Go Open, VA Did! Five Steps for Adopting Open Education Resources

Submitted on April 5, 2021 by:
John White

The pandemic has been a double-edged sword for open education resources (OER) – the resources are ideal for remote and hybrid learning. Still, many educators need support to learn to utilize these relatively new digital tools.

I recently spoke with Jean Weller, a technology integration specialist at the Virginia Department of Education, about the Commonwealth’s open education resources initiative, “#GoOpenVA,” and what other states should consider before joining the OER movement. She offered some excellent advice, which I’ll share shortly. 

If you’re unfamiliar with OER, let me explain. Open educational resources are digital materials for teaching or learning in the public domain or released under a license to be freely used, changed, or shared. OER include teacher lesson plans, videos, online courses, curriculum, supplemental materials, and software to create, change, and share materials.

Currently, more than 120 school districts in 20 states have joined the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen initiative, which supports the use of openly licensed educational resources to transform teaching and learning. The reasons for using OER tools go far beyond replacing stagnant textbooks in favor of digital resources. 

Weller said if you are considering using OER, ask yourself why? And “cost-savings is a weak why.”

Weller answered the question and identified five critical steps the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) took with Virginia educators to #GoOpen.

1. Understand Your Why?

If you don’t understand your “why” or purpose, Weller said, people aren’t going to buy-in, and it’s not going to last. 

The VDOE wanted to do something specific to support teachers and help with their particular curriculum when it launched the #GoOpenVA initiative in January 2020. Virginia was one of the first states to join the GoOpen movement and recently launched its #OER website to emphasize its shift to personalizing lessons, deeper learning, and skills development. 

The #GoOpenVA platform allows educators to post and share various files, including video, audio, and other media. The more than 10,000 resources currently available on the website include content from national OER sites, content contributed by Virginia education organizations — including colleges, universities, and cultural institutions — and resources solicited from Virginia teachers already active in the open-resource movement.

2. Assemble Advisors 

Virginia assembled a group of advisors from throughout the state and beyond Virginia to create a repository for resources and what it should include. VDOE formed a group of secondary and elementary teachers to go through a process for learning about opening licensed materials and how to create suitable OER materials that other teachers can use. VDOE worked with the group to review, “remix,” or adjust lesson plans to work in the classroom with their students to “drive home the message that no lesson plan is ever complete,” Weller said. “We knew we needed to model the process of developing an OER produced for the repository.” 

Educators advising VDOE received a stipend. Weller emphasized the state needed to compensate teachers for devoting time beyond school hours to collaborate and develop useful digital tools and materials. VDOE also developed grants to incentivize school divisions to assemble groups of teachers to focus on the development of OER to address the needs of their school divisions, making the creation of OER something useful rather than just another project. 

3. Determine How 

One of the first questions a state or district should ask is, do we want to create a repository? And do we want to work with another repository, including higher education, through a request for proposals (RFP)? 

VDOE developed an RFP to build its OER repository and contracted with the Institute for the Study of Knowledge (ISKME). The online #GoOpenVA platform allowed Virginia educators and schools to access and share digital open educational resources created by Virginia educators for Virginia educators. The website also provided new opportunities to collaborate and create instructional resources, including curricula, units, lesson plans, and activities.

The biggest challenge was making sure VDOE satisfied all legal requirements and liability for teachers posting resources, Weller said. She worked with the Virginia attorney general’s office, ISKME and Creative Commons, which have worked with other states on OER policies. 

4. Find Your Focus

VDOE decided it did not want any resources that were Creative Commons licensed but which restricted the ability of teachers to adapt the resources for their own purposes. Teachers being able to adapt materials for individual students needs was the point, after all.

#GoOpenVA started with a set from OER Commons, a public digital OER library, that were openly licensed. After this, #GoOpenVA has sought to provide Virginia public school teachers with high-quality education resources created by Virginia educators for Virginia educators. 

5. Professional Learning

Professional learning for teachers was the final piece to the puzzle. As Weller put it, “You can’t just put it out and there and expect people to use the resources, believe it will help them with their job, and explore their own professional learning.” 

She emphasized state agencies need a point person to devote significant time to building the OER repository and supporting teachers with the adoption of OER. VDOE has helped teachers and school administrators with webinars, videos, and other mechanisms to provide support for their use of OER and facilitate collaboration.

Unfortunately, the pandemic halted VDOE’s progress temporarily due to the postponement of in-person training and meetings to prevent COVID-19 spread. While video and videoconferencing were useful online professional learning tools, many teachers still wanted and needed face-to-face learning, confirmation, and camaraderie when trying something new. 

Another challenge was educating users that “an unfinished project was the point of the project.” Teachers can make decisions and continuously improve upon the resources. 

“You don’t want to control everything, or you lose something important – the creativity,” Weller said. “Teachers are less likely to do anything new or risky if they need to have everything approved by someone else. We have tried to promote the idea that resources on #GoOpenVA are not necessarily the shining examples and teachers have the freedom to try different things, and that’s OK.” 

For more information on the use of OER in Region 5 and support with developing an OER program, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.