Open Education Resources or OER:
What They Are and Why They Matter
By Tyler DeWitt
You’ve probably heard the term open educational resources (OER), but what are they and why are they important? And how can teachers use them in the classroom?
OER are a growing body of free and diverse online instructional materials that are in the public domain (read: no copyright issues). Most of these resources are the work of teachers and educational organizations with firsthand experience of what helps kids learn, and what doesn’t.
A growing number of innovative teachers and schools are adopting these versatile resources, which, in the K-12 education world, where I work, are in the form of lesson plans, video tutorials, PDFs, and all kinds of interactive learning tools. Teachers are using OER to supplement their own teaching materials, or to enhance (or even replace) traditional textbooks.
One of the beauties of OER is that the materials are typically offered in a mix-and-match format, making it easy for teachers to develop the curricula they find most effective. The key here is flexibility – and not only in how and where teachers and students use OER.
Already vast, the OER universe is expanding all the time. New content is constantly being developed, and since OER are copyright-free, teachers can often modify and redistribute these resources. What’s more, unlike traditional textbooks, which are updated perhaps once a year and tend to come with hefty price tags, OER are constantly absorbing and accommodating new information, and they’re always free.
Differentiate With OER
Let’s face it, everyone learns differently. With OER, teachers can search out materials that address each student’s needs – for example, video lessons that allow students to watch, pause, and rewind at their own pace or materials designed for English-language learners that help them master language skills and content. In fact, the blended-learning model, in which a teacher presides over a class of students, each of whom works with a customized set of instructional media, is essentially OER in action. But even in classrooms where teachers still use traditional textbooks, OER can enhance lessons by providing extra practice or deep dives.
Because OER often have a pedagogical component, they can help teachers identify strategies, activities, and supporting materials for introducing concepts in the classroom. Traditional textbooks are filled with information, but when a teacher needs to find creative ways to help students learn that material, they generally offer little guidance.
That’s where OER come in.
Say a teacher is covering weather. A textbook might talk about meteorology and weather patterns, but it’s extreme weather that’s more likely to spark students’ interest, at least at first. The first stop for a teacher using OER could be OER Commons (oercommons.org), where a search for “extreme weather” brings up ready-made worksheets and activity suggestions.
From Smithsonian Education (smithsonianeducation.org), educators can download activities created by the National Museum of Natural History about weather patterns and storms, complete with maps and exercises. It’s like taking your students to the museum! YouTube EDU (youtube.com/education), an education-only part of the video-sharing website, has tons of videos that both inform and inspire (full disclosure: I have a popular science-education channel on YouTube).
Assemble Powerful Tools
A common concern among teachers is how to integrate OER into existing curricula. Some sites, such as Betterlesson.com, organize content by Common Core standards so instructors can quickly find resources that supplement particular topics. Sites like Readworks.org tie material directly to specific textbooks that a teacher may be using in class. The site has a wealth of resources for reading comprehension, including activities and worksheets that can provide important contextual information or explore plot elements, literary devices, and characters.
Teachers who want to use OER to replace textbooks entirely also have good options. The CK-12 Foundation (ck12.org) and The Connections Project (cnx.org) allow you to assemble your own full-length digital textbooks (often with accompanying teachers’ manuals and other supplementary material) that are free, high-quality substitutes for mass-market texts. Even for teachers who want to continue with commercial textbooks, OER can help students understand material in different ways or from new perspectives.
Whether printed or virtual, textbooks paired with video are powerful tools for flipping the classroom and blending learning strategies. Examples of high-quality educational videos can be found at the Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) and YouTube EDU (youtube.com/education).
Find the Best Resources
Despite, or perhaps because of, the abundance of OER content, quality can vary. Even the best online libraries and information repositories find it hard to rank resources based on such a subjective measure as “quality.” But there are a few solutions. Search rankings can be proxies for quality rankings. Many websites let users review resources, with the best-ranked items moving to the top of search queries. Shopping by “brand” can also help assure quality. Once you’ve found a source you like, you can return to find other content.
Another option is to rely on your peers. A variety of content management systems, like Curriki (curriki.org) and Net Texts (net-texts.com), where I work, allow teachers to put together courses using OER from multiple sources (Net Texts offers a curated collection of material from other sources as well as a library of more than 1,000 original courses). These curricula can be shared with other instructors, who can reuse or modify them to fit their students’ needs. While all this requires a bit of front-end effort, once the initial work is done, it’s easy to incorporate incremental changes.
For teachers who embrace OER, the pedagogical opportunities are limitless. Used in 1:1 computing programs, blended learning environments and flipped classrooms – even in traditional classrooms that need to enliven core content lessons – they offer easy-to-implement solutions that can mean the difference between engaging and ignoring the infinite capacity of a young mind.
Tyler DeWitt is an education innovator and the first director of original content at Net Texts, a leading developer of OER-based teaching aids. Dr. DeWitt came to national attention when he created Science with Tyler DeWitt, one of YouTube’s top educational channels. His TED talk has been viewed almost 1 million times.