Open Educational Resources: A Policy Overview

By Reginal J. Leichty
Communicator
January 2013, Volume 36, Issue 5

Successfully navigating the challenging transition to college- and career-ready standards and assessments will depend in part on district and school leaders’ ability to ensure that all students have access to high quality, standards-aligned instructional resources, including versatile digital materials that support effective teaching and learning. In a growing number of states and localities, open educational resources (OER) offer a pathway for delivering powerful, standards-aligned materials to every student and teacher. OER are resources for teaching, learning, and research that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or repurposing by others. OER permit educators to share, access, and collaborate, so they can customize and personalize content and instruction. 

Many innovation-minded federal, state, and district leaders championed OER in 2012, including calling for and securing new OER investments at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Groundbreaking public and private OER ventures also significantly expanded the public’s recognition of the potential of OER to help improve teaching and learning. While these recent developments represent exciting progress, the most important long-term impact of these still nascent policies—which focus almost exclusively on content development and, to a lesser degree, educator and school leader awareness building—could be the foundation they lay for an even more powerful and sophisticated set of next generation reforms focused on promoting effective OER use. Given this emerging trend, now is an important time for school leaders to learn more about OER's potential to support their objectives and to inform the work of district and state leaders that might be considering implementation of OER policies or investments. 

Promoting standards-aligned OER use at scale will require deeper and more strategic integration of OER values and concepts into a broader array of ongoing education reforms. In other words, ensuring that all students have access to the high quality instructional materials they need to graduate ready for college or career is only a first critical step. Comprehensive and coherent OER practices and policies must be developed and adopted to empower educators to seamlessly collaborate (with each other and with students), including enabling them to customize and personalize content and instruction. This challenging effort will require the thoughtful input of school leaders and teachers, and should be informed by the lessons learned from significant OER projects already underway. 

State and local leaders significantly advanced OER policy and practices in 2012. Utah’s open textbook project began to expand statewide, including the development of open books for all secondary language arts, mathematics, and science courses. Utah leaders also integrated OER policy into the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver plan, which was designed to permit the state to implement innovative K-12 reforms. Washington State approved a new OER law, supported with first year funding of $250,000, directing the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a collection of openly licensed courseware aligned to the Common Core State Standards and an associated awareness campaign to inform school districts about the availability and potential of open resources to support student learning.

Perhaps most significantly (if measured by the number of potential students impacted), California approved two new laws designed to provide all students at the state’s public postsecondary institutions with access to free digital textbooks for popular lower-division courses and to open source the curriculum to facility members.

National organizations also got into the act, providing critically needed technical assistance and creating opportunities for state and local leaders to discuss and develop OER policy. Leading interstate collaboratives like the Council of Chief State School Officer’s Innovation Lab Network and national organizations like the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, and Achieve made OER technical assistance a core element of their work with state, district and school leaders.

These collaborative state efforts were supported by publication of valuable new OER tools and resources, including a new paper published by SETDA—Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 Textbook in a Digital Age—and the launch of a new State Education Policy Center describing and cataloging recent policy developments in the instructional materials market. Additionally, to help support open materials adoption, Achieve developed and published OER rubrics for teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders to evaluate OER quality.

Federal leadership and support for open educational resources development also continued in 2012. The Department of Labor granted $500 million for community colleges to develop open curriculum and tools focused on meeting the educational needs of displaced workers. The Department of Education made OER an element of the Administration’s marquee Investing in Innovation (I3) program. The Fiscal Year 2012 i3 program included a competitive preference priority for applications proposing to use OER and other actions “designed to significantly increase efficiency in the use of time, staff, money, or other resources while improving student learning or other educational outcomes.”

Though very meaningful, these recent federal, national, and individual state efforts must be expanded and improved if open educational resources are to achieve their full potential for improving teaching and learning. The next generation of OER policies must move beyond simply investing in high quality content and tools and instead also focus on deeper strategic integration with other policy reforms aimed at promoting college and career readiness. Interested school leaders should be prepared to engage with their peers, district leaders, and state officials to help inform and shape this discussion. If school leaders and teachers help policy makers ultimately grasp the importance of moving to a more sophisticated “OER policy 2.0,” however, 2013 could be an historic year for moving closer to the goal of making high quality OER a powerful tool in every American classroom. 

Reginal J. Leichty is a Partner with EducationCounsel LLC.

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