For the past five years, as fall approaches, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made a  tradition of crisscrossing the country on his back-to-school bus tour, spotlighting the work of districts and schools.

Each year, there’s a new theme — 2013’s “Bright Start, Strong Future,” 2014’s “Partners in Progress,” this year’s “Ready for Success” — but the kinds of reforms that are highlighted are remarkably consistent: increasing access to learning opportunities, implementing higher standards and better teacher supports, and making smarter use of educational technology and digital resources to drive personalized learning.

On Duncan’s sixth tour, this time around trekking across the Midwest, he is stopping this afternoon in Williamsfield, Illinois to highlight the district’s use of educational technology, and specifically its use of open educational resources (OER). For this small, rural district with just over 300 students in its PreK-12 classrooms, the decision to adopt OER — teaching and learning materials that are freely licensed for others to use and re-purpose — was a strategic decision that has allowed the district to help students and teachers access a much wider range of resources online.

YouTube video

Williamsfield by U.S. Department of Education is licensed under CC BY.

What we decided to do was leverage open education resources and invest the money that was allocated for textbooks into technology.

Rather than procuring new textbooks for students, the district opted to use OER and instead direct those savings towards new devices for students. As District Superintendent Tom Farquer described, “What we decided to do was leverage open education resources and invest the money that was allocated for textbooks into technology and technological infrastructure.” With current district expenditures totaling a little more than $3.5 million annually, well over three-fourths of which directly funds teachers, administrators, and support staff, every bit of savings can help. And redirecting those savings to purchasing devices has enabled students and teachers to tap into the wealth of resources outside their single school building and beyond their village of just 650 residents.

Each student in fifth through twelfth grade now has access to their own chromebook. In first through fourth grade classrooms students share a set of chromebooks, while pre-K and kindergarten classrooms share sets of iPads. Zack Binder, PreK-12 principal and director of student services, emphasized that with these devices “you’re no longer in Williamsfield, Illinois. You have the same access to this information that anyone in the world does.”

This wealth of new resources has changed teacher practice and allowed for greater personalization for students. “The biggest transition for me, from what it was like before to what it is like now, is that kids can do things that they’re interested in, instead of having one prescribed way to do things that comes from a textbook,” remarked Lori Secrist, the district’s science teacher for grades seven through twelve. With Illinois’ adoption of Next Generation Science Standards, the availability of aligned resources will only continue to grow.

Further, with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards across the majority of states, more and more high quality learning materials students and teachers can access are aligned to these shared academic standards. One such resource that the district has leveraged is EngageNY, an open curriculum for English language arts and mathematics, developed through public investment by the New York State Education Department. Since both Illinois and New York have adopted the Common Core for both ELA and math, New York state’s investment has been Williamsfield’s gain as well.

With so many positive outcomes stemming from Williamsfield’s relatively quick transition to a one-to-one device environment utilizing OER, other schools and districts may glean new ideas for implementing technology and moving toward personalized learning. Indeed, the Department also announced today that they have hired their first-ever open education adviser, Andrew Marcinek, to help connect districts with available OER. There are a few key points to consider, however, as schools — and the Department — think through how best to scale up OER, especially in larger districts.

First, while the Department of Education’s video mentions very little about Williamsfield’s current broadband infrastructure, it is relatively straightforward to connect a single building with 300 students. Prior to transitioning to digital classroom environments, though, medium-sized and large districts will likely need to make significant infrastructure investments. Larger districts have more complex networks, which will first need to be upgraded to ensure online and interactive content and features will be accessible to students, especially those that require robust connectivity such as video and collaborative online tools. For high-needs districts with significant portions of low-income students, internet access at home or in so-called “third spaces” such as public libraries are equally important to think through as well.

Further, the pedagogical shifts for teachers moving from textbooks to digital resources are considerable. In a district such as Williamsfield — one with clear direction and support from the superintendent, principal, and several teachers — such changes, while still challenging, are much more straightforward to implement in classrooms. Larger districts will need to provide access to up-front training and quality professional development opportunities, especially for teachers who lack familiarity with integrating new technologies into their practice.

It’s encouraging to see how technology in general, and OER specifically, can enable districts to better leverage their resources and tap into a new world of learning materials. As others take note, these considerations should serve as food for thought — but hopefully not as a deterrent.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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