Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Role of Open Educational Resources (OER) in Making Education Available to All

The following is a guest post by Juliana Meehan - Teacher of English at Tenafly Middle School and candidate for New Jersey principal’s certification through NJ EXCEL, currently interning with Principal Eric Sheninger at New Milford High School.  She is also co-creator of IOCS project.

I recently had the honor of traveling to the MIT campus in Boston and participating in a panel discussion on Open Education Resources (OER) at The Sixth Conference of MIT's Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) with three illustrious advocates of these open resources:  Nicole Allen, Philipp Schmidt, and panel moderator Steve Carson.  The panel discussion, “The Role of Open Educational Resources in Making Education Available to All,” brought together the three of us who have been engaged in very different aspects of open and online education in order to share our respective OER projects and engage in an open discussion on the expanding world of OER with an audience of about fifty individuals from around the world.    

“Open educational resources” (OER) here refers to the many free learning resources now populating the Worldwide Web.  OER ranges from highly structured college courses (MOOCs) to less structured curricula from colleges and other institutes of learning (OpenCourseWare a/k/a OCW), to free online textbooks, and everything in between.  The list is growing as are the populations who can benefit from these resources.

My LINC Conference Panel:  Perspectives from IOCS, PIRC, and P2PU

Our panel was wonderfully (and serendipitously) poised to cover a wide array of circumstances.  I work in K-12 education, Nicole with college students, and Philipp primarily with adult learners.  My project is local; Nicole’s is national; Philipp’s is international.  The discussion, which ran from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m., was largely driven by audience questions and comments.


My role was to present and discuss the Independent Open Courseware Study (IOCS) program that Eric Sheninger and I developed and piloted this year at New Milford High School in NJ.  IOCS is a framework enables high school students to access OCW from prestigious institutions of learning like MIT, Yale, Harvard, and others and earn high school credit for their work.  IOCS is aligned to select Common Core Curriculum standards for language arts literacy, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) NET.S Standards, and New Jersey World Class Standards in Technology.  Going forward, IOCS plans to partner with MIT to offer New Milford students MIT’s OCW Scholar courses, which MIT defines as “substantially more complete than typical OCW courses and include new custom-created content as well as materials repurposed from MIT classrooms…arranged in logical sequences and include[ing] multimedia such as video and simulations.”

My take-away message to the audience:  Visit the IOCS website.  Use our model to bring OCW to your students; collaborate with us to refine it; adapt the materials to meet the needs of your students.


Panelist Nicole Allen discussed her work as Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)’s Textbook Advocate.  Since 2007 she has been engaged in making free textbooks available to college students all across the country through PIRG’s “Make Textbooks Affordable” project.  PIRG is a non-governmental organization that defines itself as “a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.”  Nicole works with students, faculty, and decision-makers to address the relentlessly increasing costs of college textbooks.  She explained that, while the choice of text is undoubtedly the prerogative of college professors, she seeks to inform them of the availability of comparable texts that are completely free of charge.  The economics are staggering.  College textbooks can currently run upwards of $200 each, and the average student now spends $1200 per year in texts.  Nicole’s work has resulted in hundreds of professors across the country choosing free texts over traditional costly textbooks and lowering the cost of higher education for thousands of students.  Read an interview conducted by Creative Commons with Nicole in 2010 and watch a webinar that Nicole presented with Cable Green of Creative Commons on the website of  the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system.  

Our audience was greatly interested in exploring these resources.

My take-away:  We must spread the word that there are thousands of free textbooks online available to our students.  


Panelist Philipp Schmidt is the Executive Director of Peer 2 Peer University (a/k/a P2PU) a non-profit organization that offers OER to adult learners—or just about anyone—and gives learners recognition for their achievements.  P2PU defines itself as “a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities.  Learning for the people, by the people. About almost anything.”   It is operates under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.  P2PU is a place where anyone can put up free content, and anyone can take advantage of the learning opportunities available on the site and receive review, feedback, and opportunities for revision.   The P2PU consists of six schools:

  • School of Data, Open Knowledge Foundation
  • School of Ed, K12 Handhelds
  • School of the Mathematical Future, Planet Math
  • School of Open, Creative Commons
  • School of Social Innovation, Citizen Circles
  • School of Webcraft, Mozilla

My take-away:  Become a member of P2PU and explore the educational offerings; spread the word to thought leaders about creating new online material to share with the world.

Panel director Steve Carson, Director of Communication for MIT OpenCourseWare, expertly steered the panel through such topics as:

  • What is the attraction of OER for you?
  • Open licenses
  • Widening opportunity vs. improving existing systems
  • Business models
  • Public policy

Steve also spoke about MIT OCW and fielded some questions.  One exchange was exceptionally important for me.  An educator in the audience from Uganda noted that in developing countries like his Internet bandwidth is a big problem.  Watching just one instructional video—let alone a series of them embedded within an OER—poses great challenges.  They cannot download such large files, and their purchased Internet time is quickly used up with such resources.  Steve explained that MIT can work with him and his school to provide OER material in a form that they can use, whether it is in a hard drive, a disk, a USB or whatever other way they can accept the material and use it freely within their networks at home.  In the course of my educational work in New Jersey, my colleagues, students, and I connect with schools in Uganda and Ghana, and I know this bandwidth problem to be a great impediment to sharing information with people around the world.  It is gratifying that MIT is willing and able to meet needs like these.

For more discussion on the role of OER in education, read “The Massive Open Online Professor,” by Steve and Philipp from the May, 2012, volume of Academic Matters: a Journal of Higher Education.

Videos of selected LINC sessions are archived and available.

One other important new piece of information for me was the MIT Blossoms program, which provides OER science and mathematics education for secondary students.  Several members of the audience were involved in this incredible undertaking and spoke about its merits.  I plan to share it with my peers in New Jersey.

On a Lighter Note…

After the panel Steve took us on a tour of the MIT campus.  I got to peer into several of MIT’s science labs; see the Green Building, an edifice on stilts that creates a wind-tunnel effect that they mitigated by interposing a colossal sculpture by Alexander Calder between the it and the open lawn; and, best of all, learn about the MIT Stonehenge where, twice a year—in mid-November and again in January—the corridor lines up with the plane of the ecliptic and the light of the setting sun  streams down the building’s  “Infinite Corridor,” in a Stonehenge-like effect.  I didn’t see any evidence of druids on the site, but it is only June… 

Warning: do not tour the campus in heels.

The Bottom Line

OER in all its forms.  Free.  It’s all free…and open.  A shining testament to the educational potential of an egalitarian and democratic society.  As the P2PU website puts it, it is “Learning for the people, by the people.  About almost anything.”

I am very happy to have been a part of this incredible panel.  I learned as much as—if not more than—the audience members.  I walk away with many new and exciting ideas to bring to my own practice…and have many new questions!  

Thank you Eric, for not being available for the panel…thus I was given the opportunity!  

Thank you, Steve, for your wonderful leadership (and the delicious breakfast)!  

And thank you Nicole and Philipp for your generous camaraderie and the wealth of knowledge and resources that you imparted.

I hope we can do it again soon!  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Learning Artifacts

I routinely speak about the need for students to produce learning artifacts that demonstrate conceptual mastery.  Knowledge often comes to us via transcribed content or artifacts, which is derived from other's knowledge. These are facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles (Clark & Chopeta, 2004). Thus, artifacts are used in the learning process for creating knowledge, while in turn, knowledge creates new artifacts. With the technological tools that are at our disposal today this has become easier than ever.  Providing students the ability to actively apply what they have learned in creative ways using real-world tools is as authentic as it gets.  Even in a Common Core world this can be accomplished if teachers are given the autonomy and empowered to develop innovative lessons that push students to think critically while having them showcase what they have learned.

One New Milford High School teacher continues to push the envelop in this area.  Earlier in the year I blogged about Mrs. Westbrook's use of Instrgram in her English class as a means for her students to demonstrate conceptual understanding.  Today I was super excited to see yet another one of her impressive learning activities.  For their last project,  her 9th graders had to complete a video explication of a poem dealing with one of the four themes from the year. They used the videos from the Favorite Poem Project as exemplar texts and followed the basic structure of those videos. After Mr. Pevny, another NMHS teacher, gave her some suggestions on how to use iMovie, the kids ran with it.  

It them about a week of writing, rehearsing, and creating to finish the explications. In the final versions, students spoke briefly about a poem's personal significance. They then read the poem aloud connecting to the poem’s message and its impact on their lives. The major focus for their work was on making personal and original connections and on demonstrating a deep understanding of the text. Therefore, the students emphasized interpretation and the thoughtful recognition of devices that contribute to tone and theme.  

Mrs. Westbrook is pretty proud of the results.  The video below show the explication of "If" by Rudyard Kipling where one of her students even added extra thoughts to the explication with a second video because he felt he could say more. In his explication, you hear him note the personal and universal significance of the poet's message and make productive and substantive points about the poet's diction.  It was exactly what I Mrs. Westbrook was hoping for. 

To view the complete project that Mrs. Westbrook developed click HERE.

How are you or your school using artifacts created with the use of technology as a means for students to demonstrate conceptual mastery and learning?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Forging Ahead With Change

As the school year comes to an end at New Milford High School, I can’t help but begin to think about sustaining the many changes that have taken place over the past few years as well as identifying other areas where change is needed.  My school is a shell of what it once was when one looks at how far we have come in terms of effectively integrating technology, re-envisioning learning spaces, and providing a foundation for a more relevant and meaningful learning experience for all of our students.  

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/plugusin/4122632440/in/set-72157625087347140/

Below is just a quick list of some of the many changes that have been successfully initiated and sustained over the past three years:

Together we have the power to improve all of our schools and mold them in ways to maximize the potential of our students, teachers, and administrators.  It is time to realize that social media, technology, and the change process are not the enemy. Once you get past this, you will quickly discover your own niche as a change agent and it is here that you can receive support and guidance to make any initiative successful. When moving to initiate sustainable change that will cultivate innovation acquire necessary resources, provide support (training, feedback, advice), empower educators through a certain level of autonomy, communicate effectively, and implement a shared decision-making practice.

In collaboration with my staff and the support of District leadership, my efforts have laid the foundation for an innovative teaching and learning culture that focuses on preparing all students for success.  We have learned to give up control, view failure as not always a bad thing as long as we learn from our mistakes, to be flexible, provide adequate support, and take calculated risks if we are to truly innovate.  To this end, teachers and students are now routinely utilizing social media and other various Web 2.0 tools on a routine basis to enhance and promote essential skill sets such as communication, collaboration, media literacy, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, global awareness, and technological proficiency.  It is not uncommon now for classes to be Skyping with students in other countries, using Twitter as a learning tool, constructing QR codes for artwork, blogging, or creating multimedia projects using a variety of interactive web tools that are blocked in many schools across the country.  

One of our most successful initiatives has been the establishment of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program mentioned briefly above where we are harnessing the power of student-owned devices to increase engagement.  Instead of viewing student-owned technology as a hindrance, it is now wholeheartedly embraced as a mobile learning tool. Teachers have the students text in their answers on their cell phones using web programs such as Poll Everywhere, conduct research on the Internet, take notes using Evernote, or organize their assignments.  Students can also opt to bring their personal computing devices (laptops, tablets, iPod Touches) to use in school and class.

What might separate us from other schools where change has not taken hold is that we, as a school community, have decided to forge ahead no matter what mandates are thrown at us at the state and federal levels.  We needed to take a hard look at, and seize upon numerous areas of opportunity, to create a better school for our students that focused on the whole child using their interests and passions as catalysts for learning.  The change process never sleeps.  During the summer months my administrative team and I will continue to work with all stakeholders to forge ahead by doing what we have done for the last three years and looking for solutions to problems instead of excuses.  This might be the single most important element of a successful change initiative.  That and being digitally resilient. 

What do you plan to change this next year and why?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Social Media Use Needs to Focus More on Learning Than Behavior

It pains me when I hear about school districts that are attempting to implement and impose social media policies that focus more on the "behavior" of educators as opposed to student learning.  Last week I was fortunate to weigh in on one such district's journey in this area and share my thoughts on where the emphasis should be. The video clip of the interview can be found below. 

After viewing it I would love to know what do you think.  Where should the focus be when districts look to impose social media policies?  Should there be any specific policies at all or is the best course of action establishing general guidelines?  What should be the role of student voice in this process?

For some more of my thoughts on the role of social media in education check out this recent interview I did for School Webmasters.