Education Opinion

Redefining Curriculum with Open Educational Resources and Teacher-Created Content

By Justin Reich — January 13, 2015 6 min read
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This guest post is from Kenneth Frank, chair of the Computer Science department at Kellenberg Memorial High School. He describes the efforts at this independent school to create their own textbooks from open educational resources to support their classical curriculum. This is a preview of his talk on OER and teacher-created content on at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in San Diego in February.

Like most teachers in 1:1 environments, my use of technology has evolved from direct challenges posed by my students, administrators, and fellow faculty. I didn’t set out to author a single textbook, let alone find myself coordinating the creation of approximately sixty digital texts over the next three years; however, this is where technology has led me. The “why” of this story is just as important as the “how,” so I will try to outline both our reasons for adopting teacher-created resources in our school as well as how we went about building them.

The Why

Our decision to abandon traditional text sets was born of our unique curriculum standards and guidelines, as well as our school’s particular values and educational philosophy. We have never administered the New York State Regents’ Exams. Instead, our faculty designs its own school-wide assessments based on the courses we control and teach. In recent years, however, we found that the textbook market had become so dominated by the other standards controlling K-12 education that we no longer exerted the level of control over our teaching that we once had. In essence, we were limited by what the market offered and found ourselves forced into content that we didn’t want to teach. The implementation and widespread adoption of Common Core only exacerbated the situation. Suddenly, we could not find teaching materials to support our classical curriculum needs.

While Greg Kulowiec has presented about “Plato, Paper, and iPads,” my experience has its own juxtaposition of the classical and the contemporary. My school’s traditional liberal arts program is rooted in the trivium and quadrivium. All students in our 7th and 8th grades study Latin. Instead of the typical three-year sequences in mathematics, sciences, and language, all our high school students must take a four-year sequence in all major disciplines, regardless of their academic program in the school.

What is new about this kind of education? Nothing at all. It was, for centuries, the ordained pathway to university study. In fact, Charles W. Eliot, possibly the most important figure in American educational history and the longest serving president of Harvard University, crystallized this vision of the liberal arts education when he curated and published the Harvard Classics in 1909. Here, in fifty volumes, he distilled, in his own words, “a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion.”

There may be, however, one new feature that our contemporary culture has brought to this classical education: it may now be found, re-used, redistributed, and remixed with greater freedom and ease than ever before. Do you want to see Eliot’s ultimate library? Check out bartleby.com. You can read it all for free, right on the site.

So what did we do when the textbook companies did not meet our needs? We used digital tools to create (or re-create) our classical education. Like many teachers have before, we surveyed the field of existing material, curated our best resources, and brought our best practices and methodologies to the content we wanted.

Simply put, there has never been a better time to build your own curriculum. Access to content has never been greater. The tools of creation and distribution grow easier and easier to use. The speed with which a teacher, school, or district can realize a goal such as this would astound Eliot and his university, but I believe he would love it.

The How

Since we were moving to a 1:1 iPad program, we were not concerned about the compatibility issues of instruction on multiple devices, and we were able to take advantage of some wonderful features particular to the iOS environment. Most notably, we used iBooks Author software on our Macs to create digital textbooks for our courses. Students could take notes in their iBooks, teachers could embed questions, video, audio clips, interactive content, and all other means of differentiated instruction and assessment.

Fortunately, iBooks Author works with a very simple, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) interface, which makes stepping into this type of authoring much easier. Furthermore, teachers could develop content in MS Word or Pages and import chapters directly into IBA. While teachers building such content for BYOD programs can’t take advantage of such platform-specific software as iBooks Author, they may still build interactive eBooks on iPad or Android tablets with the BookCreator App. Those wishing for more power and control can author ePubs in Adobe InDesign, which allows seamless integration with Photoshop and other Adobe programs. Those with more technical expertise can even create HTML5 widgets and animations in Adobe Edge Animate.

We started with some very basic questions about what we wanted to teach and, just as importantly, how we thought it was best presented to our students. From there, curating resources in the various disciplines occupied most of our time. In literature and the humanities, Project Gutenberg, Bartleby.com, and a host of other public domain databases housed collections of fiction, poetry, drama, and essays from which we selected, annotated, and edited our course readings. In the social sciences, we were able to use text from WikiBooks, CK-12’s U. S. History Sourcebook, and many other sites that have collected primary source documents from the Magna Carta to the Mayflower Compact to the U. S. Constitution. Not only does handling such important documents increase engagement and understanding in the Social Studies classroom, but it leaves tremendous latitude for the teaching faculty to provide context and frame understandings. Our science and mathematics departments also made use of CK-12’s abundant FlexBook textbooks, interactive content, web lessons, and other sources. In addition, these departments created screencasts in ShowMe, Educreations, and Explain Everything that were embedded in or linked to within the textbooks.

As this textbook creation was happening, we tried to address our faculty’s professional development needs by focusing on our “core four” apps: Google Drive, Notability, iBooks, and eBackpack, the LMS we had selected. Here again, the teachers’ engagement in creating course texts was very helpful, as it made visualizing the use of iPads and these particular apps in the classroom far easier. Teachers became more comfortable in guiding students’ notetaking, assignment management, and assessment.

Taking on such a task was certainly not easy, but it stirred a lot of positive dialogue about how and why we teach our content, best practices for our classrooms, and our core understanding of the school’s philosophy. When we began our 1:1 program this September with our 9th grade students, I believe that teachers were more “in-touch” with their materials, engaged in the curriculum and took greater ownership of the content, and elicited greater understanding from the students because of this process.

Kenneth Frank - @MrFrankKMHS

Ken is an English Teacher and Computer Department Chair at Kellenberg Memorial High School, a Catholic school serving grades 6-12 in Uniondale, NY. With the school’s 1:1 iPad transition, Ken oversaw the creation of the school’s digital texts, working with teachers in each discipline to create course-length iBooks and ePubs. Ken is also currently creating open-source language arts resources for the CK-12 organization in Palo Alto, CA.

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