Personalizing the Learning Experience: Leveraging Openly Licensed Educational Resources

I distinctly remember walking into my first classroom as a new teacher to find an assortment of desks, items to be used in learning centers, and a set of traditional teacher’s guides for the scope and sequence of learning for all content areas. These resources were brand new because I had been hired as the new seventh section of Kindergarten in the building. I was excited to open the shrink-wrapped, spiral-bound curriculum and start pouring over the content I would get to teach my soon-to-be students.

Kindergarten w iPads” by Laurie Sullivan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

However, as a new classroom teacher, I quickly realized that I needed to use supplemental resources in addition to the district curriculum. I spent hours scouring the internet, reading countless blogs, crowdsourcing ideas on Twitter, and even paying for my own resources after attending conferences and workshops — all so I could help meet the needs of my students and make learning relevant. What I did not know was that I was not alone. Most teachers spend a great deal of time and effort to identify the right materials to give their students the best learning experiences, and try to personalize them to meet students’ individual, needs on a daily basis.

In addition, what I soon learned is that instructional content that can be customized is one key to personalizing learning. Unlike traditional materials that are static and teach to the middle, and, therefore have little relevance to most students, content that can be tailored gives teachers the ability to match content to specific student needs and gives students more choice based on their interests.

Enter openly licensed educational resources

The first blog in this series includes the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of personalized learning and identifies instructional content as an important element in the experience. A broad range of instructional content is available to teachers, from individual learning objects to full courses, both print and digital. They call into three categories: proprietary textbooks and other resources; free digital learning resources; and openly licensed educational resources, or open educational resources (OER) as they are more commonly known.

In the 2016 National Education Technology Plan, the Department defines openly licensed educational resources as teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under a license that permits their free use, reuse, modification, and sharing with others. Digital openly licensed resources can include complete online courses, modular digital textbooks as well as more granular resources such as images, videos, and assessment items.

Open vs. Free vs. Proprietary Learning Resources from the #GoOpen District Launch Packet

It’s worth noting that openly licensed and free digital educational resources both can be used for teaching, learning, and assessment without cost. However, only openly licensed educational resources allow free, unfettered access and perpetual, irrevocable “5R” permissions, that is, permission from the creator to retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute. So while all openly licensed educational resources are free, not all free resources are openly licensed. (For a comparison of openly licensed educational resources, free digital learning resources, and proprietary textbooks, see the table below.)

Each type of instructional material plays a specific role in the learning environment. For example, when I taught second grade, I used the proprietary district ELA curriculum for whole group lessons with read-alouds to practice sight words, build vocabulary, and introduce spelling to ground our work for the week. I also used free apps and resources I had found based on the same core story that allowed students to continue developing skills in small groups, with peers, and independently. I discovered openly licensed resources that I could reuse and revise to include ELL supports based on small group needs or remix to include more detailed information based on student interest. All of these instructional materials were effective in my classroom, but I had the most success with the openly licensed resources because I was able to revise and remix the content to meet my students’ needs. These resources also allowed other teachers to build upon my work and adapt it for their needs.

However, as teachers begin to rethink how instructional content can be personalized for students, because of their flexibility and the fact that they can be used and reused at no cost, openly licensed educational resources are growing in popularity and use.

To encourage the expanded use of openly licensed educational resources, the Department launched the #GoOpen movement. #GoOpen Districts commit to replacing traditional instructional materials with openly licensed educational resources in at least one specific grade level and content area. The Department has also released a #GoOpen District Launch Packet that collects and organizes into sequential phases a number of best practices collected from districts who are leading the way.

In the following stories, we documented how of some of these #GoOpen Districts made this transition and how it has helped them personalize learning for their students.

  • Coronado Unified School District was motivated to #GoOpen to help teachers meet the needs of young learners who are growing up in era in which technology that personalizes content is commonplace.
  • Bristol Tennessee City Schools adopted openly licensed educational resources to provide all students with a high-quality, equitable learning experience through personalized learning strategies.
  • Brooklyn Lab Schools embraced openly licensed educational resources to create learning experiences that meet students where they are, engage them deeply in inquiry and mastery, and tailor challenges in dynamic ways.
  • Williamsfield Community School District’s decision to #GoOpen provided the opportunity for teachers to create a highly customized, award winning STEM curriculum to transform classrooms into dynamic learning environments where students are actively engaged.

Of course, as #GoOpen and other districts committed to openly licensed educational resources have learned, just because a learning resource does not have a price tag, does not mean it is free. The cost often comes in human resources: the teachers who must become deeply acquainted with content standards and how to create repositories of instructional materials that can be mixed and match to create personalized playlists learners that enable to pursue their interests and passions while meeting learning objectives. These activities take time. That is why the #GoOpen District Launch Packet describes strategies that districts have used to compensate teachers for creating and maintaining these kinds of materials, including extra pay, release time, and long term teacher leadership roles that recognize and reward their efforts. When districts coordinate and support the work, the burden is shared and the outcomes tend to be better for everyone.

When I see the positive impact of using openly licensed educational resources on teachers and students, I get almost as excited as I was on that first day of my teaching job so long ago. I have witnessed firsthand how the extreme flexibility of these resources offer the potential to truly change the way we approach instructional content and personalizing learning for students.


Kristina Peters is the K-12 Open Education Fellow in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She leads the work of #GoOpen Districts and States. Kristina has experience as a classroom teacher, ELL teacher, digital learning specialist, and professional developer. She passionately advocates for the use of openly licensed educational resources in K-12 teaching and learning.