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Schools maximize free content

More school districts use no-cost online resources to supplement classroom lessons and textbooks
Sorting through online resources can be a challenge for districts seeking free comprehensive curriculum or teachers simply searching for supplemental lesson material.
Sorting through online resources can be a challenge for districts seeking free comprehensive curriculum or teachers simply searching for supplemental lesson material.

When Tullahoma City Schools administrators started shopping for new social studies textbooks in 2013, they were disappointed to find only a few options aligned to the new Tennessee state standards. Rather than wait for newer textbooks to be released, the district embarked on the ambitious project of creating its own.

Two years later, the result is a series of social studies and math textbooks that students can access from any digital device, and that teachers can easily personalize for their classroom.

What’s more, the district created the books using all free online curriculum resources. “One thing we think is a really big selling point is [the books] can be as minimal as just text or as rich and interactive as we want to make them,” Superintendent Dan Lawson says.

District leaders have also included simulations and videos so parents can refresh their knowledge of math and other concepts when helping children with homework, Lawson says.

Because the books can be updated instantly, teachers can integrate current events in a way to make content more relevant for students, Lawson says. The district expects to replace 80 to 85 percent of its textbooks in the next few years with free digital content created or curated within the school district.

Free Curriculum Resources

CK12: One of the largest creators of free curriculum resources online, nonprofit CK12 offers textbooks, flashcards, lessons and storage so districts can create their own online textbooks. 

Discovery Education: Offers digital content, interactive lessons, real-time assessment, virtual experiences and professional development. It offers a free math and science game, a science program one day a year and a historical program about the Holocaust. 

EngageNY: Provides free Common Core State Standards curriculum in English and math. 

Khan Academy: Primarily known as a science and math website, but it has thousands of free online lessons, games and resources in subjects as diverse as art history and computer programming. Everything on the nonprofit’s website is free. 

Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge: The website features lessons and material on using art to teach numerous subjects, including math. 

Library of Congress: Offers primary source documents, lesson plans and activities for social studies and English language arts, sortable by grade and standard. 

National Geographic: National Geographic Learning publishes educational textbooks that must be purchased, but also offers free activities, lesson plans and videos in geography, social studies and science. 

National Park Service: Offers hundreds of student activities, lesson plans and supplemental classroom materials in primarily social studies and science. 

OER Commons: A curated digital library of free open educational resources from more than 400 sources. Content is vetted by curriculum specialists. 

PBS LearningMedia: Videos, games, lesson plans and curriculum resources sortable by grade, subject or standard. Also offers free tools for helping teachers build quizzes and lessons. 

SAS Curriculum Pathways: Interactive lessons, documents and resources in math, English language arts, science, social studies and Spanish aligned to multiple standards. Online and mobile apps for students include Writing Reviser. 

PD Resources

ASCD: Offers series of free webinars to help teachers and districts with curriculum, and a blog with tips and strategies. 

SAS Curriculum Pathways: Free on-site training and online PD that ranges from short lessons to semester-length courses on ways to integrate technology into lessons. 

Washington State Department of Public Instruction: Training for how to evaluate the quality of open education resources. 

The amount of free online content—and free tools for developing curriculum—has skyrocketed in recent years.

Teachers can access quizzes and courses from Khan Academy; include a program from CK12 to develop, modify, share and store the digital textbooks; incorporate videos from PBS; and share lesson plans with other educators across the globe on sites like sharemylesson.com, which is operated by the American Federation of Teachers.

But for districts seeking free comprehensive curriculum or teachers simply searching for supplemental lesson material, sorting through all the online resources can be a challenge.

So it’s important for district leaders to clarify their needs and expectations before embarking on a free curriculum project or using open educational resources (also known as OER), says Barbara Soots, OER program manager in Washington state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Washington offers a range of resources for districts.

PD for teachers is also important, says Lisa Petrides, co-founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, which operates the site OER Commons. “It’s not just some how-to, but really deep, meaningful professional development that helps teachers actually see themselves back in the role of curriculum experts,” Petrides says.

Different kinds of free

Not all free online resources are created equal. Some websites offer content for free for a limited amount of time, or make some content available but charge for premium access to quizzes and teacher guides.

This is typically known as “freemium,” a category that open-access proponents say teachers and districts should avoid, because it limits how they can use the content.

Other resources are free for online or educational use, but charge for add-ons. For instance, Shutterfly’s free Photo Story for Classrooms app lets students create and publish media-rich books. The digital books are free to create and share online, but print versions cost money.

Other resources are completely free to use, but may have some limitations on how the content is modified or distributed.

Finally, open educational resources are free resources that districts and teachers can legally adapt, distribute and modify. Last September, the U.S. Department of Education hired its first-ever open education advisor, following a growing national push to improve access to free, quality curriculum resources.

The OER advisor is a school technology expert who will help the education department help states and districts move toward using free resources.

For leaders looking for open educational resources simply to save cash, Lawson and Soots say time and resources must be spent vetting materials, training teachers and curating content. Lawson says such an investment pays its own dividends.

“This has been perhaps the best embedded professional development I have ever provided for my teachers, because they get to intimately know the standards and connect them to the OER content,” he says.

Content sources

One of the easiest places to start looking for free online resources is OER Commons, which curates and vets content from more than 400 sources, including the Khan Academy and CK12—two of the largest and most well-known free curriculum providers.

The content curated by OER Commons includes hundreds of full-length textbooks on subjects from the Arabic language to physics, lesson plans, audio lectures, online courses and games.

Many larger content creators and free content repositories also feature filters so users can search for content by subject, standard and grade. Other websites, such as the Library of Congress, offer material in a few core subjects.

A growing number of states and school districts are also sharing their curriculum online. New York State, for example, offers a full K12 Common Core curriculum in English and math.

Supplemental material that enhances curriculum but doesn’t replace traditional textbooks is still the most common online resource. The National Park Service offers hundreds of student activities, lesson plans and supplemental classroom material, mainly in social studies and science. The Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge website features lessons and material on using art to teach numerous subjects. And PBS LearningMedia’s digital library has thousands of free videos, quizzes and games.

Alicia Levi, vice president of PBS LearningMedia, says PBS tries to address what she dubs the “Sunday night problem”—educators trying to plan their week by searching for safe and trusted material to augment lessons. Time is a valuable resource for educators, she adds.

Apps and development resources

Many free-content websites offer programs to manage curriculum and track student learning. After teachers sign up for Khan Academy, for example, they get a personalized dashboard where they can create pages for individual classes, set learning goals and track assignments.

Teachers can use a new PBS lesson-builder tool to select resources from a digital library and then add in additional elements, such as quizzes. PBS handles assignments the same way that Khan Academy does—teachers give out a code so students can access online data and quizzes without creating an account.

Another popular offering from PBS is Storyboard, an online program that allows teachers to create presentations using content from both PBS and other resources. Programs like Storyboard can also provide an easy way to differentiate instruction, says Amanda Haughs, a teacher on special assignment as a K5 math & tech integration coach at Campbell USD in San Jose, California.

Haughs, formerly a fifth grade teacher, used Storyboard to help a fourth-grade science teacher assemble demonstration videos in Spanish, quizzes and supplemental aids for an English-language learner who needed extra help.

SAS Curriculum Pathways has been developing free online curricula for a few years, but its biggest growth has been in mobile apps, says Scott McQuiggan, company director. The most popular SAS download is called Writing Reviser, which walks students through the writing-and-revision process for assignments.

When Tullahoma teachers and administrators created their digital social studies and math textbooks for use in most grades, Lawson insisted content be platform- agnostic—meaning it could be accessible on any device and the district wouldn’t be tied to using one particular technology.

Tullahoma used CK12’s Flexbooks—an online platform for creating highly adaptable textbooks—because the program was not only free and compatible with any device, but it allowed the district to search through other districts’ work and use that as a starting point for its own textbooks. Tullahoma’s books can now be viewed and searched by others, and Lawson says districts call and want to talk about the move to OER.

With Flexbooks, Tullahoma can track changes made to the main district-created textbook, while teachers are free to add and revise individual classroom versions. “Teachers have often enriched and updated their curriculum,” Lawson says, “They just haven’t had a structure like this before.”