Open Education Resources

Ohio’s Education Technology Conference wrapped up this past week and my mind is buzzing with a good number of ideas and questions (always a sign of a good conference). I had the good fortune to sit on a panel to discuss Open Education Resources and, fresh off the fun conversations carried with other smart educators, wanted to brainstorm ways to make OER work in the education field. To some extent, tech conferences are about spotting trends (negative or positive) and my sense is that OER is beginning to really gain steam.

First, What are Open Education Resources

Open is the key word here. As in, resources are not restrictive. The internationalist in me likes the Cape Town Open Education Declaration:

“Open educational resources should be freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.”

Licenses and copyrights run a range. Being good law abiding educators, we need to pay attention to those licenses and copyrights on materials we use to teach students. Open Education Resources make this possible. More importantly, OER allows us to build on what others have created.

But OER has some Challenges

OERs are not a panacea to education. I’m particularly struck by the following challenges:

  1. Quality Control
  2. Searchability and Indexing
  3. Portability
  4. Funding

Before Pearson cribs those talking points and starts having lunch with legislators, I wanted to explore those issues in greater detail and suggest some solutions.

On the Issue of Quality Control

Why a textbook? Sure, it’s nice to have resources. But our rockstar teachers are constantly curating and creating resources to fit the academic needs of their students. They don’t necessarily need a publisher’s textbook. So why buy them?

We buy them for quality control. For beginning teachers or teachers who struggle in the profession, textbooks provide a uniformed experience for students. These experiences might not be super rigorous or engaging, but at least the materials have been vetted by experts and are common.

Because OERs can and are created by anyone, they don’t necessarily have a quality control mechanism built in. That open textbook might have been written by a writebot gleaning information off a reddit page. I’ve seen a lot of shoddy OERs (usually with bad clip art and lots of Comic Sans, which is odd).

comicsansAethestics matter. Comic Sans will always raise quality control flags.

Now ideally and fundamentally, a teacher provides the quality control for their resources. They’re the expert. Trust them. And I do. Most teachers I work with are incredible.

But teachers are also overworked. Sometimes they’re trying to get a quick worksheet fix before 5th period (I’ve been there). If there was a way to ensure quality in OERs, it would be a great help.

Solution Ideas

Define Authority

Nothing new here, just a need to define “who” the authority is for reviewing an OER (beyond the teacher). The authority should have some type of credentials or proof that they are, in fact, an authority in the content area of the OER.

In Ohio, a number of organizations come to mind. InfOhio, ITCs, ESCs, various school consortiums, even (fingers crossed) the state.

When authority is defined, some type of system also needs to be put in place to verify an OER is reviewed.

Wisdom of the Masses

On the opposite side of defining authority is using the wisdom of the masses. In this type of system you have the masses up voting or down voting resources based on their quality. Similar to reddit, amazon reviews, or Digg.

This solution has its own challenges. First, you need critical mass to leverage the wisdom of masses. An OER watering hole where educators hang with fellow nerds. Second, sometimes the masses aren’t very wise (see Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism).


Maybe the masses know something I don’t?

A Hybrid

The best solution would likely be a hybrid of sorts. A collective place to share and vote – but giving extra-weight to authority. Or possibly a curated collection of highest voted OERs. Wikipedia and BetterLesson have elements of this as well.

Searchability & Indexing

How do I find quality OERs? Google isn’t necessarily the answer. Where do I direct teachers to find open education resources?

To some extent, InfOhio has laid some groundwork in this area with their iSearch feature (although this doesn’t necessarily search for OERs). Other organizations such as OER Commons and Search Creative Commons are making solid strides as well.

Personally, I would like the next level of searchability with an open API that allows districts to tie their curriculum platforms with a robust OER search engine.

OER Portability

The largest issue I face as a technology director is the silo effect of systems. School districts are complex organizations with many moving parts. The parts need to talk with each other. Frequently they don’t.

The last thing I want is OERs to add to this complexity. Districts use different Learning Management Systems, Student Information Systems, Devices, Operating Systems, and personnel with different skill sets. OERs need to be as agnostic and portable as possible to account for these different conditions.

The question is how?

Solution Ideas

This is not a new problem and others have put forth some solutions. SCORM, IMS Global, Tin Can API: All are possible approaches to a portable “unit” of learning. The geek in me really likes them. The pragmatist in me gets that their complexity prohibits widespread adoption. Your average teacher (much less technologist) is going to interface with an API. The problem is that this is very much a difficult problem to solve without complexity. That said, we can look at popular models to get some ideas on how we might grow OERs.

Take OverDrive as an example. When I want to read Thinking Fast and SlowI follow this procedure:

  1. Login to my library account
  2. Click Overdrive
  3. Select Thinking Fast and Slow
  4. Pick how I want to read the book.

Step four is key. I’m given simple options: Amazon Kindle, ePub, web, PDF. While not exactly platform agnostic, the creator/publisher does pick the top 4 platforms (three of which are pretty open) to allow 95% of the market access to their content.


Human Behaviour Really isn’t Rational

Were I a betting man, I would bet the development of OERs using web standards (especially with the recent announcement of the merging of the two major consortiums W3C and IDPH). Then the issue becomes how to “extract” an OER made with web standards into whatever flavor of platform a school or district uses.

One idea worth exploring (future post!) is a Git for OERs (and yes, I do realize I’m beginning to venture into complexity land here). The rough outlines of this idea:

  1. An organization (lending credibility) hosts a git repository. Let’s call it gitedu.
  2. Educators post their OERs to the git.
  3. Other educators can contribute to the OER git. Report issues. Suggest corrections. Etc.
  4. Or they can “fork” the OER into their own repository and take the OER in an entirely different direction.
  5. The key is the OER inherits the same copyright and/or license.

While I get (pun intended) the software model of using Git with OERs might be a bit of a stretch (especially in education circles), there are definite function features within Git that would readily support the growth and adoption of OERs.

The key is keeping OERs as open as possible in their original form. I might create a Word Document worksheet and give it a Creative Commons License. It’s technically an OER. But if I want to build on that worksheet I really need to own Office. (This is a bit of a gray area. Microsoft would say that docx is technically an open XML format. But I’ve had many a Word Doc blow up when trying to open it with any other program other than MS Office).

Funding Model(s)

Can OERs make money if they’re open? Or a slightly different question, can people creating OERs make money?

I would say yes. It requires a different view on revenue.

First, I should point out that many of us who work on OERs are funded by tax dollars. You can (and I do) make the case that OERs are the expected results of government investments. I personally think local, state, and federal governments would do well to invest into OERs through employing quality educators. It’s a better return on the dollars spent.

All that said, another model for funding would be to copy popular open-source platforms.

Take WordPress as an example. Anyone can download and run WordPress (for free). Yet WordPress has created a booming economy for many small and large businesses. It does this by:

  1. Allowing businesses to provide support (revenue in labor).
  2. Allowing businesses to offer “premium” add-on features.
  3. Allowing businesses to offer “customizations”.

Say a future hypothetical OER Amazon begins to dominate the field. If OERs are open (anyone can use them), how does OERAma generate revenue to fund continual growth? They could:

  1. Offer to host OERs on their own customized platform. Districts pay for access to the platform – the hosting if you will.
  2. Offer customization on already existing OERs. Don’t like the cover image on an OER title? Pay $5 to update it to your school logo.
  3. Offer scope of work to develop an OER from scratch. A district gets an OER at the of the work (with an open CC license), but they’ve paid for the labor of developing the OER.
  4. Offer a subscription service for an OER. By joining the service, districts get updates on the OER (and a degree of support).

The Wrap Up: Why OERs?

Our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our own natural ability, but because we are supported by the menial strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers. Bernard of Clairvaux used to compare us to punt dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

John of Salisbury

Open is good for education. It allows students and teachers to build on previous knowledge without encountering the walls of proprietary knowledge silos. It allows districts to adopt and adapt resources to the particular needs of their students and communities without some of the worries that arise from copyright.

OERs certainly have questions and issues that need addressing. It is my hope that the education community will work towards developing solutions that support their growth.

Creating Online Workflows for Education

Intro | Define the Problem

Any complex organization will feature many processes of branched decision making. Substitute requests, vacation leaves, textbook assignments, payroll changes, are all common examples of process we face in education. As much as possible, we’d like to automate these processes in order to create efficiencies and simplicity.

Also, we’re nerds and like to tinker. Any solution we use has to be open-source.

This session will feature a framework for creating workflow solutions using open source applications. Note that while these applications are open, they do cost a bit of money.

What’s needed

A web server running WordPress. WordPress is the kitchen sink of the web running many a website. This session doesn’t cover how to setup and run a WordPress site, but there are thousand of tutorials that detail how a school can implement WordPress as a content management system. If you’d like to tinker with a simple WordPress install, I recommend Digital Ocean or Cloudways.

As a quick primer, WordPress consists of the following:

  1. Core WordPress files. The guts.
  2. Themes. Themes dictate how your website looks and appears.
  3. Plugins. Mini-applications that run on WordPress.

For this demonstration, we’re using two critical plugins:

  1. GravityForms. This plugin creates forms in WordPress. Think of it as Google Forms on steroids.
  2. GravityFlow. This plugin controls the “flow” of form information and allows users to provide inputs to the workflow.

While not critical to this session, I always recommend a WordPress install have a few additional plugins.

  1. Some type of backup plugin. I’m a big fan of UpDraft as it’s free and can backup to your Google Drive.
  2. Login with Google plugin. If you’re a Google Apps district, this allows your staff to login with their GAFE credentials (and you don’t need to maintain separate user accounts).

Example Scenario

In this scenario I’m going to create a leave request WorkFlow. The objective:

  1. Teacher logs into our WordPress site use their Google Suite for Education Credentials
  2. The complete a form requesting leave.
  3. Once completed, the form follows a sequence of approvers. After final approval, teacher is notified that leave is approved or rejected.

Teacher’s Perspective

Approver’s Perspective

Forms and form approvals can all be done via the website. However, we’ve configured approvals and rejections to be activated via a person’s email.

For example, if a principal needs to approve a leave, they don’t necessarily need to login to a website to approve. They may click “approve” in the email.

All entries and data can be exported as a CSV or accessed via the backend of WordPress.


GravityFlow has a number of screencasts on how you can create various workflows. Additional resources are as follows:

The Most Important Part of the Toolkit

As districts invest in Chromebooks and BYOD solutions they should not forget a most important aspect of developing good instruction with technology.

Districts need a web server. A web server in their control.

Chromebooks and BYOD gravitate towards using the web as a platform because applications become device agnostic. This means applications will run as long as they have a browser and an internet connection (although modern browser technologies are actually allowing you to run web apps without internet connection).

The central question becomes where do we host these web apps? Where’s our canvas for creating instructional applications?

Square peg, round hole (and usually ugly)

Quite a few educators have cobbled together a hodgepodge solution to the question of hosting apps. Given we’re pretty much living in the Google Education universe, the most popular solution is to launch a Google Site and throw up a bunch of hyperlinks to the other websites and applications.

This presents challenges:

  1. Google Sites is ugly as sin and hasn’t featured a realistic update in forever (this makes me nervous).
  2. You’re facing the challenges of multiple signons for different sites.
  3. You really can’t build apps in Google Sites¹.

Does the job, but not easy on the eyes.

Other solutions exist. Districts can create wiki pages, use Blogger or Squarespace, hire a company to develop a solution for them, etc.

But districts lose control. They cease to be able to create what they need. And if we’re going to recognize the value of 21st century learning and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, maybe we educators should do a bit of practicing what we preach.

With a web server, you can create any application, host any site, and grow.


Let’s pause for a second to consider who can or should set up a web server? I think most teachers not to mention curriculum directors find the process intimidating. Plus educators are constantly swamped and who wants to add one more item to the plate?²

That said, web hosting companies run the gammit on making this process drop dead easy to moderately challenging. And again, given the direction districts moved with Chromebooks, it really is a necessity.

The key to simplicity: deciding on a web host with an easy to use control panel. Most folk can stumble through the process with a control panel. No need to learn command line or how to use a terminal.

How? (A primer)

I recommend any district give this a try. The costs are minimal, at least for a starter project. Assuming a district is happy with the results, they can easily scale up a server to account for increased use.

Step 1: Pick a Web Host

Technically a district can be a web host. They need a server and the know-how. If they’re an Ohio school district, they can always contact their ITC to set up a web server.

We found it easier to simply buy hosting with one of the millions of hosting companies. In matters of control and having a nice cPanel, standard, run of the mill hosting was just easier. Do a bit of research. Most companies will give discounts if a district purchases a year of hosting up front (verses month to month).

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Do not pick shared hosting. It’s the cheapest option. And dangerous for security reasons.
  2. Do pick Virtual Private Server (VPS) or a dedicated server. Cost and performance is the big difference with a dedicated server costing (usually) more money.
  3. Make sure to get a sense of the support provided from the hosting company. If the web server goes down, who can a district reach for support?

Some big names for hosting (not necessarily a recommendation):

  • Dreamhost
  • Bluehost
  • Godaddy
  • A Small Orange

Step 2: Get the basics right

What, exactly, is web hosting? A real basic explanation:

  • An operating system installed. Typically the choices are Window’s server or a Linux flavor server. Pick Linux. CentOS and Ubuntu are the most popular.
  • On the operating system we have a web server. Apache is the most popular.

Two additional software items are key: A server side language and a database. The most popular are PHP and MySQL.

The Model T of web hosting is called “LAMP”. Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. With it we can pretty much do what we want.

Nearly all web host providers come with a Control Panel. The post popular are Cpanel and Plex. We’ve found Cpanel easy (both to explain and run). Cpanels let a district install software with one or two clicks. We can create databases and view the databases with a few click. In short, control panels make life easy.

In addition to Cpanel, look for a tool that automatically installs software applications. The most popular is an application called “Softaculous”. Take a look at all the apps that can be installed with 1 or 2 clicks.

An sample of some of the scripts.

I cannot emphasize the ease of using a Control Panel and Softaculous. For example, to install a WordPress Blog or Moodle (to name popular apps) the process is:

  1. Login into Cpanel
  2. Go to Softaculous. Find WordPress
  3. Tell it what directory to install the applications (for example:
  4. Click install

The entire process takes 90 seconds.

Step 3: Pick a domain

A district needs a way to find your web server. Domains point to the web server. Most companies will provide a domain with hosting. A district might already have a domain available. If not, I always recommend finding a similar domain and use that with hosting. For example, Hamilton owns:

  • and
  • (our primary) and and
  • (used for shortening URLs).

Domains are cheap. Typically $15 a year.

Step 4: Determine what you want to run

We now have a function web server but don’t have any applications. Perhaps a district would like to run WordPress as its content management system. We would install WordPress in the root directory.

Or we may want to create a simple and clean “landing page” for staff and students. A mini-portal. We would code an HTML page and upload the page to the root directory.

At this point we have a functional canvas for creating applications.

Big Picture Example

Hamilton uses a dedicated web server to run our key application: Abre. I’m not looking to get into what Abre is with this post (those curious can view our transformation to Abre here and take a look at the code here), but I do want to explain how we use web hosting with Abre.

Abre uses:

  1. CentOS as its operating system (Linux)
  2. Apache for a web server
  3. MySQL for a databse
  4. PHP for server side scripting. HTML, CSS, and Javascript as well.

In short, it’s a pretty basic configuration. But with that configuration we’re able to create a slick, easy to use platform for our teachers and students.

Final Note: Security and Backups

I haven’t really explored security and backups in this post. Suffice to say, both are very important.

Backups are pretty easy. Find out how a web host backs up the server and then find a few additional ways to backup your data. We backup our important web applications 3 different ways. We’re a bit paranoid, but data storage is very cheap.

Security is a difficult beast. It’s always about degrees. To what extent has your web hosting company secured the server? This is an important question to ask when considering different providers. They can do a few different things to make a site more secure than other.

In Summary

With a web server, districts have the ability to create useful, creative, and effecient applications. It is the most important part of an instructional toolkit, the framework for developing applications to deliver strong instruction.

¹Not exactly true as you can build “gadgets” which are widgets of code running in the Google Site. This is a hacky experience though and you really don’t get much control over what you can do with the data.

²But again, context is required. Technology is about gains in effeciences. Sometimes you need to invest in the learning in order to get the gains. Education is full of people doing a lot of work because it’s how they’ve always done it.

Framework for Online Books

Looking down the road a short distance and considering current initiatives like 1:1 devices and BYOD, Hamilton anticipates most of its curriculum residing and being delivered online. While still in the early stages of development, we intend to use a combination of tools to develop online textbooks. This is our current framework.

Some Must Haves

  1. We need a format that will work offline.
  2. We need a format that works on all devices. Device agnostic.
  3. We need a format that incorporates multimedia.
  4. Gotta be open-source. A consistent rule for the district.


  • OER = Open Education Resource.
  • Creative Commons = type of license that allows general use of content (there are different flavors of Creative Commons)
  • ePub3 = open standard for eBooks.

Authoring Tool

Apple tried to make a splash with their iAuthor tool a year or so ago. The problem was that iAuthor exported its file in a semi-proprietary format that only worked with iBooks. This violates one of our “must have” rules. Recently iAuthor added the function to export books as ePub3. Still, you need a Mac in order to create content on iAuthor.

We decided to go in a different direction with a tool called PressBooks. PressBook uses WordPress as its core infrastructure. Both PressBook and WordPress are free and open-source. And well documented. Pressbook advantages are:

  1. Multiple authors.
  2. Is web based. So it will work on any device.
  3. Exports created books in a variety of formats. ePubs3, PDF, Word, XML, and Mobi (Mobi is used by Kindle).
  4. Also has a core plugin called “textbooks” that adds features for the creation of Textbooks.

How it Works

Composing a Chapter in PressBook.
Composing a Chapter in PressBook.

We host Pressbook on our own server. Users login to Pressbook and are assigned authorship of a particular book. Using WordPress’s intuitive editor, they create chapters and sub-chapters within a book. Each chapter is technically a WordPress post.

Once a book is finished, readers have two ways of accessing the book:

  1. Via the website. In essence, the book is a series of web pages.
  2. Download an appropriate eBook file. We use ePub3 because its an open standard. Readers can then read it on their favorite eReader (ie Kindle, iBooks, Google Books, Calibre, etc.).

One of the super cool things about PressBook is that you can import ePub3 files. For example, you can download the ePub of Hamlet (say, from Google) and upload the ePub to PressBook. Then you can mix, match, recreate chapters and scenes with your own created content. This is key when thinking of creating eTextbooks.


A demo of PressBook can be viewed here:

The Next Level

Because we’re nerds at Hamilton, we add a few additional elements to the framework. After a book is finished, we publish it to our portal. Students add books to their library using coupon codes (similar to add themselves to a Google Classroom). Using an additional (and very awesome program) called FuturePress, students can use their browsers as an eReader.

Collection of Processes: 1) Writing, 2) Listing, 3) Reading
Collection of Processes: 1) Writing, 2) Listing, 3) Reading

What About Google Play for Education?

We had a helpful conversation with Google on using both the Google Play Books app and API as well as Google Play for Education. We wondered what it took to get a book listed in the Google Play for Education store? The short answer is that the book needs to be in the public domain and you need a connection within Google.

What about working with publishers for content?

The short answer for this was that it’s messy. Most districts wouldn’t want to go down that route because an eBook is technically a license (not a product) that’s usually renewed yearly or assigned to a particular user. Over the span of a number of years, a physical book is cheaper than an eBook.

That said, Amazon appears to be ahead of the game with this option. Their WhisperSync allows you to buy licenses of a book and assign them to users. The downside is that you can’t use Google’s SSO with Amazon (which isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but makes for a rather large headache on our coding end).

Big Picture Goal

Over the next few years, we’d like to collect and create eTextbooks using as much Open Education Resources we can find. These resources will be created and merged with PressBooks. Published versions will reside on our portal linked to student accounts. Published ebooks will also be linked to our Curriculum Modules (also part of our portal).

That’s the goal at least! We’re starting small yet building.