Special Report

Quality Content in Demand as Multimedia Use Expands

By Ian Quillen — June 13, 2011 6 min read
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With the demand for classroom multimedia tools increasing, so is the need for an easy way to find higher-quality digital content.

In response to that demand, digital repositories where teachers, aides, and even students can submit and find resources more efficiently than through a general Internet search have been growing in breadth and number since the early 2000s. States and private companies have been building such resources, which can host a range of “learning objects” that include digital documents, slide shows, open-source textbooks, and audio or video files. The U.S. Department of Education got on the bandwagon last summer when it announced the creation of its National Learning Registry, which is still under construction.

But while the increasing need for such tools is generally agreed upon, how best to build, organize, and control such repositories is less clear. Some are internally controlled by a sizable staff, others rely on outside state resources, and others still let the users do the policing. They all have varying standards of what’s acceptable content to contribute and what’s not. And experts in the field say it’s not as if one strategy is obviously wiser than another.

“Some repositories have no review. Some have extensive review. And there are pros and cons for each,” said Susie Henderson, the director of TheOrangeGrove, Florida’s statewide K-20 digital repository.

She points out that quality control can be tricky territory. “Sometimes, there are things that somebody creates and they’ve been using them in their classroom and with their students, and they’re willing to share them with others,” she said. “If they’re a professor or teacher, who should we be to say they’re not of adequate quality?”

Ms. Henderson and TheOrangeGrove have been wrestling with that question since the repository’s launch in 2004. Most of its content, she says, is directed toward postsecondary students and faculty members, but there are also materials appropriate for K-12 and even preschool classrooms.

TheOrangeGrove is also leading the OnCoRe Blueprint project, an initiative to give guidance to other states seeking to create such repositories, with funding from a federal Fund for Improving Postsecondary Education grant. And it now shares its content with a consortium that also includes state-run repositories from Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

While Ms. Henderson acknowledges that each repository’s culture can be different, establishing a common language for metadata—or bits of information digitally tagged to a learning object to help users find or classify it—can go a long way toward facilitating sharing, or “harvesting,” of objects. Subjects, types of medium, grade level or age, and even items in the common-core state standards are examples of easy language to agree upon, she says.

Finding Evaluators

The Kentucky Learning Depot in February announced its effort to tag all its content with metadata aligned with the common-core standards. But its biggest challenge is not determining what language to use, but finding evaluators to apply it to the K-12 level, according to Enid G. Wohlstein, the depot’s director.

Krysta Randolph, 17, a junior in Advance Placement U.S. History class, starts up a netbook during a joint session with seniors in Ken Halla's AP U.S. Government class at Hayfield Secondary on May 23 in Alexandria, Virginia.

The Depot currently relies on volunteers to review objects for quality and assign the appropriate metadata, she says. Most of those volunteers are university faculty members, and those who aren’t are typically field experts.

“We’re well aware we have a gap with K-12, and we’re actively recruiting K-12 folks,” Ms. Wohlstein said, adding that one solution has been to train curriculum specialists at the state department of education. “They obviously have the background and credentials to do the review,” she said. “We give them a crash course on the [metadata] matrix.”

Having agreed on some common metadata items, says Ms. Henderson of TheOrangeGrove, the repositories are able not only to share information, but also to immediately direct it to teachers who search by a standard, a grade level, or a specific subject. In other words, if a teacher knows she needs to teach five different math concepts as part of state or common-core standards, she can search for objects and conceivably arrange a whole unit (or more) using only material from the repository.

But most users of Discovery Education, which offers both free and for-purchase digital resources for teachers, are less complex in their demands, and generally search more narrowly by specific keywords, says Scott Kinney, the senior vice president of global professional development, policy, and education outreach for the Silver Spring, Md.-based company. Roughly 90 percent of the searches on Discovery Education occur that way, Mr. Kinney says, even though the company’s curriculum and instruction team has provided far more detail about each learning object.

Rating the Content

While Mr. Kinney says he expects searchers to eventually grow more sophisticated in their searches of repositories, he points out that repository curators can take steps to get users to think about other ways to access content. For timely digital materials or lesson plans, for example, Mr. Kinney says Discovery Education uses a hotbox feature for its subscribers to highlight suggested content when they visit. Recent bundled units on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in April 2010 and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March are a couple of examples.

Organizing Digital Content

Here’s a sample of some of the repositories of digital educational content available on the Web.

The Orange Grove
Florida’s digital-learning repository was the first such state-run resource of its kind, and offers content from the preschool to graduate levels.

North Carolina Learning Object Repository
The LOR, as frequent users call it, is the Tar Heel State’s digital-content repository. It is a collaboration by the state education department, state virtual school, community colleges, and state and private universities.

USG Share
Georgia’s repository is run through the University System of Georgia, and shares its content in a consortium with repositories from Florida, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

Kentucky Learning Depot
While The Kentucky Learning Depot is a bit younger than some of its other consortium-mates, it is following its state’s early adoption of the common-core standards to become the first repository to align itself to them.

Thinkfinity, which is operated by the Verizon Foundation, the nonprofit community-outreach arm of Verizon Communications, offers free digital lesson plans and other content to teachers, as well as students and parents.

Discovery Education
Discovery offers free resources as well as a more complete for-pay service that links educators and students to digital content created by Discovery, the largest nonfiction media group in the world, as well as its partners.

Sophia launched this spring and is an attempt to create a national repository based solely upon contributions of its users. Content is contributed in “packets,” and users are given ratings based on their interactions on the platform.

SOURCE: Education Week

Then there’s the question of comparing multiple learning objects that address the same concept. While most depots insist on some evidence of peer review before allowing a learning object into their databases, the more accurate measure of quality may be user feedback. Both Florida’s and Kentucky’s digital repositories, as well as Discovery Education’s platform, have a feature that allows users to rate items, though there is little motivation aside from the gratification of giving your opinion.

However, on the independently run repository Sophia, which defines itself as a “social teaching and learning network,” the rating follows the user as well as the item. Everyone who registers for an account—which is free and allows the user to add “learning packets” as well as draw from others’ submissions—is given a rating between zero and 200 based on his or her ability to perform six objectives: be helpful, do good work, keep organized, follow the rules, spread the word, and be active.

In developing the scoring system, Sophia Vice President of Technology Steve Anastasi enlisted the help of Mike Selinker, a video-game designer with Lone Shark Games, based in Sammamish, Wash., with the aim of crating an environment in which users would be rewarded more for engaging in all six criteria than engaging in only one or two to an extreme degree.

Sophia’s developers also decided it would be best for users to be able to boost their scores quickly upon joining, and then with more difficulty as they became more experienced users, something Mr. Selinker was able to work into the site’s fabric.

“It was a matter of taking everything the guys wanted Sophia to do,” he said, “and saying, is each of these things worth doing? Does it make the users the kind of users we want them to be?”

As digital repositories become more commonplace, others may look to mirror Sophia’s model of encouraging user input, says Ms. Wohlstein of the Kentucky Learning Depot. But it will be a gradual process.

“We have this list of feature requests,” where users might ask for more material in a certain subject or for other features to ease usability, Ms. Wohlstein said. “We’re not to the point where can do repeated and regular user-review surveys. But I think in this type of initiative, you need collective feedback of your users regularly.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Quality Content in Demand as Multimedia Use Expands


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