OER—What’s this all about?

Posted by Geoff Belleau on December 20, 2015

A bunch of pennies“A Penny saved is a penny earned”…or something like that is what my grandma used to tell me. In life, it’s conventional wisdom to make your funds stretch as far a possible. Businesses get it.  People eating peanut butter or ramen right before payday get it. Schools get it too. Even now, as resources are starting to flow back into schools, we’re trying to stretch our funds, and one way that global education has been doing that is with Open Educational Resources.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.” (http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education/open-educational-resources)

Education stateside is starting to take notice. In the fall of 2015, the US Department of Education released it’s #GoOpen campaign to encourage acceptance of OER. Many States have invested resources in platforms to help educators curate OER. In the ESSA update, Title IV can be used, among other things, to increase access to personalized learning experience supported by technology making instructional content available through OER. This can include providing tools and processes to support local educational agencies in making such resources widely available.

Internationally OER has gained traction. In 2012, two teachers “wrote” an algebra book one weekend. The effort expanded to include other complete textbooks. One of the strongest testimonies to the effectiveness of OER came from Italy where students were forbidden from starting their courses early using the OER course materials for fear that they would finish the course before it started.

Also in 2012, California passed landmark legislation, Senate Bills 1052 and 1053, which provides for developing a list of 50 lower  division courses for which digital open source text books and related material shall be developed and/or acquired, as well as creating a process in which faculty, publishers, and other interested parties may apply for funds to develop open source textbooks. (See examples.)

One of the premier teacher training programs on integration of technology for teachers, admin, and professional developers is Leading Edge Certification. LEC is complete built and shared on the Creative Commons Platform and a great example of OER.

For educators, OER can have an impact on instructional delivery and student learning immediately in at least two ways.

  •  When looking for supplemental instructional resources. Teachers often need additional strategies and resources for “find another way for a student to learn.” They might have already tried the traditional way, the way the curriculum suggested, the way the grade level team or other department teachers suggested, or even the way they learned the particular topic themselves, but the students still don’t “have it”. Instead of just googling it, a well curated OER process/system can help filter them to what they need to help their students. Maybe it’s a course half way around the globe that has what they need!
  • When searching for appropriate non-fiction text. Current text is hard to come by. OER allows teachers to access what they need for their students. One note of consideration, however, is how OER will be reviewed and vetted.  The traditional material review process is slow at best. After submitting the resource, waiting for it to go on an agenda, go through review committee and then onto the board agenda and approval after discussion, the currency of the material may well be gone. By the same token, if inappropriate resources are used with students, even with the best of intentions, serious consequences may result. No one likes explaining that to CNN. Reviewing your process and procedures for selecting and using open educational resources time well spent.

Yes grandma, a penny saved is, indeed, a penny earned. Saving or redirecting funds saved by using OER truly does help students live in the rapidly changing world!


Reading the Tea Leaves in Tight Times

Posted by Bob Blackney on January 30, 2013

Image of scissors For school districts, this year could see the worst budget struggles in California’s history.  Most districts used up their reserves long ago; the rest have scant reserves left.  Districts have tapped categorical funds in historically-unprecedented ways.  One-time funds and the American Renewal and Reinvestment Act money have been expended.    Maintenance projects have been deferred year after year.  Furlough days and salary cutbacks have been implemented.  What to cut next?

How districts choose to reduce budgets can be very revealing. When under pressure, a district’s true colors come out.    Let’s look at some of the most common ways that a school district might approach budget reductions.

Across-the-board cuts

One of the most common is an across-the-board simple percentage cut of all budgets.  For example a district might cut all school budgets by 10%.  This kind of cut can be politically expedient; it treats every budget and program equally, and has the appearance of being even-handed.  What an across the board cut does not account for are the goals of the district.  If a district has a goal of getting all students to learn and use twenty-first century skills, an equal cut to all budgets will reduce the funding on programs that support this goal and the programs that are unrelated to the goal equally.

Targeted cuts

Another common way to reduce budgets is to target specific programs for reduction. Ideally, the long-term goals of the district are used to select which programs will be eliminated.  On the other hand, such cuts may be linked to certain personalities or to local politics.  For example, an easy way to eliminate a personality conflict is to transfer or lay off the person at the center of the conflict.  It is an old budget axiom that in tight budget times, “dead wood burns fast.”  Targeting programs for reduction can be a beneficial to an organization if it goes through a period of reflection and makes choices that increase the efficiency of the organization as a whole.

Turning down the flame

“Turning down the flame” is budget reduction strategy in which programs are reduced to a level where they are kept alive but are not given the funding to be particularly effective.  The organizational statement here is that the program is valued, and there is hope that when funding returns the program can be rejuvenated.  To implement a turning down the flame strategy, each program is evaluated to see the minimal level of funding that it it would need to survive.  Each program is given a reduction based those calculations.  Such calculations are time-consuming and difficult to predict. What appears to be the minimal level to one observer might appear very differently to another.

Focus on the future

Finally a district might choose to focus on the future.  In this method a district would fully fund the programs that link  directly to the most important goals of the district first, and then reduce other programs.  In this method the district commits to achieving stated goal, even at the risk of doing damage or eliminating other programs.  A district at a turning point might adopt this approach, because it is essential that strategic goals be accomplished regardless of the ramifications. This is a very difficult approach to implement and requires strong leadership and vision and clear goals linked to a shared vision.

Insights into decision-making

Each of these strategies provides insight into the decision-making of a school district.  They are indicators of how a district functions, what it values, and the goals it is setting for the future.  Perhaps a number of these strategies are employed.  An observer might examine the motivation and inspiration for each.  Interpreting how a school district chooses to reduce  expenditures in hard times is like reading tea leaves at the bottom of a the cup—a skilled observer will see more than tea leaves.


How Social Media is Changing School Business

Posted by Devin Vodicka on February 20, 2012

Technology is impacting international diplomacy.  Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, the U.S. Department of State is embracing 21st Century Statecraft, which it defines as “The complementing of traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.”  In Secretary Clinton’s own words,

“We’re working to leverage the power and potential in what I call 21st century statecraft. Part of our approach is to embrace new tools, like using cell phones for mobile banking or to monitor elections. But we’re also reaching to the people behind these tools, the innovators and entrepreneurs themselves.”

Interestingly, the Secretary’s comments reflect changes that we also see in local politics and leadership for school districts.  Like many school districts, Carlsbad Unified is facing significant financial challenges due to ongoing revenue reductions.  As a result, our district has been forced to make difficult decisions regarding layoffs, the elimination of programs, bargaining concessions with employee groups, and other expenditure reductions.  Each of these decisions at a local level is inherently political. In the process, our school board faces genuine and legitimate pressure from numerous constituents, all of  whom have strong feelings about protecting services that they feel have the strongest impact on students, families, and the community.

If international policy is now shaped by “using social media and the Internet in combination with more traditional … tools,” what does this imply for leaders at the local level?  First and foremost, I believe that educational leaders must recognize that the impact of social media is a significant factor in shaping perceptions and beliefs.  2011 research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that 65% of adults are now active on social networking sites.  In addition, the research found that even controlling for demographic factors such as age and education, social network users “were more likely to be politically involved than similar Americans.”

Once we as school leaders recognize this reality, the first step is to become engaged in the social networks as a contributor.  In our district, we have been using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger as platforms to share good news and to help us respond in crisis situations.  More recently, I started a blog to share business services updates, most of which focus on our current financial challenges.  Information posted to the blog is then fed into our district website, shared through the district Facebook page, and linked in a Twitter update.  These multiple avenues allow others to re-tweet, share the Facebook update, subscribe to the blog, or embed elements in their own websites.

The “viral” effect has been amazing.  Here is a screenshot of data from some uploads to the blog.  Given that we have around 11,000 students in our district, the number of times these documents have been viewed shows that there is a high level of interest from the community in these topics.

The benefits of getting accurate, timely information out to the community are tremendous in terms of ensuring a common base of knowledge.  While our challenges are still monumental, and virtually every possible option for cutting expenses remains controversial, I believe that our process of seeking financial balance would be significantly more difficult if we were not using these social media outlets to help with communications.

My strong opinion, based on these recent experiences, is that school leaders at every level should be determining the best ways to leverage social media and social networks to enhance communications and effectiveness.  If we don’t make a presence in this virtual arena, our absence will indicate a lack of engagement and diminish the relevance of our efforts.  If we truly want schools that prepare students for success in this digital age, we as leaders need to model the way.

For leaders interested in learning more about using social media in schools, I recommend the following resources:


Launch Technology Projects During a Fiscal Crisis?

Posted by Kevin Silberberg on October 31, 2011

Most District administrators are aware of the service FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis Management Assessment Team) provides each day in the way of the top education related headlines throughout the state. If it involves schools, and was in the paper, you can be sure that FCMAT captures the link and makes it very easy to read how school districts up and down the state are making the news.  Usually, it is a good day when you don’t see your district as a link on this website.

That being said, an article caught my eye today that speaks to the dilemma we face in California better than anything I have seen in years.  The article, “What happens if city schools go insolvent?,” describes the San Diego Unified School District’s possible financial collapse that could require a state takeover to keep the district afloat.

As a district administrator, I know well what state takeover would mean.  It is a cliff you walk over and seldom fully recover.  Here are the first actions that you can look forward to.

  • The superintendent would be immediately fired and replaced by a state appointed administrator.
  • The school board would lose all powers and become an advisory panel.
  • The state administrator would essentially become the district’s new leader and have the power to unilaterally make decisions, such as which property to sell, what academic programs to cut, which schools to shutter and who to lay off. After labor contracts expire, the administrator could impose district-wide cuts to pay and benefits.

Very depressing!  But this doesn’t tell the entire story.  Earlier in my day of reading, I had read with great envy an eSchool News special report on a visionary technology program that was being implemented in—you guessed it—the San Diego Unified School District.

Two years ago, the district embarked on a five-year journey to transform its classrooms and completely revamp the way San Diego students learn.  Since that time, the Interactive Classroom Initiative (i21) has expanded into more than 1,300 classrooms and has distributed some 78,000 netbooks and other mobile devices to teachers and students.

I can only imagine the planning, effort and vision the district has into this project.  To get all the stakeholders together on the same page to move forward is amazing and should be applauded.  The professional development alone in this program would be the envy of school districts who dream of one day moving their teachers and administrators forward embracing the appropriate use of technology that helps teachers teach and students learn.

So here we have the problem facing most schools in California.  Schools have to live within their means to make it in this economy.  With triggers about to be pulled and mid-year cuts on their way, we can in no way pull off projects like the i21 program and expect to stay away from state takeover.

Would financial insolvency mean the end of the SDUSD i21 program?  I hope not.  Unfortunately, the lesson many district officials may read into the San Diego Unified School District financial problem is: don’t risk any new initiatives; fund highly traditional low-tech expenditures; and make it through the toughest times ever experienced in California public education.

The better lesson is: we can’t do it all, and sustaining is the name of the game.  We must strive to prepare students for the technology-rich world our kids will enter while managing to stay solvent in these turbulent and trying economic times.


Summer School: Lessons for the rest of the year?

Posted by Devin Vodicka on August 10, 2011

It is hard to believe that summer is almost over.  Like most districts in California, ours has been under intense fiscal pressure due to ongoing budget cuts.  This influence, coupled with increasing expectations for student achievement, led us to redesign our summer school options.  We now have an opportunity to reflect and evaluate the merits of our decisions.

The silver lining in the current financial crisis has been the relaxation of rules for programs like summer school.  In the past, our revenue would have been linked to the number of hours of attendance for students that qualified for varying rates of reimbursement.  Now that the supplemental hourly programs such as summer school are flexible, we asked ourselves what the needs of our students were and how we could best use existing resources to address those areas.  As a result, we decided to offer a distance learning program for students in need of credit recovery at the high school level and an English Learner academy for all grades.   Thanks to recent funding from the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program, we had some iPads and iPod touch devices that we decided to deploy as part of our EL academy.

How did it work?

Our district sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean about 35 miles north of San Diego.  I mention this because the first thing we noticed was that attendance, which usually drops off during the summer, held steady in spite of the lure of our coastal diversions.  Student engagement, which typically is not at its peak during summer interventions, was remarkably different than in the past.  Teacher enthusiasm—also subject to variation during the summer—was off the charts in a positive direction.  Grades and local assessments also showed higher levels of success than we previously have seen in the summer.

Here are a few recommendations based on this experience:

  • Take advantage of the existing options to be creative with program design.
  • As always, consider multiple funding streams to support your plans.  We used Voucher funding for the hardware, Title III dollars for the EL academy instruction, and some Tier III revenues to provide for distance learning resources.  Much of the planning was supported by a one-time, ARRA Technology grant.
  • Remember that many technology resources—hardware and software—are unused during summer.  For us, having the iPads sit in storage would not have served our students.  The distance learning licenses we purchased earlier in the year were “annual” subscriptions that also were viable for use in the summer without any additional expenses.
  • Use student achievement data to guide your areas in need of attention.
  • Empower teachers and staff to best use the technology resources.  Our teachers discovered new and creative ways to motivate and instruct students that we would not have been able to anticipate had we provided too much of a script for their plans.

As educational leaders, my hope is that we find ways to turn our challenges into opportunities for improvement.  Strategic and novel deployment of existing technology resources is one strategy that will help us to best serve our students and communities.  If we can make it work during the summer, what is to stop us from doing the same throughout the year?

Learn more: