Enabling the Promise of Personalized Learning in North Carolina


This article was originally published at www.ccsso.org under a CC-By license.

Open educational resources (OER) are teaching materials licensed for free use and repurposing. This case study is a part of a research study conducted by CCSSO and iNACOL. The purpose of the study is to explore the current status of development and dissemination of OER in K-12 education at the state, district and classroom levels. For more case studies and resources, visit http://www.ccsso.org/oer

Dr. Tracy Weeks describes the uses of OER in North Carolina.

As the first chief academic and digital learning officer in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's history, Dr. Tracy Weeks is in a unique position within her state's school system. Able to combine academics and digital learning initiatives, Weeks leads several divisions at the state education agency, including curriculum and instruction, career and technical education, and digital learning and teaching.

With prior experience as a classroom teacher, instructional technology specialist, and as the executive director of the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS), Weeks brings not only a management and technology integration focus, but also leadership in developing and implementing teaching initiatives. In her current role, that means offering higher levels of personalization for every child. And, she's using open educational OER to help make that happen.

"We didn't want to reinvent the wheel," Weeks explains. "Teachers were going to multiple sites to pull [OER], but those sites may not have explicitly aligned with the standards of North Carolina."

Dr. Tracy Weeks outlines the critical components of a successful OER initiative.

Weeks and her team found and pulled much of what was freely available and openly licensed, and then assessed those resources on several levels: What gaps did they have? What did they need to build, and what could they share with other groups in the true spirit of OER? Weeks says that answering those questions required traveling down many different paths.

"First, we were part of the K-12 OER Collaborative, to work with other states, particularly in the areas of ELA and math," Weeks explains, noting the unifying element of the Common Core State Standards.

Within the state, federal Race to the Top grant funds were used to recruit teachers from every content area and grade level who built resources for the state's learning object repository. These teachers received professional learning opportunities designed to fine-tune their instructional design capacity, resulting in a number of high quality resources. Weeks says that their work doesn't stop at the state level.

"How can we freely share those items?" Weeks asks. "And what has our state developed through NCVPS, and can we share those [materials] across state lines?"

Although there are no specific policies related to OER use in North Carolina, Weeks says she has seen much work done in the areas of ELA and math, specifically. As a shared effort amongst states, Weeks says she is pleased to be able to be a part of an "OER-supportive era," which she feels is "unique in education history; enabling states to work together and combine efforts to build together."

Weeks says the promise of OER is in its potential to get closer to the idea of personalized learning in a variety of different delivery modes and with a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) focus.

Dr. Tracy Weeks discusses the potential of OER in K-12 education.

"It helps being able to match a student with a type of resource to engage them, and help meet their learning needs," Weeks explains.  She says the creation of a state digital learning plan, which includes OER as a content-development piece, together with planned sustainable funding for technology infrastructure and devices, will continue to aid this process.

Even though the federal funding used to support OER in North Carolina has ended, Weeks feels that enthusiasm about utilizing openly licensed resources has not died down.

As time goes on, Weeks says "the belief in going toward digital materials is a forgone conclusion in our state's history," noting recent legislation that provides textbook funding for digital instructional materials and digital textbooks.

Although districts have been using textbook funding for digital materials, the official name change is more about "acknowledgment" that instructional materials include more than those traditional textbooks.

At the state level, Weeks knows what it takes to provide openly licensed materials to districts and educators.

"The actual items and resources are free, but there are costs," Weeks says, noting built-in budget requirements like infrastructure, servers and the creation and maintenance of repositories. "People need to understand that OER is free, but [...]not entirely free, [...] when you think about contracting teachers to develop, or building in human capacity."

To help build this capacity, the state created the Governor's Teacher Network, which facilitated training so that teachers could lead local efforts. This initiative, funded by North Carolina's Race to the Top grant, provides a statewide platform for teachers to share best practices related to instruction and professional development.

Future Steps

Dr. Tracy Weeks explains the vision for educator use of OER in North Carolina.

Moving forward, Weeks wants to continue engaging teachers with OER, especially with the state's current discussions about moving to a competency-based system, where students receive differentiated support in a timely manner and advance upon mastery. In this kind of instructional model, the ability of OER to be remixed and updated can make it possible for teachers to provide meaningful assessments and a positive learning environment for students. Looking ahead, Weeks says that competency education "can't be done well without having access to a wide range of instructional materials."

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Dr. Tracy Weeks, Chief Academic and Digital Learning Officer
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction