Did Somebody Say “Free Textbooks?”

Jake Meme

Open Educational Resources (acronym “OER”) have been gaining in popularity over the last few years, but they are also a source of debate and contention in some school districts. Here’s the breakdown:

What are OER? 

OER stands for “open educational resources” and it denotes any classroom-ready resource available under an “open” license (which means that a teacher who wants to copy or redistribute materials in the classroom doesn’t need to worry about copyright infringement laws). Not all OER materials are free, but many of them are, making them more accessible to a wider community.

How is OER changing the landscape of education today? 

Previously, classrooms mainly centered on a physical textbook—generally a hardback tome that was a relatively expensive purchase. These textbooks needed to be replaced every few years (to account for physical wear and tear on the book or outdated information inside of the book). OER and Creative Commons changes that traditional platform for learning by digitizing curriculum materials and making them available to print and re-distribute, oftentimes for free (something that generally couldn’t legally be done with a print textbook). Classrooms that take advantage of OER are providing their students with the most up-to-date information at a fraction of the cost. Those teachers are also participating in massive online sharing communities where they can garner lesson plans and curriculum resources from other teachers across the globe and adapt them for their own use.

What are the implications of OER to your work as an educator? 

I’m familiar with sites like Teachers Pay Teachers in which educators from around the country can “sell” their lesson plans (usually complete with ample handouts and worksheets) to other teachers for a small fee. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I’ve Googled free resources to use in the classroom before, and I generally end up being disappointed at the quality of the selection presented in the search results. Using a legitimate OER database sounds like a very different experience from either of these. OER share sites also offer the opportunity for collaboration among educators, which means that I don’t necessarily just go on there to download a ready-made lesson plan; I can also alter or annotate it and share my edits with the OER community. OER are not set in stone—they are not copyrighted worksheets from 1978 that have been scanned into a computer somewhere—they are living, breathing documents that have come to life as a result of collaborative effort. This means that if I’m using an OER, I’m not just taking and printing—I’m also adding and leaving my mark on the face of education. The lessons and activities that I create could potentially be used (and altered and rewritten and used again) by teachers across the globe for years to come!

What do you think about OER – is it a good thing or a bad thing or??

I think it’s great that Creative Commons is providing a way to publish resources that can be used more freely among educators; however, OER has limits. As Todd Finley points out his Edutopia article “A Tour of High-Quality Open Education Resources (OER) For Writing,” not all OER are quality materials that a teacher would want to use. An educator using an OER database still needs to be discriminate when perusing the search results and determining which materials would be the best fit for his or her classroom. Most legitimate published textbooks are written by teams of educational researchers with doctoral degrees and years of experience studying what works and what doesn’t work. Meanwhile, OER documents could be written or edited by anybody. Asking if OER should completely replace the traditional textbook seems equivalent to asking if Wikipedia should become our new go-to source for research projects. It’s widely used and very convenient, yes—but not quite as reliable or high quality as a legitimate published text. OER are an interesting concept (and something that I need to spend more time exploring before I come to a definite opinion about whether they’re “good” or “bad”), but I don’t think Glencoe or Harcourt Brace are going to be put out of business by OER anytime soon. I think that if I use OER in my classroom in the future, I will continue using them in conjunction with a published, hardback textbook.

Where can I find OER for use in my classroom?

I was hoping you would ask that question! Here are a few places to start:

  • http://www.ck12.org/teacher/ : This flexbook library provides free and open textbooks for secondary level students. Most of the books cover math and science, but limited texts on other topics are available as well.
  • https://www.khanacademy.org/ : This is an open courseware site providing online classes on just about any topic!
  • http://openstaxcollege.org/ : This site provides free and open digital texts to accompany college-level courses! Great news for those students who are stretching pennies just to afford college tuition.
  • http://openstax.org/ : After the success of Open Stax College, Open Stacks was born–meeting the textbook needs of high school students across the globe.
  • http://betterlesson.com/ : This site contains hundreds of lessons written by top-rated ELA teachers to meet Common Core standards.
  • http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm : Using this site, you can access lecture notes and course materials from MIT courses for free! Check out this open courseware site to peruse the course catalogue.
  • http://www.learnnc.org/?home : Written in North Carolina but adaptable to anywhere, this site contains top-notch history lessons to use with your students as well as professional development for educators.
  • https://p2pu.org/en/ : Another open courseware site providing college-level courses to anyone who is interested, free of charge.