How Teacher-Created Free Online Resources Are Changing the Classroom

When Eric Langhorst teaches the Civil War to his eighth-graders at Discovery Middle School in Liberty, Missouri, he likes to give his students a taste of what Missouri was like in that era. In addition to teaching about the big events found in any Civil War curriculum, like the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam, Langhorst incorporates materials he has created about the guerrilla-style warfare more common in his region at that time. He wouldn’t be able to localize his curriculum that way if he taught only out of a textbook.

“Some of the limitations of textbooks are they tend to be very non-interactive, kind of impersonal, and they’re not very flexible in terms of regional differences,” Langhorst said. For all these reasons, he doesn’t use them anymore. Instead, he creates his own curriculum, in collaboration with the other eighth-grade social studies teacher at his school, out of materials he has found on the internet and adapted to the needs of his classroom.

Langhorst didn’t always feel comfortable playing the role of curriculum creator, alongside his primary role as teacher. He started teaching in an analog-era, when finding and sharing materials was much more difficult. Teachers relied on textbooks as the primary resource because that’s all there was. And, as a new teacher juggling classes that spanned sixth through 12th grade, Langhorst didn’t feel confident enough to build his own curriculum. But now, 22 years into his career, he says he would never teach with a textbook again.

The Liberty Public Schools district sees Langhorst and his colleague as front-runners in an important shift toward open educational resources (OER). The district has joined the #GoOpen movement — a Department of Education campaign to raise awareness about OER — and has committed to ditching the textbook for at least one class, using open and adaptable online resources instead.

Keeping information fresh and up to date in a quickly moving world is one of the biggest reasons districts are starting to get more serious about the power of teacher-created open resources. Districts typically adopt new textbooks on a five-year cycle. At that point, some of the information is outdated.

Another reason teachers like Langhorst are excited about this movement is the ability to adapt resources for their own use. If a teacher believes a lesson plan found online isn’t completely aligned with the standards taught in his state, he can modify it until he’s comfortable with it. And, textbook companies often tailor their content to the legislative priorities of big states like Texas and California — where there are lots of schools — essentially forcing teachers in other states to accept language around some ideas, like climate change and the characterization of different ethnic groups, that were approved by those state legislatures.

But many teachers still have big questions about OER that will determine how many of them choose to adopt this approach to teaching and curriculum. Teachers are familiar with the amount of time and energy it takes to create good learning materials because many already curate and remix lessons. As the infrastructure to search and share those lesson plans becomes more robust, some teachers wonder whether they should share lessons they created with the world when they were never compensated for the time they put into making them. Others worry about issues of intellectual copyright.

“You’ve got this potentially great lesson that you’ve created and you want to share it, but it’s not a book or a song, something that traditionally has an author,” Langhorst said. Instead, lesson plans are often mashups of articles, videos, photos and other media. Teachers are hesitant to share those lessons with their names attached because they know they don’t actually own all the elements within it.

“I can’t think of many things I do in the classroom that I can solely say I created or that I thought of,” Langhorst said. He’s also worried that some districts will pull back from textbooks as a way to save money (a lot of money), but won’t reinvest those savings into the teachers creating curriculum or into professional development to help them use the new resources well.

GOING OPEN BY FOCUSING ON PROJECTS

Vista Unified School District, just north of San Diego, has been quietly transitioning to open educational resources through its focus on providing alternative paths to learning for students. For example, Vista Visions Academy allows K-12 students to attend school only half the time, while pursuing independent study at home through online programs.

In middle school, students come to a school building only three days a week. They get help from their teacher or peers, have advisory and complete lab classes. The other two days a week are done online. High school students take 90 percent of their classes online. Because of the unique structure at Vista Visions, teachers there have been using digital resources they curated for several years.

District leaders are also trying to support teachers to move more toward a project-based learning approach to teaching and away from traditional, textbook-bound instruction. As part of the process they are training teachers to curate and remix engaging lessons, paying them for their time while they’re doing it. “We’re trying to teach teachers to be discerning about what they’re bringing to kids,” said Erin English, Vista’s director of blended and online learning.

She says this shift in professional development has translated to a change of instruction. A few years ago most teachers in a typical Vista Unified classroom were following a textbook, assigning a worksheet to practice a skill, and then doing an activity or writing assignment based on that lesson. Now, teachers who have had extra training are asking students to find their own information and use it to display their knowledge of the subject. Sometimes teachers will tell students where to find that information, but they are also trying to help students analyze their sources.

“It’s getting teachers to understand that all students learn differently,” English said. “We’ve been standardizing our instruction for years, but we haven’t been very successful.”

English said one big point of pushback from her teachers revolves around the time it takes to create materials this way. She understands it’s a huge workload, which is why she’s committed to paying teachers in her district who are working to create open educational resources.

“It’s about giving kids current, relevant and timely material,” English said. She contends that teachers can’t teach their students to think critically about the world and the information presented to them if they learn from only one source while in school. Open educational resources can help drive home the point that there’s always another opinion or a different perspective.

“We need to give [students] problems for them to solve themselves,” English said. That’s why she’s so excited about a collaborative project Vista teachers created with teachers in Ohio and Wisconsin about how the earth affects people and how people affect the earth. The seventh-grade teachers at middle schools in all three states collaborated to build a unit of study that students in each class would do over three months. Students also collaborated with one another across state lines to give feedback, eventually presenting their final projects to one another through Google Hangouts.

“Students chose how they were going to display how they were going to master those standards through projects,” English said. In the final products, students demonstrated their learning with everything from coding to making videos. One girl built her own smoke machine to simulate smog. English said the cross-state collaboration was particularly fun because students in different parts of the country had a lot of misconceptions about one another. Connecting over their projects helped them learn about different regions of the country.

“We have not done competency-based education, nor have we done a lot of open materials in our classrooms in a typical school,” English said. Teachers involved in the collaboration were dipping their toes into a lot of new areas, but they felt safe doing so because the teachers in Ohio had much more experience with both project-based learning and competency-based education.

“For our teachers it was enlightening,” English said. While the collaboration impacted relatively few teachers and students, the exhibition of the projects sparked excitement in other teachers to try something similar. The use of open resources trickled down into other classes that are now trying to use digital content they’ve curated as supplements to textbooks.

“Most teachers have been doing this for a really long time without publicizing it,” English said. California teachers often feel particularly hamstrung by textbooks because of a court ruling in the Williams case that every child must have access to a textbook. The law came out of a class-action lawsuit meant to ensure equal access to clean and safe facilities and up-to-date learning materials for all California students. Practically, that means many district leaders feel they must spend huge portions of slim budgets on textbooks.

“Very few people haven’t realized the gold mine of the internet,” English said. That’s why she’s grateful the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education has been supportive of open educational resources through its #GoOpen push.

The Office of Ed Tech is supporting districts to #GoOpen in a few ways. First, staff members are trying to ensure that there is infrastructure in place to make teacher-created materials more discoverable. Amazon has brought its recommending and search prowess to the project with Inspire, a platform where teachers can upload their lessons, tag them and make them freely available to other teachers around the country. Inspire is still in beta, with several district around the country testing its functionality. The plan is for the Inspire platform to be compatible with third-party learning management systems that many schools already use, so teachers can search the learning registry from within their school’s platform.

Another part of the #GoOpen initiative is to connect districts doing this work and encourage more to join. DOE staff have paired “Ambassador” districts with “launch” districts, like Liberty and Vista, so educators involved in this work can share information, best practices and learnings.

Lastly, the DOE recognizes that for many K-12 educators the OER space is new and a little daunting. Staff members are working to offer districts some guidance as they think about beginning to work more teacher-created and curated resources into their curricula.

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