Our OER Journey – The Backstory (Part 1)


In the Grossmont Union High School District, we have started the process of developing several OER curriculum collections to eventually replace some of the traditional textbooks currently found in classrooms across our ten high schools. We have started to share some of the different pieces of that journey in different venues and thought it was finally time to document with some more detail in one place.  

Part 1: The Backstory

In January 2014, we started rolling out carts of Chromebooks to teacher teams that committed to attending at least two full days of professional learning. Before this time, most of our schools had outdated computers and technology-related PD was mostly non-existent at the time. Over the next 18 months, we deployed over 5000 Chromebooks and trained over 400 (of 800) teachers. For many teachers this began to change everything. The demand skyrocketed as the team model did not provide the regular access many now wanted. A group of high-level users came together in a training we called the GUHSDtech Google Ninjas program. This group built leadership teams at their sites and lobbied for more access. In May 2015, the board approved our FutureForward program – a teaching and learning initiative that provided every student with a Chromebook over a three year period.

As the GUHSDtech team advocated for digital learning opportunities, we kept getting stuck on the question about digital content vs print content. We have all these devices and great web 2.0 applications, but the official content still sits in textbooks. Many teachers had already abandoned their textbooks for found and self-created materials. Teachers started exploring options in open content through Gooru.org and CK-12. In August 2015, the #GoOpen movement was announced.

My superintendent (now enjoying the good life of retirement) and I got the opportunity to attend the #GoOpen kick off event at the White House in October 2015. When we returned, I started drafting a proposal to bring OER materials into the district in a systematic and scalable manner that empowered our teachers to help shape the content for their classes.

In many ways, this is about timing. We needed to start the exploration of digital curriculum because our students had access to devices every day for the first time and many teachers wanted to harness that capability. It came in an environment where teachers were being encouraged to take risks, to innovate, and to redefine instruction in the classrooms.

The big idea was easy. The details are daunting.

Next: Selling the Proposal

I’m not the tech guy.

Yes, my current job is about getting computers into the hands of kids and teaching their teachers how to use them. Yes, I’ve got an MA in Educational Technology. Yes, I’ve done hundreds, yes hundreds, of tech-related workshops. Yes, I have integrated various forms of technology into my classes since my student teaching. Yes, I believe in the power of technology to transform and amplify an educational experience. But, no, I’m not the tech guy.

In 18 years in the classroom, most of my time with students was spent away from a screen. We talked. Read from different perspectives. Analyzed. Made decisions. Worked together. Found problems. Solved problems. Explored the world. Created. We created so many different things. Sure, the screen opened up the world, but the real connection happened in front of and between us.

And, in 20 years of facilitating workshops and professional development, most of my time with teachers has been about teaching differently. About students coming first. About using that tech to give students a voice and a space to create. About letting students find their way with the teacher lighting a multitude of paths.

Real education technology is about all those things. It’s not about word processing, online assessments, or replacing instruction; it is about preparing them for life in a digital world. Often we can get stuck in the weeds of technical difficulties — learning is bolder and bigger than that.

I’m not the tech guy. I’m a teacher, a learner, and an administrator who operates beyond the confines of the traditional four walls of a classroom or office. I use tech to blow up and expand what can be done; not because it’s cool, but because it is the right thing to do for our students. Who are you?

Looking Forward?

I am a big fan of all of the ed tech visionaries out there. My Bloglines account includes the likes of Will Richardson, David Warlick, Chris Lehmann, Vicki Davis, and about 50 others. Plus, in the last few months I have grown fond of Twitter (other than it’s regular downtime) and have followed what I will call the “conversation” that drives the cutting edge of educational technology as it currently exists. I respect the insight and discussions about where we should go shared by all of the edubloggers in extended (blogs) and abbreviated forms (Twitter). However, in the last few months I have begun to start asking myself where are they/we all going. The need for change is blaringly obvious – to me and most of those who are part of that community, but for most teachers, I don’t think they even know there is a conversation taking place. You certainly have your exceptions – Chris’s Science Leadership Academy sounds like an amazing place to work. There are a collection of teachers like myself who integrate these ideas into our classrooms and then share those experiences with the world through workshops and our blogs, but it isn’t enough to change the world.

There is a great quote from the movie Gandhi that I have been thinking about for the last few months (I have done some research and haven’t been able to confirm if he actually said this, but I know he believed at least in the spirit of the quote that appeared in the movie). Here it is:

This Congress (the Indian National Congress) tells the world it represents India. My brothers, India is seven hundred thousand “villages” not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay. Until we stand in the fields with the millions who toil each day under the hot sun, we will not represent India – nor will we ever be able to challenge the British as one nation.

The plight of education differs significantly from the independence movement in India, but there are some parallels (While I won’t delve into the comparison between colonial Great Britain and NCLB, let’s not overlook that fun observation). There are a growing number of us (educational technologists) both in and out of the classroom who are participating in this conversation about how to bring technology and skills that will be valuable in the coming years to the classroom, but despite the explosion of educators participating there are thousands who aren’t. Those thousands of classroom teachers are literally bound by state standards, limited/no access to technology, a lack of institutional support, little/no understanding of the importance, and even an outright reluctance to break with our industrial revolution model of education (it was good enough for me….). You start talking about blogs, wikis, social networking, and podcasts with educators in anyone of those categories and most of it will be lost (or at least filed away) when they return to their classrooms. I think in a lot of ways many of those who talk about Web 2.0 and widespread technology integration are as disconnected to the real situation that most teachers face as the British-educated Indian National Congress was to the rural population of India. I don’t know that we have Gandhi in our midst. Plus I don’t think hunger strikes will get teachers to start a blog, but hey – who knows? Any takers? I’ll write about it.

There remains no simple solution. Really widespread institutional change needs to occur within the educational system. I do not believe I will see that level of change in my career. We have too many standards, tests, textbook companies, federal acts, and even unions. So now what? We do the best we can. We recognize our limitations and work with them. We will not see these changes permeate all classrooms in the immediate future, but hopefully the movement will grow. Certainly it won’t be fast enough, but it will have to do.

I know this sounds a little pessimistic. As a history teacher I’ve come to recognize that many great ideas that should be implemented are often ignored, corrupted by politicians, or lost amongst bad ones. I have the spirit of an idealist and the mind of a pragmatist. Sometimes I hate myself 🙂

I have another post in draft form to follow up on what I think we should do.

NCSS in San Diego

Is finally here! This weekend San Diego hosts the annual conference for the National Council for the Social Studies. In an act of shameless self-promotion, I’m doing yet another revised version (updated from last month’s SDCUE version) of the Choose Your Own Adventure presentation I first did at NECC in 2006. If interested, it is listed for Friday at 3:45 pm.

Better Student Searching – Cool Tool #7

This has been sitting as draft for over three months, I don’t know why I never published it…

Google continues to just make life easier. Now you can create a customize a search engine by including only specific resources. Using Google Co-op, you can simply add sites you want to include in a search. Here is a way for many teachers to teach their students to search in a safe environment. It also allows you to embed the search box into your web page, blog, wiki, etc. I hope to build one just for world history. I could then point students to it for research and enrichment.

It might also be a nice addition to the world of the WebQuests – generally the rule is that the links are included. However, if the teacher provides a customized search engine, you get the best of both worlds. Contained searching on a specific topic (let’s say the Holocaust) and the comfort that your students are still only looking at sites the teacher has verified as suitable.


That’s Mr. Google Certified Teacher

Yesterday I attended the Southern California Google Teachers Academy in Santa Monica. I’m exhausted. In addition to five hours in the car, the conference lasted another eleven+! From 8:30 am to 8:00 pm we lived and breathed Google tools and, perhaps just as important, Google culture. I’m still wrapping my brain around the day and need to reflect the uses of the tools more deeply (meaning, I will discuss some of them in future posts, no really, I will).

Living the Google life. Living la vida Google. OK, I’m still a little punchy from yesterday. Now I only got to visit the Santa Moncia office, apparently the Mountain View “campus” is monsterous compared to this office.

Without sounding too much like a Google employee (we were well fed, but didn’t receive any actual compensation!), I was taken with some of the elements of the Google culture. The environment was very simple, definitely not cluttered in any way. Even most of the work stations seemed clean.

In one of the main work areas we toured, there were a series of cubicals with tinted glass separating the employees. All of them opened up into the same area. I saw people meeting together in the center of the area having a discussion and others who wheeled their chairs into another person’s work station to look at something on one of the pair of 24 inch monitors each person had at their station.

One of the most inviting aspects of Google involved what employees did when they weren’t working. Microkitchens apparently dot Google facilities around the world, complete with drinks and a variety of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks – all completely free of charge and stocked by the company. In main kitchen, lunch and dinner is prepared by a gorumet chief. I overheard some Google employees eating at a table next to mine, talking “shop.” I can’t forget the game room, complete with a pool table, couches, and two wide screen televisions connected to a WII and my personal favorite, an Atari 2600 (I regret selling mine on eBay!). My tour guide also spoke very highly of the subsidized massages!

The most striking element of working at Google is what they call “20 percent time” which allows them to spend a fifth of their work week on a projects outside of their job description. Some of their newer products started as someone’s pet project. What a great way to spark innovation. Pay people to do it.

The collaborative and straightforward nature of the Google work place mirrors the nature of a lot their tools. Mostly in that they are collaborative, user-friendly, and not terribly imposing (plus they are mostly free!). They enable and reward innovation. I got the feeling that the employees were very happy to be there, that they lived and breathed their jobs. Heck, in a place like that, I’m sure it could be very easy. I have no idea how “family friendly” they are, but everyone I saw looked about 12 (which means they were probably in their early 20’s). Probably when I was that age, I would have loved a job like that, but now….

Throughout the day, I tried to think how this new corporate culture can be applied to education. I like the 20 percent time idea – both at the student and teacher level. If we gave our students the power to explore what they wanted within the context of our classes once week, some would no doubt do great things, others might not. The most influential characteristic of the Google culture has to be the collaborative nature of the work environment. So often as teachers we are isolated from one another, except for small chunks of time. I know my own experience at true collaboration this year has been powerful and positive. Google makes it an essential element of their philosophy.

Enough Google loving today. More soon.


The Revolution Will be Digitized

I’ve written and talked about how Web 2.0 is leveling the digital playing field and  democratizing the Internet.  But who knew we were talking about a revolution.

Apparently over at Digg.com, information was posted about a decryption key for HD DVDs.  Digg.com was then asked to remove the post, which it did.  Instead of the situation ending there, it exploded.  Users posted numerous items with the deleted content and overran the main Digg page.  Finally, the owners capitulated and decided to not delete the new posts.

If you are not familiar with Digg.com, it is a site that allows you to bookmark some sort of media.  Then if others like that media, they can Digg it or Bury it.  Those with the most Diggs, end up on the front page.  Here is their description:

Digg is a digital media democracy. As a user, you participate in determining all site content by discovering, selecting, sharing, and discussing the news, videos, and podcasts that appeal to you.

The populist in me thinks it is pretty cool.  However, as an educator, this lose of control is certainly something to be wary of, while I believe strongly in giving students control.  That controls comes within instructor-set educational boundaries.  I could imagine a poor teacher being digitally over run by hoards of students.  That’s one way to make we never increase our technology funding.  Nothing like a little fearmongering.

Scary or cool?  You decide.

(Taken from Techcrunch)


A Great Time to Be a Teacher

This year I have been serving on PBS’s Teacher Advisory Group. A couple months ago I was asked to be a guest blogger on their new Media Infusion blog. My post officially went live yesterday, please visit and comment!

Rarely a week goes by where I don’t get excited about a new resource or technology tool. I’m constantly reading blogs and wandering around the Internet looking for a new idea to use with my students or share with other teachers. Never, in its short history, has the Internet offered so much potential for the classroom teacher.

Read the rest of the post here.

If you haven’t been to the PBS Teacher’s site recently, go check it out. They completely redesigned it, making it a lot easier to access the tons of great resources offered by PBS.


Web 2.0 and Technology Education

I’ve been asked to take on our high school Web Design class next school year and I’m trying devise a class that addresses the changing nature of the web.  In the past it has focused on learning Dreamweaver, CSS, and html.   The class was also tasked with maintaining the school web site.

In short, I am trying to envision the Web 2.0 version of this class.  I want to move away from teaching traditional applications and code.   I have visions of digital media literacy, blogging about technology tools, and finding web applications that fit practical personal and education needs.

Can you help?  If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them – either in a comment or an e-mail (danmcdowell at gmail dot com).

I intend to use an open source CMS (Drupal or Joomla) for the backbone of the school web site, so that portion of the class won’t be as dominating.  I will have around 30 students with varying degrees of technology background.  We will be using Macs.



They Don’t Get It, We Can Help

Each year I spend the first couple weeks of my college prep world history classes looking at why history is important and the process of creating histories. During my Evaluating Evidence lesson I set up a criteria that historians and students need to consider when using a source. I really focused on point of view and bias. Then I started talking about the Internet. Our students now turn to the Internet for information first; few make special trips to the library to find something out. As I started talking about having to be very critical of the sources we find online, I got a lot of blank stares.

I started getting concerned, so I conduct a quick, informal survey (which I would repeat with my two other college prep classes). The results struck a cord. Most claim they don’t consider the source. If it shows up in Google, they are good to go. I mentioned the Martin Luther King, Junior page that use to show up in the top ten of Google searches on MLK which was really a skewed attack clandestinely sponsored by a white supremacist group (I believe Alan November used this example for a while). They were a bit shocked.

As this conversation developed in my first class, I decided that I would take them over to Wikipedia. About half of the students had been to Wikipedia, but only a handful actually understood it. Several mentioned that it was a cool place to easily get information. One person across three classes claimed he had contributed. When I clicked on the edit this page tab, I saw mouths drop open.

“You mean anyone can edit it?”
“Can you change it now?”
“Wait, it only changes it on your computer, right?”

The history tab (where you can see the past changes) surprised almost everyone. They have a good concept of creating content on the web (no doubt many of them have a MySpace account), but they were having trouble wrapping their head around the central concept of Wikipedia and wikis in general. When we got back to our discussion on evaluating evidence and examining information for validity, they seemed to get it a little more. We will certainly work on it all year.

It seems like no really owns teaching these skills. Who should do it? English teachers? Social studies? Technology classes? Everyone? I’m sure there are schools and districts that have made the effort and passed the policies to incorporated them, but I am betting a vast majority do not. We already have too much to cover and do. Throw in the issues I discussed in an earlier post and the problem becomes even more complex. It seems like technology is evolving so fast that education simply can’t keep up.

Perhaps, like wikis and blogs, it has to be bottom up. Squeeze it in between lessons or build a skill builder into an existing unit. They don’t get it. I can help my students. Can you help yours?