OER Presentation Dr. Louise Waters, Leadership Public Schools

Written by Neeru Khosla on April 8, 2011

This particular blog entry I am using a different format. I will share verbatim the presentation of Dr. Louise Waters at the Hewlett Foundations OER conference. It speaks to what I cannot seem to say as well as she says.

Open Source Educational Resources
Using the Power of Open-Source Resources to Transform Urban High Schools
By Louise Bay Waters, Superintendent & CEO Leadership Public Schools

A Presentation for the 3/30/11 Hewlett Foundation OER Conference

I come to you from Leadership Public Schools to talk about the potential of open educational resources for transforming urban high schools. We are four urban public charter high schools in Richmond, Oakland, Hayward and San Jose, California. We serve approximately 1500 students of whom 58-93% are low income. The majority of our students enter 9th grade performing at the elementary level and 85% will be the first in their family to attend college. Let me tell you what that translates to terms of student reality. First, our students have to catch up at least two years academically each school year. This means we have no choice except to teach college prep courses and basic skills concurrently. This is impossible without the adaptive power of technology. Second, our students must believe that they can make these leaps and that there is a reason for them to make the sacrifices this entails. We believe technology can empower them as masters of their own destiny and producers in the 21st century economy. And finally, for so many of our students, motivation and academic catch up are still not enough to guarantee success in college. The economic and social reality of their lives will continue to throw road blocks in their paths. We are convinced that technology can provide us mechanisms to be real about providing life changing opportunities for our students.

You will note that I have used technology as key to addressing each of our student challenges. However, traditional technology products do not easily address our organizational challenges. First, we have very limited resources with huge needs. One-to-one laptops; fancy integrated data systems, and full-service on-line courses are not within our price range. Similarly, off the shelf solutions that require extensive professional development overtime are not realistic in a climate of high teacher turnover – whether due to burn out or Teach –for-America career paths. Similarly, in a challenging climate of ever changing needs with passionate, innovative teachers, top-down, pre-set materials, no matter how good, will have limited resonance. For these reasons, the technology solutions we are developing are deliberately open source, low-tech leveragers of high-tech strategies.

Let me be more specific about the path we have embarked on – the LPS vision: numerous, continually evolving, innovative technologies + intense teacher relationships—to make our students ready for college success.

First, in order to get our two for one gains, we are teaching literacy and content concurrently. High school is too late to first teach reading and then later teach Biology. That is what led me to a conversation with Neeru Khosla and discovery of the CK-12 Foundation. The CK-12 Foundation produces free, open-source, online textbooks that are easily editable. Rather than purchasing textbooks that most kids couldn’t read, we formed a partnership with CK-12 to produce what we call College Access Readers. These are online books that have embedded literacy supports. Most students use these as hard-copy workbooks with embedded vocabulary and comprehension exercises. Teachers use them with LCD projectors to access embedded video clips and simulations or to provide direct instruction in content literacy. Advanced students use the CK-12 online original. Very low performing students use the online versions with text-to-speech or Spanish translation. And even within this lowest-tiered application we are finding that we need multiple levels of accommodation to address the range within the special education continuum.

This is the reality of the differentiation that we educational leaders routinely exonerate teachers to employ. This is the reason that differentiation in practice has fallen so short of differentiation in theory – it is simply too hard for teachers to do with the intensity and consistency that is needed to reach all students. In my 35 plus years as an educator, my introduction to the open educational resources of CK-12 was the first time that I saw a realistic, cost-effective, scalable way to provide the differentiation needed for true access to college-prep content for struggling students. Because of CK-12, this year we have been able to create College Access Readers in Algebra, Biology and Geometry with Algebra 2, Chemistry and Physics due in August.

But as I mentioned before, unless students buy in to catch up, the two-for-one gains we are asking of them won’t happen. So again we are using technology – this time to put immediate data in the hands of students – both informing and empowering them. At our Oakland campus, the number of students passing the high school exit exam on their first try went from 33 – 62%, primarily from individual students understanding their data, setting goals, and identifying the supports they needed to reach them. We have also seen phenomenal results from students getting just-in-time data using audience response technology, more commonly called clickers.

Now we are taking both of these solutions into the open-source arena. Our intention is to move our highly effective but low-tech (FileMaker pro) data system onto the web in an open-source format. It will be available to others to use and improve. And by developing proprietary reporting modules it could also be a source of potential revenue for us. More immediately, tomorrow we will begin creating an open-source version of the very successful but expensive clickers. While the commercial versions have provided great results, they are $400 – $1200 per class set with a limited range of functionality. At our professional development day tomorrow, our math and science teachers will design quizzes and exercises tailored to each subject and designed to maximize the power of just-in-time audience response technology. These open-source tailored quizzes will be linked to the CK-12 Readers to provide immediate response data to students and teachers. However, we will be using mobile phones rather than the cost-prohibitive clickers. And to ensure access and control, instead of students’ personal phones we will be using recycled last-generation Androids and iPhones via wifi and without a dataplan. Our SmartPhones for SmartKids campaign will be launched early this summer.

These are a few of the technology-based products we are developing to provide access, acceleration and ownership for our students. I am sure you have noticed common threads: these are open-source, low-cost, low-tech implementations of high technology. In fact, much of what we are doing has more in common with successful strategies in the developing world than with typical American solutions filled with bells and whistles. But I think that this makes sense. In reality America’s inner cities are our third world.

Great as the potential for each of these open-source products, to me none of them, per se, represents the real power of open-source. The real power is the synergy open source makes possible. We call this process Collaborative Innovation and we believe it represents the true transformative potential of the open source movement. Let me give you an example. Two years ago we embedded our math specialist in LPS Hayward, our highest performing school. He had been developing an online math program for Algebra 1 with a backfill component for the basic math skills. He built this out at Hayward and Algebra achievement there doubled. At the same time our Oakland campus had been successfully integrating literacy into their Algebra courses. This is when Neeru and I decided to build the College Access Readers together. As part of this collaboration, LPS gave CK-12 the online math course to continue refining and make available open source. We linked it to their Algebra online textbook, which we then modified by adding in the literacy strategies we had been using in Oakland– creating the Algebra College Access Reader. This fall our Richmond teachers began fully implementing the new program and then added in immediate-response data with clickers. The three benchmark exams this year have had 84%, 92% and last week 93% at or above grade level, out-performing Hayward, triple their performance last year, and four times that of neighboring schools – and this a school in one of the highest poverty communities in California – Richmond’s Iron Triangle. This amazing systems turnaround was the results of a rapid-cycle development process that would have been impossible without open source resources.

However, these gains are not enough. As I said in the beginning, graduating high school college ready is only step one. Let me tell you another Oakland story so you can understand why. In December, four Oakland seniors with GPAs above 3.5 tried to drop out and the Valedictorians from the past two years, each with full ride scholarships, are not in college. One of these seniors works fulltime on the night shift at Kentucky Fried Chicken. One night in January the principal took his mother to visit him on the job to try and convince him to stay in school. He pulled her outside and said, “Ms. Haynes, you don’t understand, my mother already works two jobs and she can’t make it without me.” In each of these students’ cases the reasons are economic. In each case the student is a major, or in some cases the only, breadwinner in the family and the opportunity costs of going to college simply outweigh distant future gains. Great open-source products or development processes may change the academic realities for our students but they do not directly address their economic realities. So again we are turning to technology, this time engaging students as producer of technology, not simply consumers.

Our job is to convince the student working at KFC that struggling through college will ultimately payoff far more than his current job. We have to understand that large numbers of our students are not going to experience the college life many of us remember of dorms and parties and late night discussions. The economic and personal challenges of their families will remain with them and they will face numerous academic and cultural hurdles. To persevere and overcome these barriers, they need to see themselves as part of the new 21st century economy with all its opportunities — not as simply stepping into the economy of their neighborhood and experience. That is why we are establishing Tech Innovation Labs where students will be able to produce English and Spanish videos, apps, and other digital products to embed in our CK-12 flexbooks. Again, the open-source nature of CK-12 allows us to involve students as well as teachers in the continual evolution of these materials, providing an authentic purpose and audience and a reason to learn 21st century skills. These same labs will also be used to help students develop eCommerce businesses, providing on-the-job training and sustainable funding for student activities.

To leverage the developing interest in business and technology and address the many barriers our students face in transitioning to college, we have just started an online Community College in Oakland using our technology and facilities after school and in the evening adding in mentoring and tutoring support. Our alumni already come back to their old teachers for assistance – we are their college safety net. We will simply leverage that to take them through any remedial courses and at least their first full year of college credit. Simply successfully completing a full freshman year increases the graduation chances of a first-generation, low-income student from approximately 9% to closer to 60%. Our first four students began online classes three weeks ago and we are offering our first full class beginning April 18th. It is our hope that down the line we will be developing open-source materials for these courses.

You may have noticed how I mentioned different aspects of our technology vision being led at different schools. This is collaborative innovation taken to the systems level. Change is hard and no one school could take on all of the innovations we are envisioning and that our students need. That is one of the reasons school reform has been so difficult – the timeline for reform is longer than the shelf life of the reformers and so vision never makes it to reality. However, we are strategically leveraging the strengths and needs of the four LPS schools to distribute the pain of early adoption. Then using the power of collaboration, as we are doing in Algebra, we can rapidly build, refine and replicate.

I have shared numerous examples of how we are using open-source educational resources to transform both our schools and the lives of our students. In a moment I will open it up for questions. However, first let me pull it all together and underscore what I see as the genius of Neeru Khosla and Murugan Pal in creating CK-12 and, by extension, what I believe is the power of the open- source movement.

On the most basic level, Neeru and Murugan have created a disruptive product – free, online textbooks. However, by also developing a platform that not only facilitates but actually invites customization, they have allowed others to create infinite numbers of tailored textbooks like our College Access Readers. Because of the editable format, these Readers can have multiple levels of differentiation addressing the previously unsupportable needs of access and acceleration that are at the core of educational equity. Because of CK-12’s online distribution, the best of these second generation flexbooks can, themselves, inspire adaptation. This is resource customization gone viral – and it’s free.

As powerful as the CK-12 generated products are, it is the power of the process of flexing that is most transformative for the adults in a school system. At a systems level, a district or charter network is charged with ensuring students equity of access across teachers, schools and time. We all know of schools, particularly urban schools, where there is a stellar teacher next door to a class in chaos or where the star one year leaves with her bag of resources and is replaced by a newbie with nothing. We also know of the consistent frustration where high quality educational resources produce excellent results at one school and have limited impact at another due to failure of buy in and implementation. The answers to these conundrums have been professional development and accountability. I submit that far greater consistency can be achieved through involvement and innovation.

When we create our College Access Readers we bring the course teachers from all four schools together. They start with the California content standards, Conley’s college readiness standards, the state testing blueprint and their experience with our students and line out the scope and sequence. They then flex CK-12 to this structure – a process that only takes minutes. After an introduction to basic content literacy approaches, they next go through the flexed content and identify vocabulary and concepts that need extra support, text that should be clarified and areas that can be reduced to provide room for literacy work. In their eyes this is an empowering, pragmatic activity that allows them to develop materials tailored to their students’ needs. At the same time it is embedded professional development on multiple levels.

After a content specialist with literacy background actually does the editing of each chapter, teachers review the scaffolded text in a webinar, suggesting last edits before the final version is posted. Again, this is professional development, this time to build quality implementation. Since these “final” versions of the Readers are also editable, teachers are then free to create their own tailored text. What we find is that our most experienced teachers do this while our new teachers do it very little – so the one process provides the differentiated support and autonomy needed to address the range of teacher experience.

To capture the lessons learned and the tailoring that has gone on, we also incorporate a cycle of teacher interviews. From these we are able to identify practices to share across the network – like the student packets the Richmond Algebra teacher will be sharing tomorrow. This not only accelerates improvement but also provides authentic validation for high-performing teachers. This sharing would be much less effective if it were not so easy to incorporate into the CK-12 materials or if teachers were not working off of a common set of resources. Similarly, we would not be able to move into new arenas without this common curricular spine. For instance, tomorrow Biology teachers will be looking at virtual labs they can incorporate into the Biology Reader and sharing regular labs that they can link to specific concepts.

Just as the CK-12 product made it possible to do the previously undoable – ultimate differentiation – the CK-12 process makes it possible to address the ultimate conundrum of teacher support – reconciling autonomy and consistency; equity and flexibility. I think you can understand why I see this hidden power of flexing as so transformative.

And then, when you throw in the potential to engage students as producers of CK-12 content you take it to a whole new level. When our students know that the “Khan Academy” style videos they will be producing in Geometry this year may be used by next years’ students it is empowering. When they learn that they may be viewed by students in Lagos, Nigeria where schools want to use our Readers, it is mind blowing.

As you move through your sessions today and tomorrow think of the power of open source educational resources on at least three levels – free, innovative products; empowering processes; and the opportunity to transform how students experience education as producers of their own educational content. Know that what you are envisioning can impact the future.