The K-12 OER Collaborative/Open Up Resources

One issue TLA uncovered in its exploration of barriers to blended and personalized learning is the prevalence of high-cost, low-quality and often out-of-date textbooks across U.S. school districts. The U.S. spends billions per year on instructional materials for far less than adequate product. Educators needed high-quality materials to meet the instructional shifts and deeper learning targets embedded in the Common Core State Standards.

Given these needs, TLA sought to disrupt this unsatisfactory paradigm in the instructional materials space, made possible by the roll-out of new college and career ready standards. According to Joe Wolf, TLA Founder, "TLA saw a way to create better materials aligned to standards which would free up capital to bring personalized/blended learning to scale." TLA saw an opportunity to replace the current publishing model with open education resources (“OER”) -- teaching, learning, and research materials that reside in the public domain and can be freely shared, edited and re-purposed by others. (1)

TLA Catalyzes K-12 OER Collaborative

In late 2013, TLA began exploring this opportunity and developed a framework for how OER could be created to offer school districts a better, faster, and less expensive option for instructional materials. After conversations with state leaders and thought leaders in the OER movement, TLA convened a group of state and nonprofit leaders to deeply explore how this idea could become a reality. This included leaders from Washington, Utah and Idaho as well as the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Achieve, Creative Commons, and Lumen Learning. It was evident that without TLA, the framing for the project and the project itself would not have moved forward because everyone else in the room had other full-time commitments.


According to Karl Nelson, former Digital Director for Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and current COO of Open Up Resources (formerly K-12 OER Collaborative), “there would have been no project without TLA. TLA provided the drive to get folks in a room and continue to talk about the idea. While we had engaged in previous conversations about the idea, it hadn’t gone anywhere because it wasn’t anyone’s core job.”

Coming out of the initial early 2014 convening, TLA launched the K-12 OER Collaborative as a multi-state planning effort coordinated and funded by TLA with the goal of creating comprehensive, high-quality, free, open, full-year course materials for grades K-12 in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math aligned to the Common Core State Standards and available for every school in the U.S. TLA was able to devote this level of time and resources because its board committed seed funding of $400,000 from its own coffers as well as core staff time to support the incubation work.

TLA led the process to reach out to additional states and organizations to join the Collaborative and provide expertise about OER and curriculum. TLA expanded the Collaborative membership to include 12 states and their state content specialists, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Creative CommonsLumen LearningAchieveStudent Achievement Partners, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), the State Instructional Materials Review Association (SIMRA), and the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM).

Simultaneously, TLA spearheaded the development of a rigorous Request for Proposal (RFP) for developing the course materials, which included the most highly regarded rubrics for instructional quality such as Achieve’s EQuIP and Student Achievement Partner’s IMET. TLA received extensive input from the member states and other organizations, which resulted in a well-devised and thorough RFP.

Launch of Request for Proposals/Fundraising Success

In November 2014, TLA and other Collaborative members announced the open RFP for vendors interested in developing full-course open instructional materials. The Collaborative received over 200 submissions across grade bands and subject areas, signaling a significant interest in an open model of developing and offering instructional materials. In parallel, TLA headed up fundraising efforts so that the Collaborative could fund the RFP review process and the requested rapid prototype units. The Collaborative’s strategy, developed at the suggestion of TLA CEO Scott Ellis, was to require winning vendors to initially develop 2-3 week units against a particular standard, so that the Collaborative could get a true sense of how a particular vendor worked and the quality of the materials produced, before committing to a costly year-long development process.

TLA succeeded in fundraising when The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation stepped up to provide the critical additional funding to push the work of the Collaborative forward. TJ Bliss, Program Officer at Hewlett, reflected “the Collaborative became core to Hewlett’s OER strategy in K-12 education and we built our strategy around it.” Bliss said the Collaborative’s work to solve the key problem of the lack of quality materials that are open was crucial. TJ also remarked that “TLA’s team provided tenacious leadership which continued to work to push it forward even when it was frustrating and allowed for the idea to transform into a reality. TLA played the operational role Hewlett could not have played and no other organization was able or willing to play, and made the project progress.”

TLA led the creation of the review process for the RFP submissions. After a review of the proposals, the Collaborative invited a set of vendors to create the rapid prototype units. TLA worked with the states and other Collaborative members to conduct outreach and select a team of educators experienced in the EQuIP rubric who would evaluate the rapid prototype units. In June 2015, the Collaborative gathered this group of educators, Achieve staff, and state content experts to review the units and create evaluations. The review process identified several outstanding content developers, including Illustrative Mathematics. The review teams were excited about how the new materials could positively impact student learning and improved alignment to the state learning standards.

New CEO Hired

It became apparent that in order to raise the necessary funds to pay for the full-year materials and to roll the Collaborative out of TLA and into its own independent organization, TLA needed to find a seasoned CEO to lead the Collaborative into its next phase. In 2015, TLA announced the hiring of Larry Singer as the Collaborative’s new CEO. Singer brought publishing experience from his leadership role at Pearson as well as high-level government and business experience. Karl Nelson joined the Collaborative in a full-time role in June 2015, rounding out a top leadership team.

Singer hit the ground running in order to raise funds quickly. In parallel, the team surveyed the most critical needs in the K-12 instructional materials space and determined that the most vital starting point was middle school mathematics. Under Singer’s leadership, the Collaborative engaged in an agreement with Bill McCallum and his team at Illustrative Mathematics to develop these full-year curricula. During the spring of 2016, Singer and his team secured additional funding from Hewlett, as well as from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in order to fund the development of 6th, 7th and 8th grade math curricula.

Incubation of the Organization

Throughout this process of start-up, TLA incubated the Collaborative, providing essential administrative services, which allowed the Collaborative to focus on its key core activities. According to Karl Nelson, “having an organization to do incubation for the first 9-10 months really allowed us to focus on fundraising and content development and not on logistical things. It was extremely helpful to have resources in place like insurance, accountants, and payroll.” In April 2016, the Collaborative rolled out into its own 501(c)(3) organization. TLA’s incubation and management of a successful spin out as well as providing ongoing support and counsel was extremely valuable to the ongoing success of the Collaborative.

CEO Larry Singer commented on TLA’s role: “The thing that permeated all of our interactions was a focus on values. TLA has a very clear set of values which aren’t just market focused and include how you take care of people. The transference of these core TLA values have become core to Open Up Resources.” Singer stated “TLA provided the fundamental assets you need to start a business: HR, payroll, communications tools, Google instead of having to start from scratch, this took months of time off from our start up time - we didn’t have to spend time and money to start up a business.”

A Fresh Brand: Open Up Resources

In August 2016, as the first Illustrative Mathematics curricula were ready for piloting, the Collaborative announced its new brand, Open Up Resources. Open Up Resources is now engaging in its go-to-market strategy and building out its staff. To date, the Collaborative/Open Up Resources has raised $10 million from four leading foundations, Hewlett, Bill and Melinda Gates, The Helmsley Charitable Trust and The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The fundraising success in the OER space from this group of funders is unprecedented as these leaders together saw Open Up Resources' strategy aligned with their efforts to support the Common Core.

The middle-school math curriculum is being tested in six districts. The three key attributes of the instructional materials which make them higher quality than anything else on the market include:

  • Openly licensed (CC BY)
  • Highly aligned to standards
  • Accessible to all students, regardless of first language or special needs

The initial feedback from educators is very positive in terms of the instructional approach and supports for all students, in particular English language learners. Open Up Resources is positioned to achieve the goals TLA set out in that initial convening back in 2014: provide learners and educators with high-quality, low cost open curricula. After piloting, Open Up Resources' OER curricula will be freely available in late spring/early summer 2017 to all interested districts. English Language Arts curricula are next on the horizon. According to Singer, Open Up Resources hopes to have curricula available for all K-12 grades in mathematics and ELA over the next five years.

TLA Impact

TLA sees Open Up Resources as part of a tidal wave of new and transformative instructional materials. The availability of free, open resources plus the rigorous evaluations conducted by EdReports on instructional materials is changing the way schools think about procuring materials. This new procurement model through the use of OER is freeing up funds for other ecosystem needs, as TLA has always envisioned. As TJ Bliss noted, in terms of resource reallocation, school districts are starting to reallocate funds to professional development via their use of open high-quality content. When using OER, teachers can be involved in ongoing improvement and localization of materials. In addition, districts are reallocating funds to device acquisition and other ecosystem needs which help push blended and personalized learning to scale.

OER_QuoteCable.png#asset:583These are the precise types of outcomes TLA seeks to accomplish in its unique role. Cable Green, Director of Education at Creative Commons reflected on TLA’s impact, “TLA got the project over the hump. TLA’s sta ff and expertise carried the project forward and dramatically accelerated its progress.” TLA is proud of its work catalyzing, incubating and continuing to partner with and support Open Up Resources.

NOTES: 1. Hewlett Foundation OER Definition

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