Crippled by Choice: Plethora of Open Educational Resources Inundate Educators

Teachers can find hundreds of free resources online, but how can they find the right one, for the right student, at the right time?

by Michele Molnar, Education Week / January 15, 2016 0

(Tribune News Service) — With millions of pieces of open education resources flooding the Internet, educators face a "needle in the haystack" problem of epic proportions.

Sure, they can find hundreds, if not thousands, of free pieces of content to accomplish their mission with students, but how to find the right one, aligned to the right standard, for the right student, at the right time? That challenge lies at the heart of personalized learning, whether conveyed through teachers, technology, or some combination of the two.

The Houston schools confronted that issue in the rollout of PowerUp, the district's 1-to-1 digital learning initiative for its 215,000 students.

Planning to move away from traditional textbooks, the district needed to start "curating, creating, and—where we couldn't create or curate—procuring" content, said Annie Wolfe, the officer of secondary curriculum and development. Without providing curated content, "we knew teachers would just go out and Google for resources," she said.

That prospect didn't work with the district's commitment to online security and safety, nor did it reflect the best practices of digital citizenship, she said. If the district intended to abandon textbooks, officials would have to be sure content was aligned with state standards, said Michael Dorsey, the director of secondary curriculum.

Houston turned to Knovation, a Cincinnati-based company providing its netTrekker application for vetted content already used by Houston's school library system. The district wanted this curated content to surface in "itslearning," the name of the learning management system that it uses, and contracted with Knovation to align 360,000 curated digital resources to the district's curriculum map.

Each free resource in the collection was selected, evaluated, tagged, and aligned to Texas standards to make accessing the appropriate items easier.

Using a 120-point checklist, Knovation certifies each piece of content, said Randy Wilhelm, Knovation's co-founder and CEO. "These are gates the content is running through; we're assigning it meta-tags or context against the standards, or aligning within the taxonomy of what's taught in schools," he said.

After Knovation tags the content, educators in Houston verify its accuracy, Dorsey explained.

Finding the Flow

Houston is moving from a "store and retrieve" setup for digital content to full integration with the district's learning management system so that resources will flow to users as needed, Wilhelm said.

Eventually, Houston plans to "have personalized learning like never before," Wolfe said, taking data from formative and standardized assessments and linking the findings to curated content to best enhance a student's learning.

Houston's challenge is being felt across the country. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education to help schools embrace the use of openly licensed resources to free funding for digital learning.

The department also to #GoOpen with digital instruction—encouraging districts to use open-ed resources. It recruited 10 districts to replace at least one textbook with free resources and identified "ambassador" districts that had already done so. It has also established the Learning Registry as a repository for open-ed resources that can be tapped by educators.

The Education Department's push "will make even more great OER content" available, said Elisabeth Stock, the CEO and co-founder of PowerMyLearning, a New York City-based nonprofit that operates PowerMyLearning Connect, a free platform identifying digital resources for personalized instruction. "It's not a question of needing more content," Stock said, "but how do you find it, and how do you use it well?"

Gwinnett County, Ga., is one school system facing that question. "Our greatest challenge is finding curated content in the format we need it in," said Tricia Kennedy, the executive director of eCLASS transformation for the 176,000-student district. (eCLASS is an acronym for its "content, learning and assessment support system.") Gwinnett wants content delivered according to interoperability standards, allowing flexibility "so teachers can select bite-sized learning activities for their students' individual needs," she said.

Stock said such "granular content" is in demand as her organization conducts teacher professional development sessions on blended learning that highlight curated digital learning activities like interactive games and videos. "We spent the energy to curate what we think is the best of the best," she said.

'High Touch' vs. 'High Tech' Approaches

Content can be curated in a variety of ways—from the "high touch" use of educator evaluation to the "high tech" approach that uses algorithms, and a range of "tech/touch" combinations in between. The curators may be educators or former educators paid by an organization, or they may be in the classroom, uploading curated content into playlists or lesson plans to be shared.

OpenEd, for example, relies on "machine learning" to determine what standard a video or educational game is likely to be aligned with, said Adam Blum, the co-founder and CEO of the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company. Subject-matter experts are used to confirm the computer's findings and are usually in agreement with algorithms, Blum said.

Besides online resources, OpenEd includes homework assignments and assessments.

Each resource gets an "effectiveness rating" so a search for a learning objective will produce items that data shows will work best.

Another approach comes from Gooru, a Redwood City, Calif.-based nonprofit that relies on educators as "crowdsourcers." The Gooru platform is geared toward teachers building collections of open-ed multimedia resources and students directing their own learning.

With the crowdsourced approach, teachers can interpret the suitability of resources differently. Gooru recently developed a guide to help standardize evaluation of resources, said Wendy J.S. Noble, Gooru's vice president of learning and instruction.

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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