Reflecting on my year of open – part 5/Open dictionary

Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Kids Open Dictionary has been a project of love (self-funded) that I and others have worked on for the last 6 years.

This year, we accomplished some big milestones. Perhaps the most significant to me is that we defined all of the identified high frequency words. Currently, we have over 10,700 words (or approximately 43.8% of the total list) defined. [Caveat: These are not all “final.”]

This year, we also had several requests from folks to use the raw dictionary data for various projects. Most of these were game-type apps. For me, every time we get an email asking for access to the data (which is openly available),  it’s a proof that this is a useful project.

When I think about challenges of this project, there are several. First, from a technical standpoint, we spend a fair amount of time fighting off malicious attacks on the site. Unfortunately, this is a reality of any open, crowd-sourced site. It makes me sad that this is the case.

Another challenge has been the sheer amount of work this project requires. It has taken thousands of hours already, and the crowd-sourcing element of it hasn’t taken off as much as I’d hoped for. (Kudos to our loyal contributors, though, like Algot Runeman. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without you.) At this point, it’s hard to foresee when we might finish this, but it will be years.

I look forward to continuing to work on this. Not only do I think it has social value long term, but I find working on it satisfying. Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day or am in a boring meeting, I’ll define a bunch of words. Some people knit; I work on my dictionary.

The going-forward plan (in rough order of priority) is:

  • Complete initial definitions for the remaining words (approximately 13,000)
  • Begin editing and finalizing (“freezing”) definitions
  • Release a final build
  • Begin prioritizing the long list of additional features we’ve had requests for (pictures, audio, multi-language, etc.)

As we finalize, I’d also like to think about some apps we’d like to build with this data, as well as marketing the availability of the data set and tools. (We haven’t done this to date since this is still very much a work in progress. Everyone who’s using the data currently knows that it is not final and is at their own risk and discretion.)

Thanks again to everyone who’s supported this project. And if you think it’s worthwhile, consider a visit to define a word or two. :)

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Reflecting on my year of open – part 4/Open learning vs OER

Posted by on December 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

credit: Tom Magliery

For a couple years now, I’ve been puzzling over the intersections between Open Educational Resources (OER) and open learning. While they have much in common, they clearly aren’t the same thing.

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.” (Hewlett Foundation, 2012) More simply put, they are resources that are public domain or licensed under a license that allows alteration and redistribution, like Creative Commons CC BY.

Open learning is a much broader idea. It is about transparency and sharing and inclusive access and agency and collaboration. It is a mindset, a way of being, doing, and learning. For more about working and learning in the open, I’d recommend the Hive Research Lab’s recent white paper, “What does it mean to ‘Work Open’ in Hive NYC? A Vision for Collective Organizational Learning.” This paper talks about why working in the open is relevant to their organization. It further describes what working in the open looks like in practice and talks about the benefits and tensions.

I believe that OER and open learning can reinforce and encourage one another (separate post to come on that), but it is more and more apparent that they are different things, and with there only being so many hours in the year, sometimes one has to prioritize.

One of the first times this dichotomy became very clear to me was at a gathering of renowned OER advocates. The group was asked to think of a moment of amazing learning, whether in or out of school, and to share it. Listening to a number of powerful stories of learning, it occurred to me that not one of them involved materials or resources (and this was at a gathering about open educational RESOURCES). Instead, they were all about people and experiences. That is certainly in line with my own experiences and beliefs that instructional materials are far down the list of things that matter in fostering learning.

My own thinking on this further developed as I began working with some very progressive educators in some non-traditional learning contexts (including a few connectivist MOOCs). Many of these brilliant folks were committed to “open,” but were not really concerned with open licensing, which seemed to them at best to be an unnecessary inconvenience and at worst a hindrance to what they were trying to do. (I’m not saying I completely agree with this, but it made me think.)

Then there is the path that OER seems to be taking, especially in K-12. In many cases, it is leaning more toward textbooks than non-traditional materials, more toward rigid online courses than unstructured learning spaces, more toward “resources” than processes, more toward attempts to standardize and assess than to foster authentic learning. I understand that this is the direction that K-12 education has moved in, and many think that in order for OER to gain mainstream K-12 adoption, it too must go in this direction.

But this isn’t why I got into OER. My reasons had to do with empowering teachers and students, offering an alternative model of learning. I was hoping for a different and better way to learn, not just a cheaper or more fiscally equitable way to do the same old thing.

And as I think about the challenges of districts adopting OER and the expense involved in trying to beat commercial publishers at their own game, I wonder if embracing open learning (and/or deeper learning?) might be a more fruitful way to advance the open movement. I certainly don’t doubt that it would benefit K-12 students more.


Reflecting on my year of open – part 3/OER and districts

Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

This year, I have reflected a lot on the way that districts adopt curriculum and what this means for OER. First, some background…

The curriculum adoption and purchase decision in K-12 schools is a complicated process. There are many players involved including states (in “adoption” states, the states actually determine the list of curricula that schools may purchase with state funds; in “open territory” states, the state may only issue a so-called “approved” list, leaving more discretionary power up to local sites), districts (who are typically the most direct “decision makers” subject to the whims of committees and all these others), schools, and individual teachers. Sadly students are generally not included in this process.

Districts usually have curriculum committees which include a broad range of constituents involved in final decisions. And as any publisher rep can tell you, navigating through these curriculum committees is a lot of work, and that must be done before any sales are made.

credit: Flickr user timuiuc

The monies used to buy textbooks typically come from the state, which leads to the unusual situation in which districts, schools, and teachers are not particularly incentivized to economize on curriculum purchases. (This is very different from higher education, where students buy textbooks, creating a clear economic incentive to reduce cost.)

Furthermore, the current environment of K-12 schools is one of extreme accountability at every level. Whether you think it’s right or wrong, nearly every decision in schools comes down to maximizing achievement (as defined by the system) and minimizing risk. In these days where people’s jobs are on the line for not making achievement scores, this is serious business. (See “Demand, district adoption, and ‘silver bullets.’“)

Then there’s what actually goes on in the classroom after the curriculum adoption and purchase is made. This may or may not have anything to do with what’s been adopted (thought this is less the case today than it has been in the past). Some of the best and brightest teachers I have known have left their district-adopted curriculum on the shelf, instead using other scavenged materials that they feel best meet their learners’ needs.

So into that complicated context enters OER.

Many of us have had a goal to increase OER adoption in K-12. The reasons are many. It’s a wiser use of public funds (which after all, pay for all of this in the end). It’s a way to loosen the stranglehold of commercial interests on education. It’s a way to empower teachers and learners.

However, the more I think about it, the harder the fit for OER into the formal adoption process in K-12. The process demands rigorous time and attention on the part of the curriculum “sales force,” whether the curriculum is free or for sale. That is very difficult for OER producers and publishers to do, given the fact that there is no economic incentive. (Creating an economic incentive, such as through ancillary product and service sales, may be a key to this…but that’s another post!)

The more radical side of me also asks, “Is this really the goal we should have?” If in fact, some of us don’t buy into the premises of mainstream K-12 education right now, e.g. high stakes accountability; rigid, prescribed curriculum; lack of teacher discretion, should we try to fit into its strictures?

Maybe open learning is a more worthy pursuit than adoption of OER. More on that in a future post.


Reflecting on my year of open – part 2/K-12 OER COP

Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

This year, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, we launched the K-12 OER Community of Practice (COP).

This project grew out of my years of doing OER advocacy work in K-12 and my thought that it was time to take it to the next level, not just to promote awareness, but to support use. The goal of this project was to create an online community of practice to support those who have begun using OER and move those who are aware and interested forward toward actual use.

Through my work in other online communities in the past, I am a believer that this is a powerful way to support and deepen practice.

To begin, I got a group of friends and OER advocates together to brainstorm the design of the community. There were several key design decisions we wrestled with, including whether to house this as a separate space (see “Does the world need one more online community?“) and whether to use open tools vs. a proprietary space like G+ or Ning.

After making some decisions, we went ahead with development and launched the site in March, 2014. We featured sections on getting started, classroom use (ELA, math, science, social studies), open textbooks, and open online and blended learning.


While the early interest in the site was strong, actual use of the discussion areas was low. Views of the site were higher, but not as much as I’d hoped for. Our best uptake came from social media, which we emphasized more as the year went on, by tweeting more, creating a series of storifies, etc.

I attribute some of the slow adoption of this community to the fact that there just aren’t the number of K-12 schools adopting OER that we’d hoped for (and some of those who are don’t really identify it as “OER”). Also, in hindsight, I might reconsider our initial decision to house this with open tools (WP) on our own site. Based on other experiences, I think it could have been more successful on G+ where there is already a critical mass of educators gathered.

I say that with some hesitation, as I have often fought against G+ (and other similar platforms) because of their commercial and proprietary (not open) nature. But you can’t argue that there are crowds there, and perhaps asking people to go to one more place (albeit an open one) was too heavy of a lift. Sometimes taking the moral high ground doesn’t get you where you need to go.

Now I need to decide whether to continue the COP site where it lives now or to move it elsewhere. G+ anyone?


Reflecting on my year of open – part 1

Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

credit: Stuart Rankin, CC BY NC

One of the nice things about doing some organized work on OER and open learning (including some with support from the Hewlett Foundation) is that it prompts me do reflect on my own work and thoughts regularly.

As this year comes to a close, here are some of my major areas of work and conclusions:

  • This year, we built the K-12 OER Community of Practice.
    Results were mixed, and conclusions were many.
  • Advocacy for OER in K-12 continued with a few significant new thoughts, namely that OER is a very difficult adoption decision for districts (and much easier for states and individual teachers) and that open learning may be more important than OER.
  • Work on the Kids Open Dictionary continued and made some significant strides forward.

Over the next few days, I’ll write a blog post on each of these.


Demand, district adoption, and silver bullets

Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

A few us have been pondering the question “How can we best advance the adoption of OER in K-12?” both online in this document  and f2f at the Open Ed 14 conference.

As I’ve thought about this, a few conclusions I’ve come to are:

  • The demand problem is more significant than the supply problem.
    There is currently a good amount of high quality, standards-aligned OER in K-12 with lots more coming online. For the most part, this supply is not being used as much as it could/should be.
  • The most challenging point in the adoption decision chain is at the district level.
    K-12 adoption is a complicated process with decisions made at the state, district, and classroom teacher level. With regards to OER, many states have approved, recommended, and/or endorsed the use of OER. Similarly, most classroom teachers who know about OER think it is useful for their classrooms. With rare exception, though, districts have not adopted OER over similar commercial curricula.
    The reasons for this are many. One is that commercial publishers spend a great deal of resources to support the adoption decision that OER publishers simply cannot match. A commercial purchase generates to significant profits to do things like court the district, make numerous pre-sale presentations, provide professional development, provide ongoing support, etc. This is nearly impossible for OER to do.
  • OER is not an “easy” decision for districts to make.
    This point has been made to be my numerous educational leaders. On the one hand, it is the “no one-ever-got-fired-for-buying-IBM” effect, but there’s more to it than that.
    As the below twitter exchange demonstrates, commercial publishers are willing to make silver bullet claims that OER cannot make. Of course, I and many others would maintain that no curriculum can guarantee academic achievement improvements (and in fact, I don’t think instructional resources are even the primary factor in determining achievement), but that is the promise that commercial publishers make. I don’t think OER can or should make this claim (though some in the OER movement seem to be going in that direction), but this is a key reason that it is very difficult for districts to choose OER.


So how do we answer the question “What are the highest leverage points through which K-12 OER use might be advanced?” It seems to me that there are two very different paths that we might take.

The first is to work harder on packaging an OER solution that better matches up to commercially published product. This may involve talking about the complexity of teaching and learning more elegantly as suggested above. It almost certainly needs to include a sales and support process for OER. It may require production of a glitzy line of ancillary products. It is likely an expensive proposition.

The second is to choose to compete less directly with commercial products and instead target those who are already disillusioned with the existing commercial approach to school. Focus more on open pedagogy. Empower teachers and learners more by building agency.

While this second approach is more appealing to me personally, I am not sure it will lead to more “mainstream adoption” in today’s educational environment. I suspect that those who are moving in this direction are already doing so, though OER might provide them with more tools to do so.

I hope that the tide in education turns so that the mainstream supports what many of us believe is a better learning environment.


Open and sharing as a choice

Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

I recently had a short Twitter and blog conversation with someone about OER and the question “Why should all of the time that I spent developing this, be free for others to consume without some form of compensation for my time?”

Here in part is my response:

“The distinction [between OER and all the other free resources], worth noting I think, is that open educational resources are not only free, but are licensed in a way that they can be freely remixed and redistributed by others (with attribution). This is generally done under an open license like those from Creative Commons.

The reason this is important is that the owner/creator still owns the copyright to the materials. That being the case, they can still be compensated through advertising or even selling the material. Some of the ways creators of OER can be compensated for their work is by selling versions of it (especially printed versions or versions with other value added), seeking voluntary donations (this has been very popular in the entertainment industries and sometimes has yielded higher returns that just selling content outright), and selling services related to the materials (for example professional development).

Still the question remains – do you really want to give away stuff you spent a lot of time working on?

That is a question that each individual has to answer. I don’t think any of us who advocate for OER think that everyone should give their stuff away.

Instead, we want to make sure that people who want to give their stuff away know that using an open license is an option. It’s a way to get broader distribution and use of your materials if you were going to give it away anyway. A lot of people who post free stuff intend for people to be able to reuse and redistribute it, but the complexities of copyright and fair use get in the way.

Simply put, if you really want to share freely, putting a Creative Commons license on something is the best way to do that.

Also, many of us think that educational materials that are paid for with public dollars should be openly licensed so that they are freely shareable (but that’s another post!)

On the issue of whether it’s worth freely and openly sharing, I can say that from my personal perspective is YES. (I will say that it took me several years to reach this point.) By freely and openly sharing, I have gained so much, personally, professionally, and yes, even monetarily.

That’s just my perspective, but I thought I’d share it.”


Passion-driven learning

Posted by on October 27, 2014 in clmooc

K12online2014-Hi Res

I am very excited to be convening the Passion-Driven Learning strand of the K12 Online Conference this year. This is an approach I believe deeply in.

We have an all-star line up covering vital topics such as genius hour, connected learning, and more. Several of these projects are ones I’ve been proud to be associated with this year.

Here is the schedule for the week. (Links will be added as the sessions air.)

Keynote Passion-Based Learning
Joy Kirr

Connected Learning Through Google Apps
Jennifer Bloomingdale

A Key to Interest-Based Learning
Paul Allison

Grab the MIC (Musical Integration Concept)
Kevin Cornell

Genius Hour Passion Projects
JoAnn Delaney

Connected Learners Need Connect Leaders
Donna Fry and Mark Carbone

Finding Your People
Cheryl Steighner

Trust and Transparency
Bart Miller

Moving From “Some Study I Used to Know” to Inquisitive Learning with Genius Hour & Passion Projects
Michele Haiken

Passion-Driven Learning in #clmooc–Supporting Teacher Agency in Making and Learning
Mallory McNeal and Anna Smith

An Introduction to Webmaker for Educators
Brendan Murphy

Web 2.0 Tools that will increase Creativity and Passion in Your Online Courses
Courtney Kofeldt

As always, all of these K12 Online sessions are open licensed and shareable and will be available indefinitely for you to view, use, remix, and share.

Thank you to everyone who contributed a session to K12 Online this year and for the good work you do all year!


Kids Maker Day 2014

Posted by on September 11, 2014 in clmooc

This year’s local kids maker day is over, and it was a great success. The planned program is shown here.

When we hold this annual local event, we never know how many kids will come or what ages they will be. This year we started with about 10 kids. The youngest was 4 months (!….accompanied by a parent and several older siblings) and the oldest was 10. Over the course of the day, some of the younger kids left and others joined in.

We began with making name tags and having the kids introduce themselves to each other and then to the group. The kids typically hate having to do “public” introductions, and this year was no exception. Still, I think that doing this has long term value, and I even think it helped build relationships for the rest of the day. (Several of the kids didn’t know each other before.)

Then we moved on to the Marshmallow Challenge. I’d have to say this was the highlight of the day. Kids just loved it! Several adults even participated, and one of my favorite parts was when a parent has built a tower and as a child approached, she shouted, “Don’t bump it!”

We teamed kids in groups of 2 or 3, trying to mix ages and separate siblings and friends where it made sense. Every team who participated built a successful tower, and we learned lesson about collaboration, play, trying different things, iteration, and design under constraints.



After one round of the building with the formal rules, the kids wanted to do another round with new rules. These are the revised rules we came up with as a group:

new instructions

Again, each group was successful in building a tower; some were taller than the previous round and some shorter. I think kids could have gone on with this all day, but other activities were calling!

We’d planned to do storytelling next, but altered our plans. At that point in the day, about half of the kids seemed too young to do the activity we’d planned, and several others had said they’d leave if we did storytelling. I hate to give in to demands and really wanted to do storytelling, but also wanted to have a successful day. I put it aside for the moment and hoped we’d return to it later (which we didn’t…this was one of the “failures” of the day. Comments? Advice?)

Instead, we went to the Cardboard Challenge. I’d planned for this to be one of the optional activities in the afternoon, but in looking at the group, I knew that everyone would want to do it. We have very little guidance other than “build something with cardboard,” and all the kids immediately came up with something they wanted to build. We ended up with a monster mask, a cat play house, a puppy house, an egg money collection box, a storage box, a ship, and a giant turtle.


After lunch, a few middle school students came in to teach us how to make duct tape wallets. What fun! The main instructor for this was a natural teacher/mentor. He gave just enough instructions and was so patient with even the littlest kids. He was flexible and acknowledged when someone came up with a good alternative way to do something. Just what you want in a teacher! Everyone ended up with wallets to take home.


Next up was jewelry making. While there were several options, the kids gravitated to the rainbow loom work with colored rubber bands. We didn’t buy the actual plastic loom, because we’d found these instructions for weaving with your fingers. This was a great activity. I think it worked particularly well with smaller kids (down to 4) and with kids who sometimes had a hard time focusing or persisting otherwise. There are some lessons there, I think.

making bracelets


We wrapped the day up with cooking. I’ve always wanted to do this, and when our facility added a kitchen this year, I was thrilled. We had a six year old teach us how to make biscuits, and he was awesome! So were the biscuits. It was fun for me to just hang back in the background and watch (and worry about the oven…nothing bad happened, of course). Afterwards, we ate biscuits with homemade jam and shared the leftovers with the adults. (There was a parallel adult-focused event taking place in the same building.)

making biscuits


Overall, it was a great day. Here are some observations and thoughts for next year:

  • Making is great.
  • Less structure and more flexibility is better.
  • Youth-led activities are awesome. (We brainstormed more of these for next year.)
  • I need to think more about how to bring in more storytelling and/or writing next year. (We’ve done DS106 Daily Create-style photo challenges in the past, and those were very popular, but I wanted to try something different.)


Reflecting on CLMOOC – Part 3

Posted by on August 1, 2014 in clmooc

One of the most important things I think about as I wrap up an experience like CLMOOC is how I’m going to take my learning forward.

One of the big things on my mind right now is a small local kids maker day I help coordinate each September. This year’s program is being influenced by CLMOOC 2014. Here’s the current outline:


Welcome and Introductions
Marshmallow challenge (collaborative design activity)
Storytelling activities (with options)
Planning for afternoon



Creative play options

    • Cardboard challenge
    • Duct tape crafts
    • Jewelry making


 One of the constraints of this event is that there is no technology available. Also I have no idea how many kids will come or what ages will they’ll be. In the past, we’ve had as many as 15 kids ranging in ages from 3 to 18.

The influences of CLMOOC on this event are related to connected learning. We have a lot of choice for participants and try to encourage them to follow what they want to do. We encourage peer collaboration and making. The storytelling options will include a couple variations on the 5-image story make (without computers though).

I’m looking forward to this event and to whatever unexpected ways I am able to carry forward the CLMOOC magic!