Mining Gold from OER


  • Textbooks are inefficient when compared to open and available content.
  • Teachers should use Open Educational Resources (OER) as at least a supplement to, if not replacement to, textbooks in the classroom.
  • Different types of OER match different class design needs.

Why Textbooks?

It would be a shock if your school or district has not at least examined going 1:1 in the last two years. It’s the new model on everyone’s minds, and at times the shift to 1:1 seems like the singular overwhelming narrative of education today, both in the popular media and in educational policy consideration. Get far enough down the lists of why, and we see a recurring element appear:

Lynnfield (MA) Public Schools:
“Opportunities for online textbooks and up-to-date access to information […] Reduced printing costs, paper usage, photocopying, and textbook purchases”
ICT For Educators:
“Take advantage of great free resources from iTunesU and replace expensive textbooks with cheaper online resources and textbooks. Teachers (and students) can even create their own content using iBooks author.”
Ken Watson on Education Dreamer:
“It gives students and teachers immediate access to current information […] Reduces the amount of paper usage […] On-line interactive content allows students to have experiences that could never be done with paper, book, and pencil.”

I hear parents and students rejoice that their backpacks will be lighter without the textbooks, as well as teachers and administrators dreaming about all the classroom money freed up by not having to buy and replace texts, and yet… the kids are still carrying books? The units are still “Chapter 6,” “Chapter 9?” Have we shifted our resources to match our capability?

Enter The OER-acle

The underlying premise of Open Education Resources (OER) is that teachers and students should tap directly into the most current information, discussion, problems and resources available. This is the same premise that drove textbooks in previous eras of education, when teachers chose textbooks and updated them whenever available. Teachers without access to subject-matter experts, with limited publication access, or isolated by geography, relied on editors to assemble the highest-quality and most up-to-date package of content and materials available to them and deliver it in a way that could used easily in the classroom. The only change now is that the textbook is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to get this package of content delivered to them– it has suddenly become a highly-inefficient vehicle when compared to the Internet.

Your view of the OER movement is likely to be influenced by one issue: how much do you trust your peers to produce accurate and high-quality content? Sub-questions: Are you confident in your abilities to identify trust-worthy materials online? Are you comfortable with your information management strategies? Are you engaged in online discussions or professional development yourself?

Painting in broad strokes, if an educator is engaged in a Personal Learning Network about either teaching or their subject matter, and that individual is comfortable with identifying reliable and high-quality information sources, then nothing so far in this post is surprising nor particularly news-worthy. There’s good information on the Internet- of course I use it. This educator likely already involves some bit of OER, even if it’s sharing a YouTube video as a supplement to an existing textbook chapter.

If, on the other hand, an educator has not had a positive experience with sharing materials online with other educators, or is not connected to useful sites or resources, the “Fear of Internet” monkey on the shoulder has now awoken and is in full-blown panic mode: The Internet is full of bad information! Textbook editors are paid to sort through this! How do I know who to trust? I don’t want to have to verify everything! Are you saying I replace a textbook with some blogger?

To this educator, I offer the following thoughts:

OER is not an “all-in or all-out” proposition, but the inclusion of some kind of OER is a basic standard of the modern learning environment. The ability to evaluate the quality and reliability of online resources is a skill which can be learned, practiced and honed. It is absolutely essential of our students, therefore of us as well.

Your OER, or “o’er there” and their OER?

OER is a blanket term for a wide range of content. The defining characteristic of OER is that it’s a) free to access, and b) meant for use in teaching or learning. In the wild, this most often takes a few common forms:

Online Courses (“MOOC”s)

Coursera, edX and Udacity are some of the biggest players in this field. These are complete courses in which students can enroll and follow a prescribed path. Since they run out over the course of time and are meant to replicate a course experience, these are great professional development opportunities for teachers, but unlikely to be useful within another course structure.

Enrichment resources

Khan Academy is the headliner of a range of sites offering videos to help teach a concept. Teachers can use these videos as initial instruction (the “flipped” model) prior to practice/exploration in the classroom, as post-instruction reinforcement for struggling students, or as expansion/additional topics for students moving more quickly through the course. YouTube is the largest repository of these materials, if your school allows access.

Entire content packages

The textbook has one more advantage than delivering a complete package of content: it has sequence. Whether or not a teacher chooses to do each chapter or unit of a text in order, the textbook is laid out with some thought given to defined structures of knowledge and an order in which they should be addressed. Rushing online and grabbing a MOOC here and a video there will get great information, but it’s not the most educationally sound strategy. “Open textbooks” have some of the same advantages of traditional texts (subject matter expert curation, an instructional sequence) but combine them with the advantages of online resources (faster updating and editing, diversity of materials, collaborative knowledge). This example of free online texts regarding statistics from Tal Galili (R-statistics blog) show many examples of these types of books, although they exist in many disciplines.

Teacher-curated collections

The first three examples are examples of external resources which may, or may not, plug in to your desired course structure. The last common type of OER is a collection that you curate for your own class using an LMS (e.g. Schoology or Edmodo), a system such as Google Drive or Evernote, or social bookmarking tools like Pearltrees or Diigo. This is what we mean when we refer to “building your own textbook”– taking your desired course structure and populating it with materials that you choose to directly support your desired understandings or essential questions.


If you have a concrete view of what you want students to accomplish, answer, understand and demonstrate within a desired unit, finding quality resources online is relatively straightforward. If you are used to a model wherein you rely on the textbook not only for the content, but for the questions and assessments therein, you are now in a position of having much knowledge and no way to assess or practice it.

Wrap It Up…

What questions are you posing to your students? What skills are they learning? The answers to these questions likely require a diverse set of resources. As you look at the essential questions or understandings of your course, ask yourself, “What are the chances that the single best resource for each of these questions happens to be the same textbook?” That question alone should make us wonder if a homebrew of carefully chosen resources from quality, reliable sources is a more effective content package than a stock collection.

Why do you use the resources that you use? Why have you chosen these materials to support particular concepts or elements of the course? Chances are that somewhere along the spectrum of OER materials, from a complete online course to your own curated collection of videos, tutorials, articles, or forums, there is a fit for your comfort level and your course design. Engage with your PLN, collect interesting materials and keep them organized, and see if you’re ready to start replacing textbook elements within your course. And of course, feed it forward and allow your work to become part of somebody else’s Open Educational Resources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *