Sharing knowledge: In some form or another, it’s why most educators went into teaching in the first place. But traditional instructional materials don’t lend themselves to sharing between educators. New technologies now allow teachers to share and collaborate locally and globally in ways that generations past could never have imagined. These tools signal what may grow to be true disruptive change in how schools acquire and disseminate instructional and professional development resources.
The nonprofit Curriki.org (www.curriki.org) is a 3-year-old organization that offers a large collection of free and open source content and collaboration tools. By open source, I mean that users can not only use the content at no charge, but they also have rights to customize much of the content to meet their specific needs. Creating derivative works is a powerful way for teachers to employ truly differentiated instruction, using the same root lesson. The Curriki site now contains more than 25,000 open source pieces of content, ranging from more than 300 full courses (including a civics course created by a member of the community and a geometry course by an organization called Math for America) to units of instruction, such as a thoughtful sixth grade unit on climate change, to individual lesson plans on everything from the area of a triangle to Romeo and Juliet.
The content comes from three sources: publishing partners, including EDC, the Nortel Foundation, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Sesame Workshop; states and districts, such as the state of Wyoming, which shared a complete yearlong Spanish curriculum for all of grades six and seven and soon grade eight; and the rapidly growing membership of more than 62,000 educators. These members share lesson plans, presentations, videos, and whole units of study. By sharing the content on Curriki, these teachers make it available not only for themselves and their colleagues to use but also to the entire global community. In just the last month, the Curriki site was accessed by users in more than 180 countries.
Membership is free, and once you sign up, you can search and browse the online repository and assemble collections of your favorite resources. You can also upload your own content and mix and remix it with other useful materials you find that are shared by others. Much of the content can be edited in a wiki, so adapting and improving the content to align with the specific needs of a classroom is as easy as editing a document. Teachers can also share the collections of resources they create with other teachers.
For librarians/media specialists, using Curriki is an effective way to pull together curricular resources. Just as these educators used to pull relevant books onto a cart, they can now create a set of vetted online curricular resources that directly aligns to a class’s particular area of study. Members who create collections of content can even begin their collection by adding video of themselves modeling how to introduce the material they’ve shared. This is easy to do, and seeing a lesson modeled by the master teacher who created it goes a long way in making a fellow teacher both comfortable and engaged in implementing the new curriculum.
In addition to this growing repository, the Curriki site is developing innovative ways to engage teachers to collaborate on content creation. The Group Tools let educators come together to work collaboratively in a virtual space on any content area they desire. Users can see the profiles of other members who share their interests and form social networks of like-minded educators.
This social support ends up creating more than just professional friendships. Although most groups form between teachers who already work together, groups of educators that have never met also connect to create new curriculum resources. Currently, there are more than 350 groups on the site with projects ranging from the K–8 math collaborative group designed to create open math resources for primary and middle school classrooms to the Webquest Builders Group.
Groups can either be open (meaning anyone can join) or private (meaning that you need permission from the group leader to participate). School districts are using the Groups functionality to provide a space for teachers in the district to come together and develop a language arts curriculum that aligns to district standards. These districts know that by creating and posting the content on Curriki, they get the local benefit of sharing those materials with their fellow educators all around the globe. Professors working with preservice teachers use the Curriki Group Tools as a workspace for their classes on incorporating technology into instructional design. Unlike other social networking spaces, the Curriki Groups provide a working environment that is specifically focused on content and curriculum where educators can collaborate.
With any open site, a common concern is one of quality. If anyone can publish, how can Curriki maintain a high-quality bar? The answer lies with experts, both paid and volunteer. The first layer of review is performed by a Curriki staff member, who examines every resource posted on the site to ensure that it is appropriate, nonoffensive, and educationally focused.
Once over this hurdle, content is cued up to be more thoroughly reviewed by one of the site’s subject matter experts, who each focus on a specific core curricular area. These master teachers work within their discipline to provide thoughtful ratings and reviews based on an objective rubric and algorithm. Using the Advanced Search feature of the site, users can narrow their searches to only that content that has received favorable review ratings.
Given a rapidly growing repository, however, coupled with fixed time and financial resources, there are limits to how much content the staff reviewers can cover. That is why the site also engages the members of its large community to share their thoughts on the value of resources found on the site. Every content asset includes a Comment tab, where members can share how they implemented a unit, how effective it was, and what they might do differently next time. Coming later this year, Curriki will also add a member rating system, similar to Amazon.com’s ratings, which will allow the membership to weigh in on how effective they found the lesson to be. The site would then be able to feature "Member’s Favorites" in each subject area and grade range.
Impacting Budgets …
The potential impact of a large, free, and open repository of high-quality resources and tools to collaborate on content development is seismic. It means that, potentially, districts will no longer need to buy a single, expensive textbook or workbook or instructional activities from a publisher. Instead, their teachers can now act, in part, as the publisher and provide a portion of the "book" (in the form of sharing with the Curriki online repository). Then, they can create a customized book, or a learning resource, or dozens of customized resources at no cost, whenever they need it.
To a cash-strapped administrator, the implications of a site such as Curriki strike close to home. For example, San Jose, Calif., needs to cut about $250 per pupil this year and $350 per pupil next year. One place they’re looking to save is on instructional materials. This year, San Jose has begun an extensive pilot with Curriki to experiment with how the tool can help the district save money. As tools such as Curriki continue to grow, districts all over the country will have to answer a provocative question: Why should we spend millions on new textbooks that will be obsolete in 6–7 years when we can spend far less by engaging our teachers to create a high-quality, open source curriculum, correlated to state standards and adapted as needed to address the district’s unique needs based on changing test scores, No Child Left Behind requirements, and demographics?
Only part of the answer to this question has to do with dollars, although that portion of the answer is fairly compelling on its own. With 3.1 million teachers in the U.S. spending an average of $4,500 per year, the total expenditure on instructional materials is roughly $14 billion.1 Envision just 10% of those teachers (310,000) cutting their annual expenditure by half and you quickly get to $700 million in annual savings.
… And Engaging Educators
The other answer to the question "Why move to an open source solution?" has to do with teacher quality. Among in-school factors, teacher effectiveness is the single most important factor in student learning. One study2 recently cited by President Obama showed that for students ages 8–11, those with consistently high-performing teachers performed 53% better than those with lower-performing teachers. At the root of teacher effectiveness is teacher engagement. Teachers who deliver content from a published textbook are often passively interacting with the content. But envision a generation of Curriki Educators, engaged teachers who make content creation part of their daily process. A teacher who is involved in creating and organizing each daily lesson makes for a more engaged educator. This engagement is a truly potent force—research shows that teachers who are more engaged in the content creation process have more-engaged and higher-achieving students. This virtuous cycle only gets magnified by the social networking that is made possible by the online collaboration.
In order to realize the vision of the Curriki Educator, support and resources will need to be put behind this endeavor. For the most part, teachers are not curriculum developers. Putting in the time and effort to produce good instructional design is above and beyond the work that teachers are already doing each day as they work with students. But most teachers are highly motivated to create the best learning environments they possibly can for their students. That’s why pioneer districts, such as San Jose, are investing the time and staff development efforts to build the bridges that are required to move their teachers from where they are today to where they’d like them to be. In the process, they expect that their efforts will build internal capacity, further professionalize teaching, and ultimately realize significant savings on instructional materials. From the teacher perspective, early indications are that Curriki Educators feel empowered, connected to other professionals, and engaged in their teaching. It remains to be seen if the numbers of these teachers can grow to truly make change on a mass scale.
Today, not every teacher is a Curriki Educator. This role takes more time, more thought, and more creativity. But for those who do choose to engage, the payoff is clear. New technologies will empower educators all across the country to seize their profession and share their knowledge like never before.
Peter Levy is an independent educational technology consultant. He works extensively with Curriki. If you are interested in having him present at your school about free and open educational resources, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. National Center for Education Statistics.
2. Eric Hanushek, "Teacher Quality"; Andrew Rotherham, Achieving Teacher and Principal Excellence: A Guidebook for Donors; McKinsey and Co., "How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top."