Like many foreign language teachers, my interest in creating and sharing pedagogical materials grew out of my frustration with commercial textbooks. I knew from my own experience living in France that the French language came in a variety of dialects and registers, so why did everyone in the instructional materials seem to speak the same bookish French? I came to realize that we would need to create our own materials in order to capture the actual process of learning a language and to send the right messages to our students: (1) you learn a language by using the language; and (2) you don’t have to speak flawlessly to communicate, so lighten up.
Armed with video cameras, my colleagues and I set out to document the experiences of our study abroad students as they sought to communicate in France. Our efforts resulted in Tex’s French Grammar and Français interactif, two online resources that broke a lot of unwritten rules for pedagogical materials. In 2004, we made both resources available to the Internet public and were astounded by how quickly their popularity spread among French learners and teachers. We had produced Open Educational Resources (OER) without even knowing what OER meant!
I first heard the acronym “OER” a few years later while watching a TED talk with the provocative title, “Goodbye textbooks; Hello open source learning.” The speaker, Richard Baraniuk, professor of computer engineering at Rice University and a leading figure in the Open Education movement, painted a compelling vision: an educational ecosystem where knowledge was free and open to use and re-use and where educators shared their ideas and materials with each other.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Surveys indicate that teachers remain wary about the quality and authority of OER, and rightly so. Significant educational changes should be met with healthy skepticism. At COERLL, all materials are developed by experts in their foreign language. Moreover, the developmental process includes multiple cycles of classroom testing and revision. And since COERLL products are free to the public, teachers or students can examine their contents fully before using them.
Fortunately, there are many professional organizations concerned with vetting OER such as OER Commons, Community College Open Textbook Collaborative, and WikiEducator. Another good example is Multimedia Educational Resource of Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT), an online community of faculty and instructional technologists. Many COERLL materials have been thoroughly reviewed by the MERLOT editorial board. Moreover, because organizations such as MERLOT or WikiEducator have no vested interest in the product under review and employ actual teachers, the evaluations tend to be very practical and well-informed.
If you are a foreign language teacher frustrated by some aspect of commercial textbooks—their rising cost, their reliance on inauthentic language, their lack of appropriate role models for language learning—I would encourage you to learn more about OER. A good place to start is the Department of Education’s National Foreign Language Resource Centers portal where you will find a trove of free foreign language materials (http://nflrc.msu.edu).