Making OER Sustainable: Clear Roles

This moment of temporary transition to full-scale online learning brings into focus something that designers of educational resources have known all along: Curating resources from vast OER repositories, from authentic STEM journals & databases, and from global points of origin takes a tremendous amount of time.

Utilizing these resources to teach in a completely different way requires new pedagogical skills, which also take time & resources to develop.

We can shrug this moment off, and await the inevitable return to ’normal schooling’. But just as the value of in-person school communities has never been more clear, the value of coherent, modern, expandable learning systems is also coming into sharp focus.

If society wants schools to provide more than daycare, then it’s time to focus on sustainable partnerships for learning. The three main partners I will consider here are designers, teachers and students. Each of these stakeholders relies on other key partners to make the whole engine run, but here I’ll focus on the roles, superpowers and accountability for just these three.

To keep designs with open educational resources (OER) sustainable, time needs to be spent by the right people in the appropriate roles.

Sustainability, at its core, relates to the expenditure of resources. When we think about designing learning systems and experiences, various resources are tapped: time, expertise, information, and more tangible materials such as devices or laboratory equipment.

Resource use always comes at a cost.

With the Integrated Science Program we wanted to create a model that keeps content dynamic and updated, that keeps costs (resource expenditure) low for schools, and that taps the power of partnerships.

In fact, a real partnership is one that creates mutually synergistic relationships among stakeholders. People need people to achieve the level of quality we desire for our students. The right kind of dependence is both powerful and necessary.

Just ask Mother Nature; she rewards cooperation.

"But just as the value of in-person school communities has never been more clear, the value of coherent, modern, expandable learning systems is also coming into sharp focus."

The Role of the Designer

Designing learning experiences with OER isn’t free, even if the OER itself is.

I learned to value the role of the designer at the beginning of my teaching career. I had the wonderful opportunity to lead a pilot classroom for a group of world-class STEM researchers and learning designers who were developing interdisciplinary science curricula for high schools.

I remember receiving each batch of lessons and thinking, “Wow, this is good.”

As a teacher, I was grateful for such thoughtfully designed, culturally responsive (yes, in the early nineties) real-world science lessons. I felt lucky, respected and empowered.

Without question, this experience shaped how I view my role as a learning design team leader. It is deeply important to me that our teacher partners are energized and feel supported, not put upon.

Designers are more appropriately situated to bear the burden of ongoing, systematic, intentional curation from the relentless Information Age, since we aren’t the ones with full classrooms for six hours a day.

OER curation must be guided by several filters and achieve multiple purposes within a larger learning system. We know too much about human learning to be content with mere scope and sequence documents, and designers are the right people to construct neuro-compatible learning architecture.

Designers have a superpower that the other roles do not: the ability to envision big-picture, multivariate coherence.

It takes a certain skill set to be able to sit with nearly 500 teaching and learning variables on a daily basis, to hold the arc of multiple years of learning in the same conversation, to take in the view at 12,000 meters and then nosedive with a magnifying glass in hand to inspect the pebbles.

Designers know the threads that connect concepts and skills, track them methodically, and deconstruct them to repair component parts.

Designers spend hundreds of hours on a single performance task to ensure that the expectations are appropriate, and that students have been given a reasonable amount of practice. Sometimes that means dealing with 6-8 modules at a time, going into each of them to fine-tune or redesign certain elements.

Above all, designers understand that their superpowers mean nothing if teachers and students are hindered in any way.

We have sustained over 115 iterative design cycles, and these cycles are fueled by student and teacher feedback, and classroom testing data. To ensure high-quality designs, we tap expert STEM and educational professionals for their guidance.

It frustrates me to hear about consultants, academics and influencers who tout themselves as “design thinkers” yet avoid gathering evaluative feedback because “it might not look good for the grant,” or because social media networks seem to survive without much quality control.

Real designers crave feedback, check their egos at the door, and will trash ungodly amounts of their own work if it does not serve real needs. When we transitioned from analog to digital materials delivery, we said goodbye to 1500 pages of content. To be accountable to the Information Age that was unfolding before us, we had no choice but to evolve—and to build designs that force our continual evolution.

This level of designer accountability to classroom implementation is good for any teacher or administrator to consider.  For example:

The Role of the Teacher

Teachers play a central role in their students’ learning process. No other adult in the school is more essential to the orchestration of learning than the teacher.

Teachers’ main superpowers include their ability to guide and sustain a classroom community, and their ability to build relationships that support student learning.

Guess what resources are needed to sustain relationships and community? Knowledge, time and energy.

The more resources that are drained from a teacher’s finite reserve to attend to administrivia, paper work—anything other than students—the more learning suffers.

And in times of crisis such as the recent school closures prompted by COVID-19, those classrooms lacking strong teacher-student relationships stand out like sore thumbs.

Effective implementation of curricula helps sustain classrooms, and requires a skilled teacher who can make decisions and adjustments in real time. Teachers must have the flexibility they need to refine any curricula designed by others, which is why we have been delivering open educational resources since 2001.

Designs that are overly scripted and lack flexible day-to-day implementation do not make teachers successful. Likewise, there are many moments in learning-centered classrooms that simply cannot be designed by publishers.

Teachers need to be responsive to student needs and interact with the class accordingly. Robust learning architecture must: provide a solid foundation, withstand the tremors and quakes that inevitably test the structure’s resilience, and provide complete, functional systems that can accommodate diverse inhabitants.

Errors, mishaps and bad days are part of the teacher’s journey.

The ‘curriculum implementation with fidelity’ mantra touted by some policymakers, publishers and central office administrators originates from a long-standing educational mindset of compliance, not design.

If designers don’t do everything in their power to make teachers successful in a range of circumstances, they are the infidels.

And real designers know it.

"The 'curriculum implementation with fidelity' mantra touted by some policymakers, publishers and central office administrators originates from a long-standing educational mindset of compliance, not design."

Can teachers do no wrong? Where does their accountability lie?

In a learner-centered classroom experience, transparency is key. In our program, teachers and students share the long-term plans for a given module and can discuss changes as they proceed.

OER is not a free-for-all, and if teachers make modifications, they should share their rationale with students as well as collaborating teachers.

Adding a 3-week project may be perfectly fine, but to eliminate gaps, students pick up where they left off in a new school year.

Sending teachers are accountable for student progress, which is new for many high school teachers.

Teachers also are accountable to designers. To make the partnership viable, teachers understand that participation in data-gathering efforts is necessary for continual improvement.

Sustainable OER Requires Clear Roles

The Role of the Student

Young adults possess an amazing superpower: self-actualization.

Sometimes the slog of graduation requirements and credit-earning derails students at a time when they should be learning to trust themselves as learners.

In our view, a Sustainable OER model must invite student personalization of the materials, not merely permit it.

Students can learn which Assistive Technologies work for them, learn to articulate where their understanding breaks down, and learn from peers as much as from adults.

A commitment to disciplinary literacy helps students produce knowledge in the form of figures, captions, experimental & engineering designs, peer reviews and evaluation of bias & authorship in authentic STEM publications.

And, by shifting the messages that our assessment system sends to students, we remove barriers to self-actualization that are commonly found in traditional high school curricula.

Interestingly, a multi-year competency-based assessment system coupled with a Sustainable OER model means that self-actualization doubles as a site of student accountability.

Want to learn more about this phenomenon? Here’s an additional, professional resource.

Wonder how you can improve? Here’s some feedback.

Need another opportunity to prove your proficiency? Knock yourself out.

Don’t feel like pushing forward today? There’s another workout tomorrow. Get some sleep and nutrition and come back refreshed.

By providing students with options and pathways that value their autonomy and wellness, we can effectively remove the usual targets of teen blame. And this may just set the stage for students to transfer lifelong learning habits and practices to out-of-school contexts.

“I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to look at information and apply it to real life and see how things can relate.”

As many educators and parents know, teenagers desire freedom without a clear picture of its accompanying responsibility.

But the teen years are the exact moment to help students own both.

Educators and learning system designers can do more to support the development of executive functioning skills, which all students at this age level need to acquire. And every student will progress according to their own biological timeline—a major reason why multi-year trajectories are more beneficial for self-actualization than single-year courses.

Food for thought: If designers, teachers and students partner within a functioning system, performance is transparent to all stakeholders.

By executing your role, optimizing your superpowers and accepting your responsibilities, accountability is automatically achieved.

Thanks for reading,

We’ll let you know when the next post is ready for you!


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