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OERs-pulse

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.

 

Image: 4Max/Shutterstock

Black-teachers

The Keys for Empowering Black Male Learners

How to make the best use of the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

 By Baruti Kafele

Whatever other gains have been made in American education in the past decade or two, there is a continuing crisis when it comes to young black males, who graduate at a rate of just 47 percent. I believe the biggest challenge for American education is motivating and inspiring black males to strive for academic excellence. I also believe this is attainable, and the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative is one step toward this vision. Below, I’ll outline how a Young Men’s Empowerment Program, such as ones I’ve created in previous schools, must be a key component of My Brother’s Keeper initiatives.

For readers unfamiliar with My Brother’s Keeper, it is a White House initiative to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” The President’s Task Force is working to identify programs and policies that work in our communities to help young people reach the following six milestones:

  • Entering school ready to learn
  • Reading at grade level by third grade
  • Graduating from high school ready for college or career
  • Completing post-secondary education or training
  • Entering the workforce
  • Reducing violence and providing a second chance

The reality is that in the academic realm, we typically discuss the plight of black males within the context of the overall achievement gap. In doing so, we’re addressing this as an academic problem, which it is not. When we analyze the national achievement data of black males, it becomes glaringly clear that this gap in achievement occurs in virtually every district in the country and across rural, suburban, and urban areas. There are deeper issues that often go unaddressed in schools.

Peer pressure and gangs are the two biggest challenges I’ve witnessed affecting my students (and these are by no means unique to the communities I’ve served). The feeling among so many black males is that it is uncool to be smart and that succeeding in school means they’re “acting white.” This results in black males coming to school wearing invisible masks and thereby adhering to this black male code of conduct, academically speaking. Teachers all too often attempt to teach to the mask rather than the student because they do not realize that he is wearing a mask.

I have contended for many years, based on national data that shows upwards of 70 percent of black children are born into a household where there is no father present, that this is a crisis. We are asking black males to perform proficiently in the classroom when far too many of them are struggling with home issues that start them off on unequal footing. Due to the lack of male role models in their homes, schools, communities, and even the media, they are confused about their roles as young men.

To address the challenges that arise from a lack of black male role models and to help young black males gain an understanding of who they are, I launched the Young Men’s Empowerment Program in a middle school where I was principal, and then brought it with me to Newark Tech High School when I became principal there.

The purpose of the YMEP is to teach my male students about both manhood and their history. The overall development and leadership of the program was, and is, a sustained collaboration between my staff, community partners, and me. The community partners contributed greatly to the overall climate and culture of the school and to the academic, social, and emotional growth and development of not only my black male students but to all of my male students. The YMEP components include:

  • All-male empowerment assemblies/meetings with black guest speakers (Power Mondays)
  • All-male empowerment classroom meetings with black guest speakers
  • Small-group and one-on-one mentoring sessions led by men of color
  • Opportunities to meet and spend time with black male college students, successful black males in their work environments, and men of color in political leadership roles
  • Dress for Success days
  • Father-son programs
  • Positive Rites of Passage programs

School counselors play a crucial role in making this program work. They identify and locate the role models who come to the school to work with students. Staff members can reach out to local organizations, neighborhood associations, religious institutions, and even individual community members—we have found that there are many men who would love to come into their local schools to speak to or mentor students but have never been approached. Before this occurs, however, a committee of staff members should conduct a needs assessment of their male population. The following questions should be raised:

  • How will we go about bringing men into our school to speak at our empowerment meetings?
  • What kind of follow-up will we have for the speakers to engage in?
  • Will the meetings be comprised of single grade levels or will grade levels be combined?
  • How frequently will the meetings occur, during what time of day, and how long will they last?
  • What do the girls do during the male empowerment meetings?
  • Which staff members should be involved?
  • What topics will be discussed and what activities will we engage students in?
  • What are the goals of the male empowerment meetings?
  • How will we measure the success of the program?
  • What are the possibilities of partnering with corporations, businesses, and other agencies?

Our YMEP was rooted in what we coined “Power Monday”—a day to focus on empowerment. All male students were required to wear a shirt, tie, slacks, shoes, and a belt. The intent was for them to look empowered and ultimately to feel empowered. For the actual empowerment program, we had a meeting with one grade level on the morning of each Power Monday. These meetings typically lasted for two hours. I, along with other male staff members and men from the community, would engage the students in a wide variety of discussions pertaining to the many facets of manhood. I wanted the students to be exposed to men from all walks of life, so I went into the community and literally recruited men to be a part of what we wanted to accomplish with our male students.  

As our test scores began to rise to a level of national recognition over the six years that I was principal of Newark Tech, it was clear and evident that our YMEP, with a concentration on Power Monday, was making a tremendous difference in the lives of our young men. If similar programs become a part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative across the nation, more schools can experience this success.

For more information on the public and private sector groups that have pledged time and money to recruit mentors, share information, and more, look at the My Brother’s Keeper Fact Sheet. To find out more about becoming a mentor and bringing change to your community, check out serve.org.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author of Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success (ASCD, 2013) and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life (ASCD, 2009). Under his leadership, Newark Tech High School in New Jersey went from a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized as one of America's best high schools in U.S. News & World Report.

On this new episode of ASCD’s Whole Child Podcast, Baruti Kafele and ASCD’s Sean Slade discuss how knowing your students, intentionally creating a positive school climate and culture, and making learning relevant set the stage for student motivation and achievement. They’ll pay attention to how making meaning for students is an underutilized, but effective, strategy.

Listen to the episode:

 

Image: Blend/ MediaBakery

Top Stories for Wednesday 10/1

US College Enrollment Down

Second year in a row, student enrollment is decreasing. EdNews

Apps Created for Ed. Data Mining

Apps being developed to explore electronic ed. data. HechReport

UMUC Wins Intl Cybersecurity Competition

The UMUC Cyber Padawans hack their way to a win. WashPost

“Deeper Learning” Schools Excel

A study shows students have better test scores and people skills. EdWeek

DOE Creating Level Playing Field for Students

New education guidelines work to end racial inequalities. NYT

Top Stories for Thursday 9/25

Students Coding for a Purpose

HFOSS project creates “software for humanity”. HechReport

Nashville Parents Fight School Closings

PAC pushes back on Dir. of Schools. EdNews

Teaching with Banned Books

Teachers demonstrate the value of banned books. HuffPost

Lessen Standardized Testing?

US Rep and supts. drive to reduce standardized testing. PBS

Clinton Voices Opinion on Charter Schools

Former Pres. Bill Clinton advises charter schools to step up. HuffPost

Randi Reacts to Vergara Decision

Statement from AFT President Weingarten on Vergara Decision

WASHINGTON— Statement from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on today’s Vergara v. California decision.

“Today, as the Vergara decision was rendered, thousands of California classrooms were brimming with teachers teaching and students learning. They see themselves as a team, but sadly, this case now stoops to pitting students against their teachers. The other side wanted a headline that reads: “Students win, teachers lose.” This is a sad day for public education.

“While this decision is not unexpected, the rhetoric and lack of a thorough, reasoned opinion is disturbing.  For example, the judge believes that due process is essential, but his objection boils down to his feeling that two years is not long enough for probation.  He argues, as we do, that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom. He is right on that.  But in focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, he strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice.  In focusing on who should be laid off in times of budget crises, he omits the larger problem at play: full and fair funding of our schools so all kids have access to the classes—like music, art and physical education—and opportunities they need.

“It's surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children.  We must lift up solutions that speak to these factors—solutions like wraparound services, early childhood education and project-based learning.

“Sadly, there is nothing in this opinion that suggests a thoughtful analysis of how these statutes should work.  There is very little that lays groundwork for a path forward.  Other states have determined better ways—ways that don’t pit teachers against students, but lift up entire communities.  Every child is entitled to a high-quality education regardless of his or her ZIP code. And no parent should have to rely on a lottery system to get his or her child into a good school.

“This will not be the last word. As this case makes it through an appeal, we will continue to do what we’ve done in state after state. We will continue to work with parents and communities to fight for safe and welcoming neighborhood public schools that value both kids and the women and men who work with them. No wealthy benefactor with an extreme agenda will detour us from our path to reclaim the promise of public education.”

###

Top Stories for Thursday 4/17

How Will The New SAT Test Vocab?
The redesigned SAT will focus on ‘high utility’ words. What exactly does that mean?

Choosing Sides At Northwestern
Last month’s vote to allow a union causes friction. The New York Times

Opposing Views on Teacher Tenure
Calif. case outcome could become example for other states. The New York Times

Common Core Aligned With Cognitive Issues
Field tests for students with disabilities administered. Education Week

Indiana Rushes to Make New Deadline
First state to drop Common Core to approve new standards. The Huffington Post

Pay It Forward Tuition
New idea could allow students to go to college for free. NPR

Top Stories for Wednesday 4/9

Obama Announces Grant Winners
Schools will use funds to integrate work experience. NYT

Bill to Streamline Teacher Dismissals
Proposal aims to quicken dismissal process. KPCC

Can K12 Ed Startups Succeed?
How these two companies are navigating the market. Edweek

Do Students Still Have Free Speech in School?
How social media is complicating student rights—and eroding privacy. The Atlantic

When Are Tech Tools Worth It?
Is the technology creating more chaos in the classroom? Hechinger

Top Stories for Wednesday 4/2

Cyber Attacks: The Latest Testing Controversy
Kansas suspends state tests following repeated cyber strikes. EdWeek

U.S. Students Are Strong Problem Solvers
Global standardized tests reveal nations’ strengths. NYtimes

Which Children Face Barriers to Success?
Study reveals groups with the biggest disadvantages. HuffPost

Will Pre-K Work?
The political obstacles have been cleared, but will it help? Hechinger

Entrepreneurship for Academia
Student leaves prestigious education for tech company. WashPost

Are Employers Asking for SAT scores?
Your SAT score might be on your resume. NYtimes

Top Stories for Wednesday 3/12

Will the Common Core Spell the End of the Letter Grade?
How standards-based grading could revolutionize assessment. The Atlantic

NYC Building Collapses
Middle school shaken by nearby explosion. The New York Times

School Lunches Transformed
How one fed up parent is making big change. Education Week

Charter School Supporters Aren't Giving Up
Thousands protested De Blasio’s decision in Albany. Education Week

Foreign Students Struggle in Universities
American colleges try to keep foreign students enrolled. The New York Times

Are For-Profit Schools Taking Advantage of Students?
States work to correct for-profit school oversights. Hechinger Report

Top Stories for Thursday 1/16

Congress Gets Graded on Education
NEA assigns letter grades for every member of Congress. The Washington Post

America’s Textbooks Outranking America’s Students
U.S. math textbooks deemed ‘more rigorous’ than South Korea’s. The Atlantic

Teach for America is Expanding
New program aims to help alumni find civic-leadership roles. Education Week

The NYC DOE Wants to Talk Facebook
DOE releases nine-page social media guide for students. The Huffington Post

2 Injured in Shooting at New Mexico School
Middle school student opened fire, struck two students. The New York Times 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.