The Lego Bin

When I was a kid, my brother and I played with Legos quite frequently. During holidays and birthdays we would occasionally get a new set of Legos. This set came pretty standard in a package that included detailed instructions for each piece, individual bags that housed the Lego, and high quality images of what the finished product looked like. We would spend time following the step-by-step instructions and eventually reap the rewards of a job well done. We were proud and would show off our minor engineering feats to mom and dad.

CC0 public domain image

Eventually, we would grow tired of that finished product and disassemble our creation. The deconstructed pieces would then get transferred into a larger bin or repository where all of our former deconstructed creations went to reside and the instructions would soon be lost or discarded.

As young kids, we were excited to be guided through the entire Lego creation package, but we soon learned that the real magic lay in the repository of disassembled Lego pieces. There were no instructions or boundaries so we had free reign for creation. Our imaginations ruled the day as we learned to create, adapt, collaborate, design, and share.

But while our creative process was in full swing, there were some annoyances; for example, having to dig for a long time just to find the tiny (but perfect) piece to turn our idea into finished product. As we were searching fruitlessly without any direction the freedom to build and create soon turned into frustration.

And this was the problem.

Twenty years later, I found myself perusing the aisles of IKEA admiring the staged rooms and taking notes on the items I desired. Fighting the urge for meatballs, I made my way to the warehouse floor, found my boxes, and was on my way. When I returned home I unboxed all the parts, found the instructions, and began wielding the allen wrench. Again, I encountered a guided process that led me down a myopic route to a standardized product that never fully satisfied the need I had in my specific context, in my specific bedroom or living room. And the entire process was very linear and didn’t require me to be creative. Essentially, I was not challenging my thinking very far beyond following instructions and not getting the best fit to my needs.

Then I found out about IKEA hacks.

There is a burgeoning community of creative individuals who design unique creations or “hacks” with IKEA’s parts. They reassemble the furniture in a way that the instructions do not direct or anticipate. They go off script and mix and match sets to make something entirely new. It’s a process very similar to the large Lego bin my brother and I had when we were kids, except for two key differences:

1. IKEA’s version of my Lego bin is a well-organized and tagged warehouse of resources that can be easily accessed.

2. End products of IKEA hacks are populating all over the Internet. As the designs spread, the community is adapting, tweaking and improving upon the original designs, then sharing their modifications back for others to try.

OER done right is like an IKEA Hacking Community.

Just like piecing together Legos or adapting an IKEA hack, using openly licensed educational resources in place of static, inflexible, off-the shelf learning materials takes time, capacity, and patience to sift through and curate the many resources available on the internet.

But consider the rewards for a moment.

Bristol Tennessee City Schools shares their #GoOpen story.

Imagine education professionals around the country forming an online community where they are sharing, tagging, and work together to improve resources. Think about classrooms that challenge our students to be creators and curators of their own learning. This educational model is not in some far off land; it’s happening all over the country with districts who have made the commitment to #GoOpen.

It’s happening in Tullahoma City Schools where Superintendent Dan Lawson, upon reading a blog post challenging the feasibility of using open educational resources across his district, didn’t wait around for someone to figure out a solution, but instead created a plan for educators to support his district transition to openly licensed educational resources. Superintendent Lawson is not the only school leader out there paving the way for scalable OER implementation. There are dozens more, including twelve examples of school districts making this transition curated in the Office of Educational Technology Story Engine.

Ultimately, this movement is about equity, relevance, and high quality resources that put the student in the driver’s seat of his or her learning. Traditional, static materials don’t offer this. They offer exactly what my new Lego set or IKEA table offered me; a defined, scripted pathway to an inevitable end product. Yes, they come in a complete package, the glossy images, the pathway from day 1 to day 181 but, they do not challenge teachers to teach more creatively, nor do they encourage students to own their learning. Instead, these materials, when implemented as prescribed, provide teachers a script and discourage their capacity as creative content professionals.

The “Lego bins” are becoming more sophisticated as new platforms for curation and discovery are being developed and rolled out to schools across the country, and existing platforms are upgrading their curation tools. Many of these platforms are integrating with the Learning Registry to provide school districts with choice and an opportunity to access an array of openly licensed educational resources, supporting the formation of a shared community not unlike IKEA “hackers.”

The #GoOpen District Launch Packet is designed for districts that have decided to implement a systematic approach to incorporating openly licensed educational resources into their curriculum by becoming a #GoOpen District.

Proof points are being shared and highlighted by #GoOpen districts. This is not a race to see who can be first or have the most OER implemented by the end of the year. The future of the #GoOpen movement will rely on a shared culture of learning that allows educators to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute educational resources. It will provide school districts with many more choices. It will create an environment where they can use the best of open resources and proprietary resources, where they have access to others with whom to create and share, and can create an approach that greatly increases equitable access of high quality, relevant instructional materials.


Andrew P. Marcinek is Open Education Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education.