About a year ago, I received a remarkable call on my way to the airport. I remember listening closely above the sound of the wind and in mild disbelief as I filled up my rental car with gas. On the other end of the line was Devin Vodika, superintendent of Vista Unified School District. He and two other school districts, Mentor School District in Ohio, and Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, were setting out on an ambitious quest, and he wanted to know if I had any advice to give them. Their challenge: Design a standards-aligned, competency-based, inter-district, inter-state, interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based social studies curriculum. My advice was to use openly-licensed educational resources, to document their journey so others could learn from them, and to keep me posted.

As it turned out, they really had no choice. A recent ASCD case study of the collaboration describes what happened when the districts started looking for traditional, proprietary materials and textbooks to support their work.

“There isn’t any off-the-shelf content for what they were teaching. Everything had to be something [teachers] built, adopted, or adapted,” Vodika said.

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As of March 8, 2016 fourteen states have launched statewide #GoOpen initiatives.

The work of these three districts, affectionately known as the COW Project (for the first letter in each of the three states in which the districts reside), demonstrates why now is the right time to expand the use of openly-licensed educational resources in K-12 schools — why now is the right time for the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen movement.

In short, our goals for our schools are changing, our approach to teaching is changing, and our infrastructure is changing, but our materials are not keeping pace.

Student learning opportunities are expanding

Mastery of academic subjects used to be sufficient to deem a student successful. But as our understanding of what it really takes to be successful in citizenship, school, and work expands, so do our expectations for our students. We now expect successful students to exhibit skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and digital literacy. We know without these skills they won’t be fully prepared for the rigors of college or the day-to-day challenges of a fulfilling career. We also understand that learning mindsets and skills, such as their tenacity in the face of difficulty, their ability to persevere when progress is thwarted, and whether they have a growth mindset about their own capabilities, matter a great deal. This puts pressure on our schools to expand and refine their teaching approaches beyond just academic mastery.

With the expanded vision of what students need to accomplish before graduation, schools understand that traditional teaching practices and existing classroom materials no longer meet these needs. Additionally, the wide adoption of more rigorous college- and career-ready state curriculum standards has fundamentally changed how teachers go about their day-to-day instruction.

For example, new math standards in many states require a shift from a procedural or algorithmic approach to teaching to a more conceptual approach. I recently spoke to a teacher in Texas, for example, who told me that to meet the standards, teachers can’t just teach a memorized set of rules to follow to solve a particular type of problem. They need to teach students how to approach problems conceptually, how to estimate answers, and how to determine what a reasonable answer might be before even starting to solve for x. This is fantastic for developing computational thinking and deeper conceptual understanding in students, but requires a very different teaching approach. Many teachers report that the existing learning materials on hand in their schools are simply inadequate in supporting these approaches.

With outcome-based, rather than input-based, state standards, when teachers design curriculum that aligns to them, they are free to employ a wide variety of approaches to help their students achieve mastery.

This greatly expands their freedom to choose the resources and approaches they feel are the best match for their context and circumstances — for their particular students, in their particular classrooms.

Our infrastructure is going digital faster than most of us realize

Thanks to a concerted effort by public and private organizations in support of the President’s ConnectED Initiative, the White House estimates that 20 million more students now have access to broadband in their classrooms than had it two years ago. And we are on pace for another 20 million students to have access in just a couple more years. There is still much work to do and frustrating pockets of disconnectivity, but as a whole, this is a sea change in the digital infrastructure available to our students. When properly implemented and supported, this infrastructure allows teachers to reliably use a wide variety of interactive digital learning resources and apps of their own choosing on a daily basis in their classrooms. Before, teachers might have scheduled a specific, limited time in a computer lab for sufficient bandwidth. Before, the paper textbook might have been the only reliable resource, due to network slowdowns and outages.

Today, students can use digital tools to create artifacts of their learning as part of the normal flow of the school day (as suggested by the 2016 National Educational Technology Plan) knowing that the tools will be there when they need them.

Putting schools at the center of content creation, curation, and sharing

As the COW Project demonstrates, teachers can help students reach goals that have never before accomplished when they can count on reliable broadband, when they have the freedom to create, curate, and share the best and most appropriate resources with each other and their students, and when they can become the creative professionals they entered the teaching profession to be.

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Lawrence Public Schools’ #GoOpen advice

Consider Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas, that created a career pathway for teacher leaders by paying a team of them as much as the high school football coach to design and curate a science curriculum based on openly licensed educational resources. Importantly, they used the money saved by not purchasing a traditional science textbook to pay these teachers for their expertise and to support a digital infrastructure for the materials in their schools.

To respond to the challenges of shifting content standards, Bristol Tennessee City Schools created integrated mathematics courses that combined topics such algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and analysis.

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Bristol Tennessee City Schools’ #GoOpen advice

Bristol needed learning resources flexible enough to change in response to student needs. To accomplish this, Bristol’s math teachers partnered with a foundation to create an integrated math “flexbook” using openly licensed educational resources. The development team included district leadership, foundation staff, district math teachers, a curriculum specialist, and a well-respected mathematics professor from a local university who vetted chapters as they were created to ensure they were conceptually and pedagogically sound and consistent. The resulting flexbook proved invaluable to teachers embarking on their first year of integrated math instruction.

#GoOpen is a catalyst for state and district collaboration

The U.S. Department of Education can play an important convening role in helping schools become aware of the potential for openly-licensed educational resources, and getting all the necessary stakeholders at the table. At the first ever #GoOpen Exchange, held February 26, representatives from more than 30 #GoOpen districts met together with experts in openly-licensed educational resources, non-profit organizations deeply involved in this work, and innovative platform and tool providers to learn from each other and share best practices.

It was an important step forward, but we know that this momentum can only be maintained if districts and states form professional learning communities to assist each other in sustaining this work. That is why we were so pleased to announce last week that 14 states have made the commitment to #GoOpen, forming a foundation of support for districts in those states and a hub for collaboration and resource sharing across state lines via the Learning Registry.

We have no doubt that the use of openly-licensed educational resources in schools, districts, and states will continue to grow.

The question is: how quickly, how thoughtfully, how sustainably, and with how much rigor and support?

We hope that the #GoOpen movement will become an accelerator of this work, and that many more districts and states will find themselves asking, “Why aren’t we permanently replacing static, outdated, inflexible textbooks as our core instructional materials and reinvesting those resources in our digital learning infrastructure? Why aren’t we fully using our teachers’ creative talents and professional abilities? Why aren’t we collaborating, creating, and sharing with other states, districts, non-profits, and innovative platform providers? Why not #GoOpen?”

Joseph South is the former Director of the Office of Educational Technology (2016–2017) at the U.S. Department of Education.

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The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.

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