Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Educators as Content Publishers

by Rebecca M. Henderson

As a company, we have been learning about, working with, and promoting the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) for a while now. So when we heard that the Intermediate Unit and school districts in our hometown are starting to explore the potential of OER, we got very excited. Based on our internal learning experiences, we knew that educators would have questions about how and when to use them, why they should use them, and where to find them...and we are ready to answer those questions. 

But it’s always the question that you’re not quite prepared for that generates the best discussion. I recently attended a summit on Open Educational Resources hosted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU3) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of Remake Learning Days 2016. The focus was to introduce educators in our area to the OER movement and to spark innovation among the participants. The speakers included Eric Westendorf, CEO of LearnZillion, Hetav Sanghavi from CK-12, and Richard Culatta, Chief Innovation Officer of Rhode Island and former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education. Each of them encouraged collaboration and group discussions throughout their presentations.

One particularly interesting group discussion prompted participants to envision themselves as the publishers of the instructional content that their students used on a daily basis. As we thought about this angle -- educators as content publishers -- a teacher within our group spoke up. She said that she had never thought of herself as a publisher. For her, the term “publisher” was an intimidating concept. She didn’t have the skill set to publish content for a large textbook company or publishing house. How could she ever be considered a publisher of instructional content?

Her question made me pause for a moment. As I said, it’s the question that you’re not quite prepared for that sparks the best discussion. She didn’t consider herself to be a publisher, and I’m willing to bet that many other educators feel the same way. How could they ever be on the same level as textbook companies and publishing houses? These are organizations that make billions of dollars creating and publishing instructional materials for students all over the world. They must know this better than we do. What I said to her is exactly what I want to share with you:

You know your students better than anyone. You know their needs. You know their likes, their dislikes, their learning preferences, their study habits. You are more qualified than any textbook company or publishing house out there to create, share, and modify any instructional materials for your students.

It might seem like a scary concept at first. I doubt that many of us think of ourselves as authors and publishers, myself included. But we are the experts, not only in our content areas, but also in the development and engagement of our students. We know what they need, when they need it, and how to deliver it to them. We don’t need to rely on mass-produced materials to drive our instructional methods, especially when we can create better ones that can actually reach our students and grab their attention.

The beauty of the OER movement is in its simplicity. You know your students and their needs best. Therefore, you should be the one driving the instruction in your learning environment with materials that are worthy of your expectations. Represent your students, show what you know, and begin thinking of yourself as a publisher of instructional content. Trust in your own abilities to reach your students and provide them with exactly what they need. Don’t hide behind the scary what-ifs, I-can’ts, or any other doubts. Instead, step into the spotlight as a content creator and publisher.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up and push yourself out of your comfort zone, to have a voice louder than the boxed curriculum and textbook companies that seem so intimidating, but you can do it. Yes, you! After all, I’ve never considered myself an author before, and here I am.


Rebecca M. Henderson is the Director of Sales and Partnerships at Spider Learning, Inc. She has over ten years in the classroom and is also a certified K-12 principal.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Preparing Teachers for 21st-Century Learning

by William Taylor

Whether in elementary, secondary, or college classrooms, many teachers have begun using open educational resources (OER) as an integral part of day-to-day learning. However, just as no two students are the same, neither are any two teachers. The problem with OER is that although the concept of freely accessible, openly licensed resources has been around since 2002, different states, districts, schools, and teachers have transitioned to using them at different rates, or potentially not at all. The margin is wide. Many schools, such as the Open High School of Utah, for example, operate by utilizing a curriculum that consists 90% of OER. The school’s founder, David Wiley, explained that content is delivered completely online and made available to students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Utilizing personalized learning to the fullest, schools like the Open High School of Utah are pioneers in the technological shift in education. While this and similar institutions are well established and functioning effectively, not all schools are advancing at the same pace.

According to a data report in The Journal, paper notebooks are very much a thing of the past, and school-provided technology is available at more and more institutions. The report findings show that in 2014, 33 percent of all high-school students used school-issued mobile devices. Additionally, 66 percent of middle- and high-school students had access to a laptop, and an average of 56% of both groups had access to tablets. Largely, this technology is providing the majority of students in these age brackets with the ability to access information through online portals, however much lower percentages of students are using this technology to read online textbooks or watch teacher-created videos.

Since it is likely that these percentages have increased since the publication of the data report, the following question naturally arises: How are teachers being developed to use educational technology in a way that best supports a student’s ability to learn?

Many factors contribute to the answer to this question, the first of which being whether or not teachers are comfortable with technology in general and the technology that different schools have adopted in particular. It is suggested in an article from Education World, “Encouraging Teacher Technology,” that teachers may be hesitant to use technology because of “a lack of time, a lack of resources, or a lack of confidence in their ability to use the available technology.” Many traditional teachers may adopt the mindset of “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” However, this philosophy only serves to create a wider and wider gap between a district’s goal to implement technology and actually bringing the goal to fruition.

Assuming that teachers have begun utilizing technology, determining exactly how to do so can quickly produce a new barrier. The struggle to find ideal OER to use in the classroom was once an issue because of the limited number of resources available, and while this issue should phase itself out as more and more resources become available, the struggle then morphs into a new issue: OER can be overwhelming. College of the Redwoods Director Geoff Cain acknowledged that a volume issue exists when faculty members search for resources. Oftentimes, it is overwhelming to sort through the large number of resources available on a single topic, while it’s even more frustrating to find so few that relate to other skills.

In a perfect world, when a teacher identifies a gap that a new resource could fill, the creation of a new resource could solve the problem. This is part of the core mission of #GoOpen, but why are there still gaps? In a recent post by the Center for Digital Education, it is recognized that many faculty members still don’t know about Open Education or OER. It’s as though these resources are spreading around the globe like an elongated version of the telephone game. So how do we, as an educational community, translate the message to the masses? The answer is simple -- do what we do best: teach.

Professional Development (PD) sessions are a solution to help educators all over the globe by meeting them where their current skills and expertise reside, and helping to carry them toward the next generation: 21st-century learning. Not only can well-structured PD help instructors with distinguishing OER from non-OER, but it can also develop their ability to create their own OER and the confidence to do so. We all know that OER allow educators to “remix, revise, reuse, redistribute, and retain” content, but knowing how and when to do that unlocks the true potential for OER, in and outside of the classroom.

Professional Development sessions can be delivered through many different forms of instruction, ranging from a very general training session, to fully online webinars, to hands-on collaborative efforts. But what is most effective? In an extensive handbook by Learning Forward, research suggests that online sessions are less effective than face-to-face sessions, because educators are limited to working and learning alone instead of being a crucial part of a collaborative effort that promotes each individual to learn from the experiences and ideas of others. But the ability to scale the delivery of PD and allow for asynchronous access to the information secures a place for online content in OER PD programs. And as much as how, frequency also plays a substantial role in the success of a Professional Development effort. Multiple on-site workshop sessions, supported by online access to resources and follow-up activities, are the key to successfully developing the professionals responsible for implementing next-generation learning. Teachers are ready and eager to learn -- are you ready to deliver?


William "Bill" Taylor is the CEO of Spider Learning, Inc.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Welcome to the Copyright Jungle

by William Taylor

The movement toward going open is spreading like wildfire among the education community, but the challenge of navigating through the jungle of copyright law can quickly dampen that enthusiasm.
This image is in the public domain.

Teachers know how valuable it is to have access to the plethora of knowledge that truly links the minds of educators across the globe. They also know how important it is to share this vast highway of resources with students in brick-and-mortar classrooms, as well as on the Web. The high-quality materials produced by those institutions that have adopted #GoOpen tactics are readily available on the Internet, and all that teachers need to do is simply click into a search bar and find something relevant -- right? Well, let’s just say there is a little more to navigating copyright law than that. Before we enter a seemingly unbounded world of knowledge, it’s important to dissect the little details that make Open Educational Resources (OERs) “open” resources.

Free and Open are NOT the Same

It’s important to note that free and open are two very different things. You might think to yourself, “I was able to find it digitally, online, without paying; it must be open.” However, that is one of the most common misconceptions associated with OERs.

For example, while sites like YouTube house millions of videos that can be viewed by anyone on the Web, the majority of these videos lack any sort of licensing information, or just utilize a Standard YouTube License. For any resource with this specific license, it is essentially an “All rights reserved” license that is non-derivative.

In basic terms, it prevents many of the 5 R’s associated with OERs. Opencontent.org defines OERs as “open content” that “provides users with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities: Retaining, Reusing, Revising, Remixing, and Redistributing content.” (Side note: YouTube has enabled users in recent years to add a Creative Commons license (CC BY) to uploaded work, which DOES enable those specific works to be used openly.)

Confused by Copyright?

If you’re searching the Web to distinguish between what is open and what isn’t, you’ll likely find a lot of overly complicated explanations that leave you feeling more bewildered than when you started. Simply put, the “openness” of a resource depends on its license. The most straightforward way to share information is to submit it into the public domain. All resources in the public domain can be used in any way, however you wish, commercially or non-commercially, fully or in part.

There is a degree of differentiation between the public domain and Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons uses 4 elements to create licenses. They are described on the Creative Commons site as follows:

All of our licenses require that users provide attribution (BY) to the creator when the material is used and shared. Some licensors choose the BY license, which requires attribution to the creator as the only condition to reuse of the material. The other five licenses combine BY with one or more of three additional license elements: NonCommercial (NC), which prohibits commercial use of the material; NoDerivatives (ND), which prohibits the sharing of adaptations of the material; and ShareAlike (SA), which requires adaptations of the material be released under the same license.

Image created by Kamil Sliwowski, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Want an easy way to remember what is and isn’t an OER? Anything that is labeled as “ND” or “Non-Derivative” is NOT an OER. Non-Derivative licenses are the most restrictive, and clearly disregard the “5 R’s.”

Think about it this way: Bands and artists remake preexisting songs all the time. If the original song had a non-derivative license, then the artist who remade the song into a similar but not identical version would have violated that license. In that case, the artist may allow others to share his or her version, but not remake it into something else. Relating this example to education, the original song could be used for educational purposes, but a teacher would be unable to make any changes to or adaptations of the original version.

The CC specifics can be a bit confusing, but the overall idea behind all of the detailed licenses is to be able to share information, resources, and knowledge. Sounds like a great thing, right? When you take away all of the bells and whistles, it’s pretty simple: Creative Commons licensing enables people to share their work in a way that is clearly labeled, and allows others to understand what they can do with it.

As a community, we’ve come a long way in making sure that education is open and available to all people, but there is still a long way to go. Fully understanding what OERs are, and equally, what they aren’t, will help to grow the number of outstanding resources out there, as well as the number of instructors who are utilizing them. It will help to prevent misconceptions associated with risks involved when making work open, and will ideally eliminate all instances of openwashing, or misrepresenting resources as being open, as myths are combated with facts. Plus, it will give teachers peace of mind about using content without infringing on a copyright. Understanding what makes OERs “open” is the key to surviving in the wilderness of mysterious resources and lurking licenses.


William "Bill" Taylor is the CEO of Spider Learning, Inc.