Focusing on Quality
Washington State Legislation for OER
In 2012, the Washington state legislature passed a bill directing the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to create a collection of openly licensed courseware aligned with the Common Core State Standards and conduct an awareness campaign to inform school districts about these resources. OSPI set about on a rigorous evaluation process of secondary OER materials for mathematics and English Language Arts. The review process and the final reviews for both 2013 and 2014 are available on the Open Educational Resources page of their site.
Digital content comes in many levels of quality. As classrooms move to the use of digital content, it’s useful to set standards by which to choose purchased digital content and to help teachers, principals and curriculum staff find and select appropriate content, including open educational resources.
As your school or district is evaluating new forms of digital content, there are a number of areas to consider:
- How well the content adheres to standards. Publishers of paid content are working hard to revise their curriculum to address new state standards. Ask your potential content provider the process by which it has ensured that alignment has been accomplished and validated. Make sure that users can search by standard. Have teachers do a “spot audit” on standards to evaluate how well they believe the curriculum addresses a given standard.
- How “findable” the content is. Multiple digital content programs and services have emerged to help teachers and schools identify relevant content. The best provide filtering by grade or subject or learning standard or a combination of filters, enabling educators to whittle down a list of thousands of resources to one with hundreds of resources. Many such services also include ranking mechanisms that allow educators to give ratings of the resources (such as five stars for the best and one star for the worst), thereby helping to highlight the ones other educators deem worth using or allowing the “cream of the crop” to rise to the top of the search rankings. A word of caution: digital content that is effective with one set of students may not be as effective with others.
- How interactive the content is. One of the values of digital content is the ability for learners to interact with the text and information. Flat PDF versions of the content are simply a digital version of content that has been used in classrooms for decades and do not take advantage of a digital environment. Tools such as digital highlighters and tools to build word banks are among the more simple but engaging aspects of interactive content. Virtual lab models and simulations and games are more structured and complex interactive approaches that digital interactivity can bring. But for many students, having the ability to create content of all kinds using tools they are familiar with outside of school as well as tools that school may introduce can not only captive students, but also deepen their learning.
- How searchable the content is. Digital content offers a potential advantage not provided by printed curriculum materials: the ability for the user to search it. When evaluating new digital content for its usefulness, assess how easily it can be navigated and how robust the search functionality is. If multiple resources are under consideration for the same purpose, consider holding a “search-off”; give potential users a short list of terms or concepts and see how easy it is for them to find relevant information in each product or service and have them rate the quality of the results they identify. Along the same lines, examine how extensively the digital content is “tagged” and whether the user, such as a teacher, can add additional tags.
- How often content is updated. In the case of paid content, publishers of printed textbooks frequently follow a refresh cycle of between three and five years for the content of their books. Digital content should be updated on a more frequent basis since it involves revising a single “master” copy and distributing that, or it is available online and can be easily updated there. Find out from your potential content provider how often the company offers updates and enhancements to its digital content and how it distributes those updates to users. Also, if the digital content contains errors, find out from the publisher what the process is for having those errors identified and corrected. If the content is licensed as open educational resources, the instructional staff or teachers may be able to modify the content as they wish and redistribute an updated version or communicate with the person or organization that developed it for potential revision by the source.
- How “reliable” the hosting service is. Many education start-ups have high hopes of reaching success, only to flounder when their funding runs out or their founders lose steam. Before recommending to educators any given source for digital content, consider how likely that content will be available in the future.
- How much training and support is required. Among the many software products out there, many require some level of training and support to ensure teachers and students can use if effectively and efficiently. Many districts assume that if they buy software, teachers will be able to figure it out for themselves, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Consider the skill level of the teachers in the district who would be using the the content or software and determine the best way to provide them the necessary training.
In Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 Textbook in a Digital Age, Appendix A lists key questions to address in adopting digital instructional materials. The questions fall into five key areas to consider: cost and cost-effectiveness, technology implementation, teacher preparedness, quality and alignment to standards and intellectual property.