Leaving their textbooks to gather dust, Houston middle school teacher Ardath A. Stewart and her students studied science last spring by assembling much of their curriculum on a class “wiki,” an open-source community Web site. The materials included students’ written postings on class topics, as well as projects, grading rubrics, and discussion questions that Stewart prepared or obtained from teachers in other parts of Texas and the United States.
The students at the 1,200-student Burbank Middle School were able to pursue the state’s learning goals at least as well as if they had read the decade-old textbook, in which “Pluto is still listed as a planet,” Stewart said.
The Texas teacher is part of a small but growing movement of K-12 educators that is latching on to educational resources that are “open,” or free for others to use, change, and republish on Web sites that promote sharing. The open-content movement is fueled partly by digital-creation tools that make it easy to create “mash-ups,” or digital medleys of content of various types.
Educators and education-oriented groups advocating open content say it saves schools money by spreading the time and expense of developing curricular resources over many contributors.
It also passes on the value that teachers add, when they adapt works originated by others, so other educators can benefit from it. Many adaptions give schools more ways of differentiating instruction, by adding language translations or shifting grade levels. Creators can also adjust for reading ability, a special geographic or cultural focus, and other departures from the standard curriculum.
The Knowledge Base
The process of content creation and sharing is also a way to build professional relationships between teachers, proponents of open content say. And the more that teachers get their hands into content creation, the better they can teach that material.
“We can now really build and harness the knowledge base that already exists [among teachers],” said Lisa A. Petrides, the president and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, which is supporting and doing research on open educational resources. â€œIn doing that, we’ll see there’s new knowledge about teaching that we haven’t understood before.”
The institute, which is based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., operates the Open Educational Resources Commons, a Web site that collects and shares free-to-use educational resources globally.
Content becomes “open” when the author assigns to the work a license that releases it from certain rights of the traditional copyright-holder. Depending on the license chosen, it may allow the material to be used for free, adapted, or shared with others for noncommercial or commercial purposes.
The Creative Commons, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco, has created the most widely used set of open licenses that have gained acceptance worldwide. The same set of licenses is used to produce open-source software.
Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, is perhaps the best known open-content collection. It is created by the wiki process, through which anyone can add and edit material, under a set of guidelines. Wikis are one method of creating open educational content, but not the only one.
Not all open educational resources are the result of many hands, either. The Math Open Reference, a complete Web-based geometry curriculum, for instance, has a sole author, John D. Page, a retired software engineer.
His Web site offers text explanations and highly interactive tools and animations that students can manipulate on their computers. “It allows students to experiment with math concepts and feel them out themselves,” Page said. He added that the site conforms to the curriculum guidelines of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, based in Reston, Va.
He contends that his site is part of “a storm brewing up,” as schools bridle against having to buy costly textbooks that their teachers often don’t find useful.
Even so, Page is not prepared to give others the right to alter his online materials. “It’s not meant to be a wiki,” he said.
A Research Community for Science Teachers
A more typical open-content project is the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium, an effort to develop open instructional materials for all levels of science education.
Samuel S. Donovan, the head of the consortium and a biology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, works with undergraduate faculty members at the university, as well as K-12 preservice teachers and in-service teachers who are taking part in professional development. The consortium uses Creative Commons licenses and stores teacher-created and -adapted materials in a database. The project is also a clearinghouse for open-source software tools with applications in the science classroom, such as modeling tools.
"[Teachers] can use that work not just in their own classroom, but repurpose them, organize them, customize them, and share them back to the educational community,” Donovan said.
He sees a payoff in teachers’ professional growth. “In science and biology, the areas I work in, if they’re able to share that back with the community, it creates a very different kind of professional status for teachers. They achieve ownership and professionalism,” Donovan said.
Much of the consortium’s online open-content collection consists of case-based teaching materials that encourage students to engage in research of the local environment. Another section hosts “a problem space,” offering data sets and posing shared problems that different learning communities are working on. It also offers teachers and students free tools for analyzing data.
Using those activities and tools re-creates the scientific process in a way not obtainable from a textbook, Donovan said. “It’s analogous,” he said, “to a research community.”
Still, he does not go so far as to say that such methods make textbooks obsolete. “The content-authority sorts of issues are never going to go away,” Donovan said. “We’re always going to need strong editorial leadership from some experts who know how to organize and present in some coherent fashion the background disciplinary knowledge.”
Early literacy is another active area of development for open educational resources. One initiative, called FreeReading, aims to help educators teach reading by making high-quality, instructional materials for early reading widely available and free.
As in many open-content projects for educators, FreeReading emphasizes the building of a community, or a social network, to generate and improve reading resources. “We’re looking to provide a reliable forum where teachers can openly and freely share their successful and effective methods for teaching reading in grades K-1, and for at-risk students in later grades,” according to the Web site.
“FreeReading is an ongoing, collaborative, teacher-based curriculum-sharing project,” said Karen M. Fasimpauer, an advocate of open content who helps school districts start programs to provide handheld computers to all of their students. Fasimpauer has also co-founded a wiki to promote elementary school literacy, the Kids Open Dictionary Builder, which invites people from around the world to contribute simplified definitions to an online dictionary that will have language levels and readability appropriate for children.
“We’re hoping lots of people will rip it off and do what they want with it—it’s one of the most basic needed resources,” Fasimpauer said.
This article originally appeared, in a different form, in Education Week. Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Teachers Get Resourceful With ‘Open Content’