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Are Open Educational Resources the New Textbooks?

SRI International
   Alexandra Ball & Daniela Saucedo

Stock image of computer-oriented learning

Traditional printed textbooks are failing to keep up with the shifting needs of modern K–12 education. Changing academic standards can render relatively new textbooks obsolete; a 2017 survey of 584 districts found that most districts adopted new textbooks and related curriculum materials every 6–10 years, and the most commonly cited reason was the need for materials that align with new standards.1 Given the short shelf life of textbooks, cost is a critical factor in curriculum decisions, particularly for low-income districts. Thus, many districts are looking for sustainable and cost-friendly alternatives to the traditional textbook.

Open Education Resources (OER) may be the solution. They are often available at no or low cost, adaptable, and abundant. OER have become commonplace in higher education; in 2018, 2.2 million students and 48% of all U.S. colleges used OER textbooks from one leading provider.2 However, OER are still relatively new in the K–12 space. Educators and policymakers are just beginning to consider how to use, study, and scale OER in the classroom.

What are OER?

OER are curriculum materials that exist in the public domain or under an open copyright license and are therefore available for free access, use, adaptation, and redistribution.3 OER encompass a range of curriculum materials, including individual learning objects (e.g. an instructional video or lesson plan), comprehensive textbooks, and full or partial courses. While not necessarily digital, OER are most easily accessed through online databases such as OER Commons CK-12, MERLOT, and OpenStax.

Educators can use OER as their primary instructional materials for a course; this strategy has gained popularity in postsecondary settings, as the cost of college textbooks has increased.4 While some K–12 districts have also fully adopted OER, many K–12 educators use them to supplement existing materials or to facilitate more personalized and engaging approaches to learning.5

The potential benefits of OER in K–12 are numerous, including increased:

  • Alignment with learning standards,
  • Accuracy of information,
  • Collaboration among teachers and curriculum specialists,
  • Use of personalized learning strategies, and
  • District cost savings.6
However, OER are not without drawbacks. Because anyone can create OER, the quality of the materials and information included may vary. Teachers may have to spend additional time searching for, modifying, and compiling OER for use in their classes—time many teachers simply don't have.7 It takes coordinated effort to identify or create OER that meet state standards, vet quality, and ensure proper licensing.

What does the research say?

Evidence about the impact of OER on student outcomes is limited and mixed.8, 9, 10 Available survey data suggest that many teachers perceive OER as being higher quality than traditional curriculum materials, and teachers and students report that OER improve both instruction and student engagement.11, 12 Nevertheless, additional research is needed on the impact of OER on K–12 learning outcomes.

At the district level, studies show that OER may offer cost savings—but these benefits can be realized only through specific implementation strategies. In a 2012 study comparing the cost effectiveness of different OER adoption models, researchers found that teachers who adapted OER materials to fit their needs and limited the number of printed copies cut their materials costs in half—without impacting student performance. However, teachers who used OER materials “off the shelf” and failed to limit printing did not experience the promised cost savings of OER.13 Moreover, the most commonly cited challenges teachers cite in using OER are difficulty finding suitable resources and lack of time to vet and modify resources—obstacles which require administrative investment and support to overcome.14 This emerges as a theme across the literature—the potential benefits of OER are realized only if educators are provided with adequate training, support, and resources (both time and other).15, 16; 17

Map of the U.S. depicting states that represent statewide #GoOpen Initiatives

Note. Orange states represent those with statewide #GoOpen initiatives. Retrieved from https://tech.ed.gov/open/states/

What are states doing about OER?
A profile of Virginia

OER have gained in popularity not only among educators, but also among policymakers. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology rolled out the #GoOpen initiative to support states and districts in transitioning to OER. The program currently supports 20 states in creating new approaches to professional development, developing differentiated lesson materials, and expanding the use and quality of OER.18 The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) joined this national initiative to address resource disparity and create equitable learning opportunities for Virginia students.19 In 2019 REL Appalachia began laying the groundwork for an evaluation of Virginia's #GoOpen initiative, #GoOpenVA.

GoOpen VA logo

REL Appalachia team members and the #GoOpenVA advisory committee, consisting of VDOE staff and Virginia school division representatives, have been working together to produce a logic model for the initiative. In the short term, #GoOpenVA aims to increase educators' knowledge of OER, their belief in the utility and value of OER, and their engagement/collaboration with a community of educators using OER. In the medium term, #GoOpenVA intends to improve teacher instruction through the use of OER materials to personalize and differentiate instruction. The #GoOpenVA campaign ultimately aims to increase student engagement and performance and “to become a national example of the power and promise of open educational resources.” 20

Additional Resources

To learn more about how states and districts are supporting the use of OER, visit the Department of Education's #GoOpen States and #GoOpen Districts page. See also:

Footnotes:

1 Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2017). What we teach: K–12 school district curriculum adoption process, 2017. Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from https://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/k12oer 2017/whatweteach_2017.pdf.

2 Ruth, D. (2018). 48 percent of colleges, 2.2 million students using free OpenStax textbooks this year. Houston, TX: Rice University News & Media. Retrieved from https://news.rice.edu/2018/08/01/48-percent-of-colleges-2-2-million-students-using-free-openstax-textbooks-this-year/.

3 The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation. (2019). Open educational resources. Retrieved from https://hewlett.org/ strategy/open-educational-resources/.

4 Seaman, J. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Freeing the textbook: Educational resources in U.S. higher education. Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from https://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/ freeingthetextbook2018.pdf.

5, 7 Boston Consulting Group. (2013). The open educational resources ecosystem: An evaluation of the OER movement's current state and its progress toward mainstream adoption. Boston, MA: Author. Retrieved from https://hewlett.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The%20Open%20Educational%20Resources%20Ecosystem.pdf.

6 Bliss, T., & Patrick, S. (2015). OER state policy in K–12 education: Benefits, strategies, and recommendations for open access, open sharing. Vienna, VA: International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Retrieved from https://www.inacol.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/oer-state-policy.pdf.

8 Robinson, T., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2014). The impact of open textbooks on secondary science learning outcomes. Educational Researcher, 43(7), 341–351.

9 Wiley, D., Hilton, J., Ellington, S., & Hall, T. (2012). A preliminary examination of the cost savings and learning impacts of using open textbooks in middle and high school science classes. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 262–276..

10 Hilton, J., Larsen, R., Wiley, D., & Fischer, L. (2019). Substituting open educational resources for commercial curriculum materials: Effects on student mathematics achievement in elementary schools. Research in Mathematics Education, 21(1), 60–76.

11 Kimmons, R. (2015). OER quality and adaptation in K–12: Comparing teacher evaluations of copyright-restricted, open, and open/adapted textbooks. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(5), 39–57.

12 De los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Pitt, R., Weller, M., & McAndrew, P. (2016). Adapting the curriculum: How K–12 teachers perceive the role of open educational resources. Journal of Online Learning Research, 2(1), 23–40.

13 Wiley, D., Hilton, J., Ellington, S., & Hall, T. (2012). A preliminary examination of the cost savings and learning impacts of using open textbooks in middle and high school science classes. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 262–276..

14 De los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Pitt, R., Weller, M., & McAndrew, P. (2016). Adapting the curriculum: How K–12 teachers perceive the role of open educational resources. Journal of Online Learning Research, 2(1), 23–40.

15 Orwenjo, D. O. (2018). Challenges of adopting open educational resources (OER) in Kenyan secondary schools: The case of open resources for English language learning (ORELT). Journal of Learning for Development, 5(2), 148–162.

16 Kimmons, R. (2014). Developing open education literacies with practicing K–12 teachers. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(6).

17 Rutherford-Quach, S., Kuo, A., & Hsieh, H. (2018). Understanding their language: Online professional development for teachers of ELLs. American Educator, 42(3), 27–31.

18 U.S. Department of Education (n.d.). Welcome to #GoOpen. Retrieved from https://tech.ed.gov/open/districts/ launch/welcome/.

19, 20 Virginia Department of Education (n.d.). GoOpenVA: Open educational resources (OER) initiative. Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/technology/technology_initiatives/open-edu-resources/index.shtml.