Virginia Department of Education: Open Education and Policy
Timothy Vollmer, May 18th, 2010
One venue for the advancement of Open Educational Resources (OER) is through policy change at the local, state, federal, and international levels. In addition to an Education landing page and OER portal that explains Creative Commons’ role as the legal and technical infrastructure behind OER, CC has been conducting a series of interviews on open education and policy to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.
In this installment, we spoke with Linda Wallinger, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, and Lan Neugent, Assistant Superintendent for Technology, Career & Adult Education–both from the Virginia Department of Education. The Department has been exploring open education initiatives, including their work on the open textbook The 21st Century Physics Flexbook: A Compilation of Contemporary and Emerging Technologies. In general, Virginia has been supportive of openness, and passed legislation that indicates a preference for state-funded materials to be released with a CC (or equivalent open) license. Linda and Lan shared benefits and drawbacks to the Flexbook, challenges to teachers utilizing OER, and the potential for OER to dovetail with new student assessment tools.
Q: Virginia is well known for developing the Physics Flexbook, in collaboration with publisher CK-12. The FlexBook is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license (CC–BY–SA) and thus can be used as is, used in part, or enhanced by teachers based on their curriculum and classroom needs. What is the status of the Flexbook project and to what extent is the Flexbook used in class instruction? What are the reactions from teachers and students?
Lan: Because Physics is not a verified credit course in Virginia, we had a little more latitude with that particular subject. We’ve been hearing a lot from the business community and some educators about how long it takes to go through the review cycle. It’s a 7-year process. Obviously, a lot of content can change within that time period. Science changes all the time and there are topics that teachers would want to add to their teaching plans. For example, nanotechnology is not something we were concerned about seven or eight years ago. Now, it turns up in all sorts of areas like cosmetics and clothing and might be something teachers want to put into their curriculum. As we speak, there are additional Physics content areas being added to the Flexbook. The Physics Flexbook ended up being an ancillary document. Scientists, high school teachers, and college professors were recruited and each selected an area of expertise to write on. The Flexbooks are in use right now, but we don’t collect data on how much they are being used. My expectation is that teachers who want to go beyond the curriculum and have the time to do that are likely using the Flexbook as a resource repository for their teaching.
Developing the Flexbook helped us to see some of the benefits to and limitations of this model. One of the limitations of the Flexbook structure is that you could clearly tell who authored the content by the style of writing–a scientist writes differently than a businessperson, who writes differently than a teacher. How to address quality control standards have been somewhat problematic with the Flexbook. In traditional printed textbooks, you don’t notice these different voices because it’s edited as a whole to maintain a consistent tone. Another limitation is, of course, copyright issues. Most of the graphics and photos used came from the Library of Congress because they are free. It’s not to discredit these materials; we just thought it was interesting. One of the reasons why we are a state partner with some of the major publishers is that they have solved some of the copyright issues in their development and publishing process.
Linda: The Flexbook was a good way to get some experience in an OER endeavor, but from an expectation of instructional materials I would have hoped that it would have been more interactive. In many ways it was like a paper book that was displayed on the Internet. While that certainly makes it more accessible to individuals and opens the content, I’m still not sure it’s where I hoped it would be to engage teachers with best practices for teaching. By providing textbook resources through technological methods, it might prevent schools from having to buy textbooks. But, students often don’t have access to computers and the Internet at home, or at least it’s not guaranteed that they have it. So, schools have to turn around and print out the resources anyway. It’s not actually as much of a cost savings as it’s made out to be.
Lan: After we were working on the Physics Flexbook for awhile and started to realize some of its limitations, we thought it would be good to conduct pilots with companies that publish textbooks. We put out a call for groups to come in to talk to us, and 40 people came, representing all the major textbook publishers, and some smaller ones too. The publishers have seen what’s been happening with all the changes and consolidation within the music and newspaper industries. We said to them, “you spend a lot of money in binding and printing and physical production…how’d you like to talk about the core stuff you do?” They seemed amenable to discussing this. We’ve met with companies that are demonstrating incredible uses of technology. Some are creating a whole new digital experience. We’ve talked to them about teaching and learning through apps too. We’re very excited about new technologies like the iPad–not that we’re not excited about other technologies–but we thought the iPad would provide a good way to test the technology. Technologies like the iPad overcome the limitation in interactivity that we mentioned before, because it allows users to interact with content beyond traditional text. A year from now other computer companies will have similar products.
Q: Many of us in the OER world talk about the need for teachers to be able to take educational content and manipulate it, repurpose it, remix it, share it. How do teachers want to use content?
Lan: Traditional textbooks have served us well, especially for me as a beginning teacher, because the textbook was the curriculum. The concept of looking at different ways to deliver textbooks could be as simple as putting it online or making it able to be viewed on an iPad or similar device. It could be more complex by including lots of multimedia and other interactive resources. But fundamentally, even experienced teachers are looking to textbooks for guidance on what to teach, what the content should be, and what the process should be. In developing electronic textbooks, you have to hold onto those concepts. The textbook is a teacher’s guideline and roadmap. Any of the multimedia and enhanced materials that you can include to enliven instruction would attest to that.
Linda: Teachers don’t work in isolation when they’re teaching. They are bound to a curriculum that’s been designed by their school division in Virginia and the curriculum is aligned to the standards of learning set by the state. Teachers want the flexibility to mix and match lessons, but they first need a structure whereby they have an idea of the order in which materials should be presented. This is important because many school divisions have a pacing guide that determines at what point in the year teachers should be on a particular chapter of a book or specific topic within a lesson. While creative flexibility is important, it’s important to have structure too. Most teachers don’t teach just one lesson plan. Elementary teachers teach all the content areas. Teachers don’t have the time to develop materials to support their curriculum and their lessons. Over a period of years teaching I’ve developed a sort of library of materials. I’m envisioning that this could be one way a teacher might use the internet-based materials or resources available under Creative Commons licenses.
Lan: Virginia is well positioned to do OER. We deliver just under 2 million online tests per year. Our general assembly and governor’s office have been very helpful in proving the connectivity and devices in order to do online testing. Fairfax School District in Virginia is working on a project called eCart, which is a bucket of OER and other electronic resources that are accessible and shareable by teachers. The Fairfax system ties together the resources and data on student achievement. The system helps teachers analyze whether their students are learning what they should.
Linda: One of the pieces required for states’ Race To the Top applications was addressing an instructional improvement system that was technology-based. It sparked a lot of conversation. I envision a dashboard that allows access to electronic tools used by the school division, like a grade book, but also something like an electronic filing cabinet where teachers can import other electronic resources. We also realized that there should be a common format for all of these electronic resources, along the lines of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) so that all of these resources can truly be shared by many, as opposed to materials being developed just for the iPad, etc.
Q: The Common Core Standards are a shared set of core state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12. How can the Common Core standards intersect with OER?
Linda: Certainly when you have Common Core standards in place across multiple states, any kind of technology that helps communications among these states is going to be invaluable. Most states have expended tremendous resources in developing content standards either before or as a result of No Child Left Behind. Virginia has spent a lot of money in providing resources and materials to support teachers and students, not to mention the assessments that are aligned with these standards. The sheer act of creating common standards is not anywhere near the end of the journey. Having looked at the Common Core, they’re not really written at a classroom level yet. Instead, they are broad statements describing what a student should know. In many cases, states may have to recreate educational resources they already have because the new standards are in a different order or are somewhat different than the standards their boards have adopted. As this work proceeds in reading and math across 13 grades, it’d be wonderful to have the opportunity for teachers to collaborate on developing these resources, or to have one state work on one grade and another state to work on a different grade. That way, there doesn’t have to be duplicative effort.
Q: One piece of legislation in Virginia in support of OER creates an Open Education Curriculum Board. How can it help with the adoption and exploration of OER in Virginia education?
Lan: Virginia had HB 724, which would establish an Open Educational Curriculum Board. The law was sent back to committee, but was not acted upon. We certainly expect it to move in 2011. The board will include governor appointees and general assembly appointees. They will be charged with taking a look at OER that will hopefully be utilized by Virginia schools. The board will be establishing criteria to do their review. We’ll serve as staff to the board.
Q: How do you see the role of Creative Commons within the OER environment? How can CC help in terms of educating policymakers and Virginia teachers?
Lan: We need to look at a state like Virginia, look at all their existing policies and procedures, look at the types of things impacted by OER, and make recommendations as to how states might reconcile those policies that don’t fit well in the new learning environment. We need to disseminate best practices around using technology, as well as the SREB guidelines. Right now, there’s a bit of chaos in the OER arena around copyright issues. Teachers know they can make a single copy of things to use. We need more guidance on these legal issues. With respect to the eCart program I mentioned earlier, OER needs to be tied to student learning outcomes. It’s too easy to take OER and shotgun them all over the place and be done with it.
Linda: When you convene groups working on OER, you need to include end users. Many of the people currently talking about OER are not the people that need to implement them in a school-based setting. Visionaries are important, but sometimes they get their feelings hurt when the educators don’t embrace everything they suggest. It’d be valuable to have people at the table such as principals, classroom teachers, school board members, and maybe state department staff form the instruction and technology side.
Q: Wrapping up, what does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts—worries, hopes, and predictions?
Linda: Lan mentioned that one of the biggest hurdles around adopting and implementing OER is that the policies in place now were mostly created for brick and mortar schools. Sometimes educators give off signals that they are intimidated by or not supportive of OER. But really, I think one problem is that the teachers are not able to visualize how OER can be introduced into existing teaching structures. This is complicated by the fact that board and state policies are not easy to change on a dime. Talking about OER, we get questions about things like assessment. The assessment process is high stakes–it determines whether a student graduates or whether a school is accredited. Clearly, there needs to be some policy changes or changes in the assessment process. Other questions revolve around the amount of time students should spend in school, as well as addressing appropriateness of some educational content and parent complaints.
Lan: One of the things interesting in K-12 is that when the classroom door shuts, all the policies, procedures and best practices really boil down to simply how the teacher teaches. If you take away the primary element of how teaching has been conducted–through direct instruction–many teachers are lost. I’m interested in looking at different methods of teaching. In college, you’re taught 20-30 different methods of teaching, but most aren’t used. In the virtual teaching environment, we’re prompted to look at those other methods beyond lecturing. We can energize students with technology, and there’s a lot of gold to be panned in exploring many new teaching methods. OER would allow many opportunities and latitude to have really good and engaging instruction. The sharing of resources and best practices would help teachers do other things to enhance the learning of not only mainstream kids, but gifted students too. Struggling students can use these resources to review content in other formats or at different paces. We’ve distributed iPod touches within our agency, because when people have the technology in their hands, they begin to see the new possibilities. In the teaching profession, teachers are enthusiastic their first year, they really learn how to teach in the second, third, fourth and fifth years, and by the sixth year they ask, “why am I teaching this in the same way forever?” Technology and open source can energize teachers and keep teaching fresh. We need to work through the nitty gritty of the policies, like copyright and restructuring books.
Linda: One of the big challenges will be to introduce the concept of OER as a methodology into our teacher preparation programs. Most teachers get their ideas of how to teach either from how they themselves were instructed or from the lessons learned in their teacher preparation programs. If they’re not made aware of the opportunities within OER, they’ll be slow to introduce them. I think the good news is that most teachers coming into these programs today are already familiar with many of these tools. Classrooms won’t immediately rely solely on OER, but will adopt a hybrid model. There will still be publishers and vendors that provide content in a structured manner that teachers can follow and school divisions can have confidence in. It’d be great if these vendors or publishers could then link into their own materials ways to import changing OER and apps.