with the EL Education team and with other literacy experts to create supplemental resources that basically accelerate lesson planning for teachers. And then they gave those resources away for free, and they could do that, they didn’t even need EL Education’s permission, although they, they did collaborate with them, because these are free openly licensed resources. So technically any district could take them, modify them, tweak them, make something awesome out of them and be giving them a way onward for free, paying it forward.


VAITES: But the fact that just this last year the Detroit district actually did that, I think it’s such a cool project. So I’ll include a link to that too, because it’s an awesome set of supplements for anyone using EL Education in addition to a nice illustration.

GONZALEZ: All right.

VAITES: We have the Core Knowledge curriculum, which some people do end up purchasing materials for it from Amplify, so it should be known that yes, it’s distributed by Amplify for anyone that wants the workbooks, but some people don’t realize that actually Core Knowledge does give it away for free on their website, and Core Knowledge has actually been moving themselves into additional content areas with science and history materials. So Core Knowledge has a robust set of options, but this super highly rated ELA curriculum, Eureka Math, who’s also a curriculum that can be accessed freely and openly. The Open Up Resources middle school math, and for those who are looking for an integrated high school math program, the MVP math program is another one that is free and openly licensed. Those are the ones that are my shortlist, and if I think of any others I’ll make sure that they hit your blog as well.

GONZALEZ: Okay. Yes, and we’ll, yes, we’ll provide a link, because I’m guessing anybody’s listening they’re like, ah, I can’t keep track of these. So we’ll just, we’ll give them a nice list of places that they can explore. And then I am guessing that people will probably have some follow-up questions for you, they’ll want to tell you about their individual situation and where should they start looking. So how can people get ahold of you online?

VAITES: I am @karenvaites on Twitter. My last name is V as in Victor, A-I-T-E-S. And I have a blog called Eduvaites where I do write a lot about these different themes in addition to math and literacy research and practice.

GONZALEZ: Okay. And is that

VAITES: Yes it is., actually.

GONZALEZ: .Org, okay. Karen, thank you so much for explaining all of this. Your, your level of knowledge is really stunning to me. You’re like an encyclopedia of open resources. So I just think this is, this is, and this is coming out in the summertime when people are starting to assess what they’re going to be doing in the upcoming school year too, so this is maybe an opportunity for people to find some stuff that really helps them solve some problems in the classroom. So thank you so much.

VAITES: Thank you so much for having me.

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