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TOOLS FOR LEARNING - Open for Learning: Open Educational Resources: Ensuring Equity of Access to Education Resources for All Students

By Victor Rivero - Posted Nov 15, 2016
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“Openly licensed educational resources can increase equity by providing all students, regardless of zip code, access to high quality learning materials that have the most up-to-date and relevant content.”

–U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King

If open education is a collective term describing programs and practices on an institutional level that work to broaden access to learning and training traditionally offered through formal education systems, then making initiatives to support such work requires open materials and content.

As our world evolves and advances technologically, and the education sector slowly but surely begins to undergo a shift to digital, the U.S. Department of Education is advocating for educational opportunities that are available to all learners through the creation of an open education ecosystem.

Such a model would make learning materials, data, and educational opportunities available “without restrictions imposed by copyright laws, access barriers, or exclusive proprietary systems that lack interoperability and limit the free exchange of information.”

OERs Defined

In other words, such freely available content is what the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) terms open educational resources, or OERs. By definition, these are “any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them.”

To be clear, these are further defined by the Hewlett Foundation, a supporter of such programs, as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”

What sort of resources, exactly? Well, these include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

This may seem incredible. The potential to improve teaching and learning would be immense. Libraries or collections of such resources would form a virtual treasure trove of knowledge of the world. And just the sound of it seems too good to be true.


To some degree, it is. Aggregation and curating of OERs is a herculean task. The Hewlett Foundation, for one example, has worked with OER grantees to improve education worldwide, attempting to make high-quality academic materials openly available online. The foundation continues to work toward the establishment of a self-sustaining and adaptive OER ecosystem as pushed for by the U.S. Department of Education, one that demonstrates its potential to improve teaching and learning on a global level.

Shifting to digital on a district level looks like El Paso ISD, a system that averted spending millions of dollars on textbooks and implemented OERs instead. As part of a new strategic plan, leaders there put in place what they feel is a better, more dynamic alternative. In budget-strapped school systems, the alternative isn’t really a second choice, it’s the only choice.

Even with the use of OERs, districts still need a learning platform. There are dozens out there, including Edmodo, Edsby, Schoology, Canvas, Gaggle, Alma, itslearning, and scores of others. Districts need a common platform for content and tools. They must build professional learning communities, and saving on content costs by using OERs is a very large part of the strategic plan.

Stats and Context

One of the largest stewards of OERs is Creative Commons. With more than 800 million openly licensed materials (complete course, course materials, textbooks, videos, journal articles, photographs, artwork, essays, newspaper articles, podcasts, and creative works), Creative Commons includes every conceivable topic under the sun, moon, and stars “from the K to gray”—or at least through graduate school.

The problem with all of this, of course, is (just as the U.S. Secretary of Education alludes to in the opening quote above) quality, currency, and completeness. These vary widely, and that is precisely why the existence of OERs indeed can seem too good to be true. The knowledge exists, but who on Earth can really organize all that knowledge into a useful, workable system?

A couple of years ago, the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the U.S., conducted a survey of states, and in collaboration with iNACOL, produced “State of the States: Open Educational Resources in K–12 Education,” a report on what states, districts, and educators are doing to update and expand their focus with OERs.

Current Landscape

More recently, in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the U.S. Department of State, collaborated with federal program officers, policymakers, and others to build what they are calling an Open Licensing Playbook. With it, they intend to provide information on how agencies can effectively use open licensing requirements and draw upon existing OERs to advance their missions and better serve citizens, a noble goal indeed.

The playbook would answer questions regarding the use of OERs and open licensing requirements for grants, such as how and where to best retain resources once produced, how to use them, how to provide support to developers of OERs, and so on. It will include case studies and success stories from across a broad spectrum of those involved with the OER movement.

OER Resources

Lumen Learning provides quality open courseware and support for educational institutions looking to eliminate textbook costs, broaden access to materials, and improve student success. An excellent overview and general info can be found here:

Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is leading the effort to advance understandings and implementation of OERs at the state and district level and can be connected with through

Nonprofit organizations are sharing open resources too. They are making available OER libraries that include personalization through playlists offered directly to students. These sorts of nonprofits include the following:

The CK-12 Foundation,


Khan Academy,


OER Commons is a freely accessible online library allowing teachers to search and discover OERs, including instructional materials.

Open Up Resources is a nonprofit dedicated to broadening access to excellent content and materials. Its goal is to empower all students and teachers.

Cengage Learning is doing a lot with both K–12 and higher education OERs so is worth a closer look, especially considering its recent partnership with National Geographic.

In an age of advancing technology, the great hope of OERs is not an insurmountable task, but is now closer than ever. Rapid advancements and ever-changing methods make it necessary for closer collaboration to push the goals of OERs forward to fruition. A great source on what’s currently under discussion regarding the current state and future direction of the OER movement can be found here:

The promotion and widespread adoption of quality instructional materials in the marketplace, those that truly promote equity of access to the best opportunities a K–12 education can deliver, are what OER leaders have long advocated. Only now, these opportunities are closer at hand than ever before and worth exploring. Have a look for yourself, dig in deeper to some of the resources above, and happy reading!


A great example of a school system that decided to #GoOpen (shift from traditional to OER) is the Williamsfield School District, a small, rural district in Illinois, serving approximately 300 students in one building from pre-K through 12th grade. With fewer than 100 students attending the high school, the district built on openly licensed resources and leveraged education technology to save families and taxpayers money while providing unique, targeted learning opportunities for each student:

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