Jeff Mao and Bob McIntire from the Maine Department of Education: Open Education and Policy
Timothy Vollmer, December 8th, 2010
Maine has been a leader in adopting educational technology in support of its students. In 2002, through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), the state began providing laptops to all students in grades 7-8 in a one-to-one laptop program. In 2009, Maine expanded the project to high school students. The one-to-one laptops paved the way for open education initiatives like Vital Signs, empowering students to conduct their own field research in collaboration with local scientists, and make that research available online. Recently, Maine has been engaged in some interesting and innovative projects around OER as a result of federal grant funds. For this installment of our series on open education and policy, we spoke with Jeff Mao and Bob McIntire from the Maine Department of Education. Jeff is Learning Technology Policy Director at MLTI, and Bob works for the Department’s Adult & Community Education team.
One part of the $700 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was dedicated to creating technology-rich classrooms. This funding was distributed through the existing No Child Left Behind Title IID program. With their one-to-one student laptop program, Maine was already ahead of the game with regard to technology in the classroom, so they decided to focus the ARRA funding on OER projects. “We wanted to create something that had a longer shelf life,” said Bob. Maine’s grants were broken into two initiatives: research to identify and annotate high quality OERs, and the creation of professional development models using OER.
Curate metadata, don’t stockpile resources
Maine is a “non-adoption” state, which means that teachers at the local level determine the educational resources they wish to use in their classrooms. Most other states adopt educational materials at the state level. For instance, for a class like 9th grade world history, states will approve multiple textbook titles from multiple publishers, and schools will be able to choose from among the state approved list. Since it’s up to local teachers to determine which educational resources are good for their teaching, part of the Maine OER grants is devoted to researching the rough process that teachers step through when evaluating content. MLTI has been working on a type of educational registry. This registry will be a website that can house the metadata teachers collect around the resources they wish to use. This website–still in development–will help teachers to be able to find, catalog, categorize, and add other informative data to quality resources. Perhaps as important, it will allow teachers to share with others what they did with the content, whether the material worked (or bombed), and other sorts of useful descriptive information. Right now the team is using the social bookmarking service delicious to add metadata to high quality OERs that they find online. This project is coordinated by the Maine Support Network, a professional development and technical assistance provider, and all the resources are linked through one delicious site at http://www.delicious.com/syntiromsn.
Weaning teachers off of printed textbooks
Jeff talked about a way to restructure the traditional textbook adoption cycle that would result with an end product of 100% OER. Currently, the Maine textbook adoption process goes something like this: After six years of using the same textbook, teachers realize their turn is coming up to place an order for a new textbook. In the springtime, they call publishers and ask for demo copies of new books to potentially be used the following fall. Teachers peruse the books sent to them, and settle for the one that is the least flawed. Teachers use the book for five and half years, after which the process repeats itself. Jeff hopes this inefficient process can be changed. He suggests that rather than waiting until the final year to seek out new, pre-packaged educational materials, why not spend the interim years seeking out individual learning objects to replace every piece of their static textbooks?
Such a process could work to improve some of the content that teachers don’t like (and don’t use) in their traditional textbooks. And, through this iterative, piecemeal process, they can share their illustrative discoveries (and dead ends too) with other teachers. The Department itself could pitch in providing the tools, software, and other infrastructure to help teachers keep track of which resources have been reviewed, replaced, or modified. Jeff thinks that enabling teachers to operate in a constant revision mode is a better way to structure the acquisition of teaching and learning materials, rather than reviewing textbooks only once every five or six years.
As most open educational resources are digital, Jeff said there’s an increasing need to be able to deal with strictly digital materials. Digital materials can be leveraged better because Maine students and teachers already have the laptops to access and manipulate the content (which can’t be done with physical books), digital materials can help integrate other best-of types of technology and interactive pedagogy into their lessons, and digital materials helps set up the conditions to support embedded assessment mechanisms.
Share your process as OER; everything is miscellaneous
Maine hopes its work on OER can be used by other states and communities, considering the research and resources will be produced using federal dollars. They will publish their process and offer the resources they create as OER itself online. Jeff said, “the more we can demonstrate this process is effective, the better it speaks to the efficacy of OER.” And, publishing information about resources and processes should be something natural to share. “If a teacher expends six hours finding a great OER for teaching students polynomials,” said Jeff, “it just needs to be done once.” But at the same time, with the diversity of resources available online–and with clear rights statements through the use of Creative Commons–variations on the sets of resources can be nearly infinite. Teachers can have their own educational “iMixes,” just as iTunes users create playlists of their favorite music.
The future classroom
As Maine continues its work on OER research and professional development, Jeff and Bob offer a vision of a classroom where students gather in small groups, talking, exploring and building projects and investigating ideas together. There is no lecturing, and open educational resources integrate with classroom instruction seamlessly. As most kids are naturally inclined to try to find information online, teachers can guide students in using high quality, adaptable OER. Jeff also suggests that we should be investing time and effort into more direct support for students, building or extending the tools being built for teachers, and proactively including students in the resource evaluation and review process.
The success of Maine and others’ OER projects is not assured. Dwindling budgets will remain an ongoing challenge, and while there’s been some recognition of OER in policy initiatives such as the National Education Technology Plan, Jeff and Bob question whether current budget woes will derail national and state efforts for change. Teachers are increasingly overburdened, and the development and support for a hands-on process like Maine’s requires ongoing teacher participation, feedback, and practice.
In the long run, Jeff thinks that OER will challenge the educational content industry in much the same way that the music industry was challenged by–and eventually succumbed to–Apple’s “buy-whatever-you-want” model of music distribution, where users could break apart the album format and simply purchase the songs they wish. Jeff predicts that the textbook industry will be forced to break apart their offerings too, and sell individual chapters or lessons, where before they offered only packaged content to a captured education audience. And Jeff says the benefits apply to publishers too–“If they sell you Chapter 1 and it’s really good,” he said, “maybe you’ll want to buy the whole book.”