Special Report

Curating Digital Content Is a Complicated Task

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — September 30, 2013 7 min read
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For the Vail Unified School District in Arizona, the problem was not a lack of digital resources. Rather, the district needed a system for organizing the plenitude of resources already at its disposal.

Back in 2008, Vail, a 12,000-student district near Tucson, created an in-house wiki to manage its growing assortment of digital curricula and lessons.

What began as a modest wiki grew to become Beyond Textbooks, a digital clearinghouse that now contains more than 20,000 resources. Curated by teachers, for teachers, the wiki works in much the same way that an iPod sorts music into separate categories. By dividing material into grade and subject areas, it helps educators unpack state standards and places them into bite-size expectations for what teachers should teach.

Shortly after its launch, Vail discovered the district was hardly alone in its frustration with digital resource overload.

“The curriculum was paper, and we wanted to digitize it,” said Kevin Carney, the executive director of Beyond Textbooks. Three years ago, Vail began granting access to other districts around the state. Now, 81 partners across Arizona are members, with 9,000 teachers sharing assessments, lessons, and materials.

“It’s put sharing on steroids,” Mr. Carney said.

In recent years, educators nationwide have become overwhelmed by the breadth and abundance of digital resources, whether open-source offerings or paid content. Rather than relying on individual educators to sift through endless material, many districts and states are helping to curate and catalog such resources, serving as the librarians of the digital age. But creating a repository of high-quality content which is also aligned to the Common Core State Standards, is no small task.

Mr. Carney estimates around $1 million went into the creation of Beyond Textbooks. Depending on the size of the district (and corresponding number of users), Vail charges an annual fee, which costs from $10,000 to $60,000 a year. So far, math is aligned to the common core, with English/language arts to follow.

According to Mr. Carney, of the top 10 districts in the state, four are Beyond Textbooks users. “Our ultimate goal is to improve student achievement across Arizona, not just within our district,” he said. Vail consistently ranks near the top of the list.

Though districts and state-level organizations in 40 states and 10 different countries have approached the district in hopes of forming partnerships, Mr. Carney said, he remains concerned, for the time being, with maintaining the quality of the clearinghouse, not expanding its reach beyond state lines.

Since the project’s launch, Vail has found that providing extensive professional development, not merely granting access, is the key to its success. Since July, the leadership team in the district has fanned out to 37 cities across the state to lead 75 workshops, with more to come later this fall.

“We don’t look at this as a purely commercial enterprise. We’re first and foremost educators,” said Calvin Baker, the district’s superintendent. “This is curated by teachers, not by someone on the 70th floor of a New York City high-rise. It’s simple, but powerful: Teachers tend to trust other teachers.”

Evaluating Materials

Over the years, printed textbooks have been the primary curricular resource, and states and districts have created lengthy adoption processes for approving such textbooks for use. But in the rapidly changing digital era, such processes—particularly, who should spearhead such efforts—are still being ironed out.

In Texas, much of the vetting is happening at the state rather than the district level. Project Share, a learning management system run by the Texas Education Agency, provides teachers with professional development and digital lessons. The materials, which Project Share creates and reviews, all meet state and college-readiness standards specific to Texas.

Project Share was launched in 2009, and has more than 900 lessons available across four main content areas for grades 8-12. Statewide, lessons have been replicated more than 15,000 times at regular public schools and open-enrollment charter schools.

But with such an ambitious undertaking, careful curating is key. “It motivates us not to become one big Google search,” said Kerry Ballast, who runs Project Share.

The goal is to provide materials that meld with a teacher’s normal workflow—and not to become yet another website to visit. “We’re trying to curate good content, letting them know it’s been reviewed and meets our standards, while also being mindful that there are a lot of resources out there,” said Ms. Ballast.

Still, the top-down dissemination of information, particularly in a state the size of Texas, where more than 1,200 districts dot the landscape, is not without its difficulties.

Kate Loughrey, who oversees the Texas Virtual School Network, a state-run initiative that supplies schools with online coursework, said: “The biggest challenge in Texas is that we’re such a big state, and there are so many school districts. Each is an independent entity. We have to make sure they’re all aware this option exists and that they understand how it works.”

But Susan Adelmann, the vice president of strategic partnerships for Follett School Solutions, a River Grove, Ill.-based education technology company, cautions that many teachers and districts wish to be active participants in the building and creation of new content, rather than being issued a state directive.

“There’s a lot of local energy,” said Ms. Adelmann. “Don’t discount districts, even small districts, from wanting to influence their own future in some ways.”

She sees part of the difficulty in disseminating content across an entire state to be the disparate levels of technology available in individual districts—and even among individual schools. Districts that have deployed successful 1-to-1 computing or bring-your-own-device initiatives, for instance, have needs for digital resources that are far different from those of a district just beginning the process.

One-Stop Shop

The 41,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., school system is helping to lead the digital charge. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the district an Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant to build a districtwide personalized learning environment. Forsyth County wanted a one-stop shop for parents, teachers, and students. Previously, teachers visited one platform for instruction, another for grades, and another for offline assessments.

Since receiving the grant, the district has tweaked its learning management system to meet its needs. Rachel Hanson, an English/language arts teacher in the district, and Erin Zitka, a high school math teacher, were pulled from the classroom to harvest and create high-quality digital content.

“For a very long time that first year, we basically searched far and wide on the Internet for open and free resources,” said Ms. Hanson.

While math resources were relatively easy to find, English/language arts proved more difficult. Once they had amassed 6,000 pieces of content, all aligned to the common core, Ms. Hanson and Ms. Zitka brought in teachers to create “highly engaging content, such as videos and podcasts—not PDF documents” to fill in the gaps.

Within “itslearning,” the district’s education management platform, resources are stored in the “community library.” Students can log in and receive content tailored to their individual learning preferences. Teachers can search for content using keyword searches or individual state standards.

Mike Evans, the district’s director of information and instructional support systems, is continually working to improve its effectiveness. Come January, teachers will be able to rate the effectiveness of each digital resource. Eventually, students will be able to weigh in too. Currently, based on a user’s history, preferences, and popularity of use, (like Amazon and iTunes), itslearning provides a corresponding list of recommended resources based on academic need and learner-styles.

The system is now approaching 13,000 pieces of content. And while the early years were all about curating great content and finding high-quality objects, Mr. Evans sees a platform now populated by teacher-vetted resources—and a system that practically runs itself.

“Our role is helping teachers to personalize their classrooms by providing access to great resources,” said Mr. Evans, who emphasized the need to give teachers the flexibility to select materials that meet their individual needs and passions as educators. “It’s baby steps, but we’re getting there.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Digital Material Gets an Organizational Lesson


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