Curriculum

The Open-Content Movement

By Andrew Trotter — October 17, 2008 3 min read

Leaving their textbooks to gather dust, Houston middle school teacher Ardath A. Stewart and her students studied science this spring by assembling much of their curriculum on a class “wiki.” The materials included students’ written postings on class topics, and 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 says.

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, shifting grade level, and adjusting for reading ability, a special geographic or cultural focus, and other tailorings from the standard curriculum.

Stewart, who is still new to using open content, told other teachers about her experiences at a poster session at the National Educational Computing Conference, held this past summer in San Antonio.

A colleague at her school, an English teacher, had gone even further in using open content, she says, by incorporating short videos on punctuation into a class-created wiki, a Web site that allows users to add, remove, and sometimes edit the content, for student content and peer grading.

“Getting students to [assemble their own educational resources] creates a kind of buy-in,” Stewart says. “It can’t just be teacher-created, because the kids are going to be bored.”

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.

Resources

• The Bioquest Curriculum Consortium makes available open educational resources that teachers can use to help high school and college students study biology by posing and solving problems and communicating with their peers, just as real scientists do.

The Creative Commons is the nonprofit source of Creative Commons licenses, which allow content creators to tell others which rights to their specific works they reserve and which rights they waive for the benefit of other creators.

FreeReading is an open instructional program to help teach early literacy through a 40-week scope and sequence of concepts and activities.

• The Math Open Reference is a free interactive math textbook, which covers high school geometry and plans to expand to other areas of math.

• The Open Educational Resources Commons is a comprehensive open-learning network where teachers from pre-K to higher education can share course materials and collaborate on educational issues.

“We can now really build and harness the knowledge base that already exists [among teachers],” says 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. “In 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. The OER Commons site, which allows users to search across different repositories of curriculum content, also gives teachers a means of tagging, rating, and reviewing open educational resources. Teachers can modify the resources and post their revisions for others to use.

Textbooks, however, remain a constant in nearly all schools, and publishers of traditional textbooks do not appear too worried about the open-content movement, at least not yet.

“There may be a trend, or a trend developing,” says Jay A. Diskey, the director of the school division of the Washington-based Association of American Publishers. But he notes that textbook publishers have a great store of expertise in creating curricular materials.

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