Content, Anyone?


Free and always available, web-based open source materials are providingeducators with a fertile, ever-adaptable supply of instructional resources.

Content, Anyone?

Curriculum + Wiki Curriki's
name attests to the kinds of
resources it offers educators.

KEEPING SPENDING IN CHECK while ensuringeducators have up-to-date teaching materials has long been abalancing act for school districts. Textbooks are prohibitivelyexpensive to replace yearly or even biannually, sometimesforcing teachers to look for alternative sources of content. Fortunately,the internet has paved the way for access to aplethora of community-based materials.

Open source content-customizable content that is uploaded to wikis or other sites and made available for free-is quickly becoming a viable resource for instructors as they look for ways to bolster or update their existing instructional materials while cutting costs wherever they can. The content is provided by teachers, educational foundations, and other sources, and because of the nature of wikis, users are expected-even encouraged-to annotate, edit, or add to the content, or they can choose to use it as is.

"The cost of textbooks is astronomical, and a lot of school districts are looking to balance costs with building curriculum," explains Bobbi Kurhsan, executive director of Curriki, an open source content site whose name is a merger of curriculum and wiki. "Looking at the growth of social networking and the growth of open sourcing of music, I believe we are at that tipping point where the publishing industry and curriculum industry need to reinvent themselves."

Curriki is one site where educators can contribute, edit, or download content based on their needs. It functions in the same way as the hugely popular, user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Content on Curriki is broken down into subjects, and users simply log in to access the library of instructional materials. Everything contributed is tagged, making it searchable based on any number of search terms associated with it. For instance, an American history lesson on the Battle of Bunker Hill could be tagged with "American history," "high school," "American Revolution," "Col. William Prescott," "Bunker Hill"-the list is virtually endless.

Other wiki-based open source content sites are also making headway, proof of sorts that teachers are hungry for alternative avenues for instructional materials, and that more school districts are warming up to the idea of getting content from sources other than textbook publishers.

Rob Lucas, a doctoral student at Stanford University and a former sixth-grade social studies instructor in Rocky Mount, NC, was distressed enough by the staleness of the textbooks from which he was teaching that in 2004 he developed a wiki site he named The Teachers' Lounge where educators can share content.

"I was frustrated as a young teacher with what I thought was the dated quality of my textbooks and the lack of a system for collecting the best stuff that veteran teachers knew from around the country," he says. "It was kind of hard to find the good stuff-I spent a lot of time searching the web for lesson plans, but it was taking me longer to find them than it was to create them from scratch."

Lucas, who has ported the content from his site to Curriki, was so affected by the state of traditional academic resources and his difficulties with finding editable instructional material online that he decided to go back to school and get his PhD in instructional design.

"I think open source content is going to change things pretty significantly over the next five years," he says. "We'll see a lot more sharing of resources, but I also hope the textbook publishers and school curriculum planning committees will use open source resources so schools will have up-to-date teaching tools."

"[An online textbook] is a far more flexible piece of contentthan something that's put together in a static way andremains between the covers until the next edition comes along."
-Sanford Forte, California Open Source Textbook Project

David Stevenson, vice president of business development and government affairs at Brooklyn, NY-based Wireless Generation, says tightening school budgets are helping drive the trend toward open source and away from printed textbooks. "In some cases, districts are able to get the same or comparable materials for free through open source content."

Stevenson's company created an open source literacy program called Free-Reading that was recently adopted by the state of Florida for use in its public schools. With school districts becoming more comfortable with the use of open source content as instructional material, he says, "the barriers to participation and contribution have essentially fallen. Teachers are now right there online with the rest of the world."

Open source has been edging into the educational system for years, but not for instructional purposes-rather, mainly as a way for school districts to trim their technology budgets by adopting open source software. Open source content, however, is in its relative infancy. It was first established in the higher education space, led by the MIT OpenCourseware program, which makes available free lecture notes, exams, and other resources from across MIT's entire curriculum. Even today, the idea is still more accepted in higher education than in the K-12 space, notes Amee Godwin, program director at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME).

"This concept is still really new," she says. "There has been a lot of excitement among people in higher education, and as more awareness is brought to it, I believe there will be an impact in K-12 as well."

ISKME teamed with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which funds efforts to solve the world's social and environmental problems, to create OER Commons, a wiki whose acronym stands for "Open Educational Resources." The site houses higher education and K-12 materials from educational institutions and partners worldwide. Some of the content isn't suitable for every educational institution in every location, but Godwin says the variety of materials available through OER Commons and wikis like it is astounding.

"There are certainly reasons to have books and pay for people with certain expertise," Godwin says. "But teaching and learning can happen so spontaneously, and educational platforms need to catch up and cater to that type of just-in-time learning."

Good content, she adds, is everywhere. Being able to "localize" the content for their own use is the biggest challenge instructors face. "There is a top-down way of categorizing content and we're looking at categorizing content from the bottom up, which is not how most instructors are used to thinking. If content is aligned to the state standards of one state, we could then empower people to say, 'This might match in my state as well. I could suggest this is appropriate to use.' For us, it's about making something adaptable to other standards, curriculum, learning needs, etc. All these things are being offered to tailor to instructors' needs as we enter this paradigm shift."

Standard textbooks don't have that flexibility, nor can they capture the essence of learning in a social, collaborative context, according to Sanford Forte, director of the California Open Source Textbook Project, which aims to reduce the amount of money spent on textbooks in the state by using open source content and alternative publishing methods.

"I don't see the difference between a content expert hired by a publishing company and one who agrees to work with other experts to create a textbook that meets educational standards and puts it on the web," Forte says. "That's a far more flexible piece of content than something that's put together in a static way and remains between the covers until the next edition comes along.

"I believe opening up the possibility to access that information is going to help formal learning evolve and adapt to the world that is changing much faster than education is."

But all agree, to make open source content truly effective, controls must be established to ensure the content is accurate and meets academic standards. Most wiki sites have reviewers that look at all the content and remove questionable posts; the next step is to attach a more formal process to the creation of that content, a role that textbook publishers might consider filling as they evolve their business models to recognize, and possibly embrace, the open source content model.

"Publishers have an opportunity, and some will see that better than others," Forte says. "There will always be an opportunity to leverage the delivery method-whatever it is-to sell stuff. Those who recognize it will surf that wave for revenue. Those who don't will fall by the wayside."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York City.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.