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IT Infrastructure

Hunting the Internet for Quality Content

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 20, 2009 6 min read
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Teachers looking for lesson plans, worksheets, videos, and multimedia activities for their daily classes can find plenty of materials on the Internet. But with countless pages of content for even a single topic—such as the half-million that turn up in a general Web search for lessons on volcanoes—it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the hunt for relevant and high-caliber online resources.

While the availability of curricula on the Web has vastly improved since schools started gaining ready access to the Internet, it takes a bit of strategic maneuvering through the vast archives to find the materials that are on point and aligned with state and local learning goals. Fortunately, experts say, with the expansion of choices there have also been greater efforts to tame the content.

“You can spend an inordinate amount of time surfing around and getting lost out there in the abyss,” says William R. Thomas, the director of educational technology for the Southern Regional Education Board. Thomas oversees the Atlanta-based organization’s extensive online resources for teachers. “But there are places out there you can go to that can clearly save you a huge amount of time.”

A number of organizations, commercial publishers, and individual educators have created online collections of tools and materials for the classroom. The offerings range from complete courses to supplemental materials, and from the rudimentary, such as scanned lesson plans, to the elaborate world of interactive games.

The best sources, though, are more than just repositories of subject matter, authorities on Web-based learning say. They draw from individuals and organizations that have expertise in specific subjects, and have a screening or review process to ensure their quality. Ideally, they are organized by subject, grade level, and medium.

“Teachers have told us again and again that they want easy access, in a format that is not very time-consuming, to materials they can use in their classes,” says Anne Schreiber, the chief academic officer for Curriki, an online encyclopedia of free curricular materials from commercial vendors, government and professional organizations, and educators. Some 61,000 members have registered for the Web site, www.curriki.org, for access to more than 24,000 classroom resources.

“What we’re trying to work toward,” says Schreiber, “is a quality database ... that they can use in addition to or instead of their own curriculum.”

Individualizing Instruction

More and more, teachers and administrators are counting on the Web for materials to help them engage the digital generation, as well as individualize instruction, according to a recent survey.

Tips

1. Find social networks that allow you to consult with colleagues in your district, state, and across the country.

2. Search portals specifically geared to teachers that include links to curriculum materials and downloadable lessons, worksheets, and multimedia resources.

3. Use lessons and courses developed by state virtual schools, or those intended as Open Educational Resources, such as HippoCampus, which were designed around academic standards and best practices in online learning.

4. Turn to education organizations and publishers that have developed databases of quality resources that meet state and local academic standards, such as the Southern Regional Education Board, Curriki, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the National Science Digital Library, Discovery Education, and the Verizon Foundation’s Thinkfinity.

The 2008 survey, “Schools and Generation ’Net,” found that while some 75 percent of K-8 teachers regularly turn to the Internet for instructional resources, some seven in 10 principals and teachers said they need help finding high-quality curricular resources online that meet state standards. The third annual survey, by Interactive Educational Systems Design, an independent research firm based in New York City, was sponsored by Thinkronize Inc., which develops and organizes online content.

To address the problem, many state education agencies have developed their own databases of instructional materials that meet their academic standards, and many of the 34 states with virtual schools make that coursework available as well, according to Thomas of the SREB. His group has added those lists to its online resources for easy access.

Other organizations and universities are also doing their part.

The National Science Foundation sponsors the National Science Digital Library, with searchable science, math, and technology resources. Through the library, for example, that search for lessons on volcanoes can be narrowed to just a few select resources that are suitable for a particular grade.

Full courses have also been made readily available. The National Repository of Online Courses, a library of high school and college curricula funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is part of the movement toward open educational resources on the Web. Its HippoCampus provides multimedia courses and activities based on high school and Advanced Placement course content.

Interactive Features

As the number of resources has grown, so has their level of sophistication.

“Ten years ago or longer, when you saw content on the Web, it was simply whatever you had as a worksheet or from the textbook that was just put on the Web,” says Dale Fulton, the senior vice president for curricular development for Discovery Education, in Silver Spring, Md. “Now we have much more engaging content, interactive content, and it’s much more aligned to what teachers have to teach.”

Discovery Education, a division of the media company Discovery Communications, markets its own line of Web resources, including streaming video and courseware in various subjects. But it also hosts a Web site with free resources that can be used with a range of tech tools. Thousands of teachers also share their own lessons and strategies through the Discovery Educator Network, an online community that encourages collaboration by educators in the same state or across the country.

While there is a bounty of free—and free-wheeling—resources on the Web, teachers often benefit from those that are developed formally, through a publishing process with quality controls, then sold or distributed to schools, according to Susan D. Patrick, the executive director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. The Vienna, Va.-based organization, known as iNACOL, released standards for online learning last year.

“It costs a lot of money to create high-quality online content,” Patrick says. “You can record podcasts and do those other things that are low-cost, but unless the teacher is presenting a lesson in a really compelling way, ... you don’t want to carry [those lessons] around on your iPod.”

Finding Useful Tools

Figuring out what’s worth buying or which free resources to tap into can be daunting, says Lea Anne Daughrity, the technology facilitator at Bailey Elementary School in Pasadena, Texas. Daughrity consults with colleagues around the world for ideas. That’s where teacher networks can help in tracking down the useful tools and top-notch content needed for a particular lesson or course, she says.

“Creating a personal network of friends that can help you navigate is really the best way to get around,” says Daughrity, who corresponds almost daily with other Discovery Network educators through the micro-blogging tool Twitter and the Facebook social-networking site. “When we find something worthwhile, we share it, because there’s no point in wasting time working in isolation.”

Drawing on that expertise among teachers is an effective way of spreading best practices and providing informal mentoring within the field, according to Curriki’s executive director, Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan.

“There are a lot of master teachers out there with a lot of expertise, and the more we can share what they’ve found and learned, the better off the field will be,” she says.

Vetting the material, though, is a critical step, Kurshan says.

For its part, Curriki has several levels of review, from a basic screening of material to an expert analysis with a scoring system. It also has a rating system in the works that will allow users of the material to add their own appraisals.

Daughrity, too, has a vetting process, and she posts her best finds from the Internet, or the well-crafted lessons of other educators in her district, to an internal database to make them available to all her colleagues who need them.

“Teachers do struggle a lot in weeding through everything that’s out there to find just the right stuff to use in their classrooms,” Daughrity says. “But with a little ingenuity, you can find anything you want.”

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