Open educational resources (OER) have been promoted as a solution to the rising costs and scalability needs in education. The idea that free content can solve curriculum needs and decrease costs is very appealing. In looking to OER as a potential solution, it is helpful to consider—beyond the “free” price tag—the actual cost of implementing a comprehensive OER program. Districts need to look at the implementation, management, and ongoing costs associated with OER.

Is OER the right fit?
There are key questions instructional leaders need to ask to see if OER is the right fit for their district. Often there is a vision for the content, whether it’s a lesson plan, unit, or entire curriculum. OER is created by nonprofits, organizations, and even individuals who have many purposes in mind as they contribute to education. After considering the purpose and motivation of the designers, educators should ask some additional questions:

  • What costs did the creator take on? Who paid those costs?
  • Is the OER high-quality and research-based?
  • What educational expertise does the designer have?
  • Is the OER designed using best-practice strategies? Is the content engaging?
  • If the OERs include advertisements, are these acceptable and in accordance with district policy?
  • Will the material be reliably updated and maintained?
  • Will the website be there in a year? Do the creators have enough funding to continue?

If OER seems like the right fit, the next big question to consider is this: What are the total costs of implementing and maintaining OER over time? These costs fall into four categories.

1. Finding and evaluating resources

Who will search, vet, modify, align, and maintain your district’s OER? You need a plan for how your staff will find OER to meet the needs of all students, how the resources will be updated, and to ensure that links students must access to complete lessons are working at all times. You’ll also need to develop district-based criteria to evaluate OER. Essential considerations here are:

  • Student safety: Does the OER site allow for inappropriate content or does it protect students from such content? Are there any links that take students to sites that are inappropriate?
  • Diverse learners: Does the OER have strategies to support diverse learners?
  • Differentiation and personalization: Are there materials that support personalized learning? Do the materials offer a systematic progression?
  • Standards alignment/gap analysis: Does the OER offer comprehensive alignment to frameworks? What framework will guide the OER curation? Who will create materials for any gaps?
  • Measuring progress: How can teachers measure their students’ progress toward mastery with the OER?

Answering these questions will help districts develop a comprehensive plan and rubric to assess their needs.

2. Organization and maintenance

Once the OER has been through the vetting process, you’ll need to enable teachers to organize and search on their own. Will the OER be hosted on an existing platform? What keyword tagging will make the material findable for teachers: topic, grade level, standard? You’ll need an ongoing maintenance program to evaluate OER performance, modifications, and updates. Regular audits will help districts weed out underperforming OER.

3. Professional development

As with any districtwide implementation, professional development is vital. Making time for and paying for professional development is already a challenge for many schools and districts, so this extra teacher training is a significant hidden cost. Teachers will need training on how to access OER, understand any copyright restrictions, and modify and use it. If teachers will be curating new OER, they will need to be trained on the district criteria. Additionally, you’ll need a plan for teacher feedback and evaluation of the OER.

4. Operational costs

If the OER is digital, you’ll need to consider the cost for any required printing, binding, and copying of materials. Not all students have online access and may need a printed version of the material. How, when, and where will this be done? What are the costs associated with this?

A strategic implementation process starts with a detailed evaluation of costs, both in money and time. While OER offers some tremendous advantages, it is not entirely free. If your district is considering a comprehensive OER program, be sure to plan for all costs and inform stakeholders of ongoing curation, maintenance, and training associated with the implementation.

At the end of the day, the resources educators use in classrooms and the instruction they provide should all be focused on producing the best possible student outcomes. Just because OER is free doesn’t mean it is equal. Everyone who serves educators, including philanthropists, nonprofits, investors, technologists, and governments must unite around the common goal of doing the very best we can for our students.

About the Author:

With more than 20 years of education experience, Jennifer Gibson fuels her vision, innovation, and leadership by blending educational experience with professional development, educational policy, eLearning, and standards-based design to support educators in professional learning. As former chief learning officer for Lesson Planet, an OER company, she has worked with schools and districts in planning for OER implementation. She currently is the vice president of professional development at ABC-CLIO.