Online Collaboration :: Curriculum Unbound!

Freed from the nuisances of paper-based methods,districts are making creative use of digital toolsto move their curricular documents online, whereeducators can collaborate on course developmentand lesson planning.

Online CollaborationWhen the Amarillo Independent School District’s (TX) curriculum assessment team began gearing up two years ago to implement recent refinements in the Texas Education Agency’s public school curriculum, the usual logistical headaches that came with assembling the curriculumcommittees appeared to be unavoidable—at first.

“It tended to be a difficult process that I think a lot of people are familiar with,” recalls Devia Cearlock, the district’s core curriculum specialist for social studies. “We would have an initial meeting with a big group of teachers [one from each of the district’s 52 schools] to discuss the curriculum and develop instructional resources to go along with it. Attendance would start falling off by the next meeting. And by the end, we would be down to that handful of teachers who came all the time and did most of the work.

“It wasn’t that people didn’t want to participate. This isn’t a large district, but it is spread out geographically, and face-toface meetings are difficult. It’s just hard to get busy peopletogether in the same place at the same time.”

Perhaps worse, the fruit of all that labor—a binder filled with hundreds of pages outlining the state curriculum objectives, as well as some instructional materials for lessons and how they related to state testing—wasn’t particularly useful to the teachers for whom it was created.

“All the teachers would get these big curriculum books, which they would shove on a shelf and never look at again,” explains Lynn Haden, Amarillo’s core curriculum specialist for math. “You can’t really blame them; they could look up the objectives they were supposed to be teaching, but it didn’t give them much more than that.

And when we needed to do an update, we had to print and send out new pages, so there was always the potential for mass confusion about what was current and what wasn’t.” What was needed was a way to distribute content in a more secure, manageable, and altogether useful way.

Enter Dirk Funk, the district’s instructional technology facilitator. “He’s the one who suggested that we start using Blackboard,” Haden says. “He said, ‘You know what you can do with that program with students; but look at what you can do with it with teachers.’”

Back in 2003, Amarillo had begun using the Blackboard Content System to provide lessons online. Blackboard, the popular internet-based file-sharing network, is designed to deliver online courses, store content, and host discussion boards. Funk found that, with a little tweaking, the system could be used as a collaboration tool for curriculum development.


The term wiki is derived from wiki wiki, which is Hawaiian for 'quick.'

“We needed an electronic version of the curriculum, something that would be easier to distribute, edit, and modify,” Funk says. “Blackboard wasn’t specifically designed for that, but we didn’t want yet another product, so we started looking at our existing software, and it dawned on us that we could do multiple things inside this system.”

Among the district’s more innovative tweaks to the Blackboard system is the addition of a set of add-ons from Learning Objects, maker of social learning applications, which supports the use of wikis. Documents published on a wiki are subject to what is known as open editing—anyone with a web browser can modify them. (The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is perhaps the best-known wiki.) This approach may sound like a free-for-all, but the software that runs a wiki system can provide levels of site access and control, as well as versioning capabilities that allow team leaders to monitor and review all changes.

Someone adds their ideas, and then someone else addstheirs. Then they blog about it, and then go back to thewiki to make more changes....The wikis are awesome.
— Lynn Haden, Amarillo Independent School District

The set of add-ons called Campus Pack that Amarillo has employed, uses uses wiki technology to provide tools for collaboratively creating and editing rich-media websites. Essentially, users share a common online workspace where they can join forces on a project and contribute to it asynchronously: independently and without having to be in the same place at the same time to work together. For Amarillo’s purposes, wiki technology means never having to juggle different versions of curriculum documents among the team members. The district began using these add-ons in January, and the curriculum team is now moving its documents that need revision to wikis, which will be monitored by the district’s curriculum specialists.

Wikis are also finding their way into corporate settings. In a company, teams will work on a wiki while on conference calls; at Amarillo, the curriculum committees discuss their work using the Learning Objects blogging feature, which frees them from the need to interact in real time.

As Haden explains it, instead of individual teachers working on their own copies of a document and then submitting those edited docs to the curriculum coordinator, who must then merge them, they’re all, literally, on the same page.“Someone adds their ideas, and then someone else addstheirs,” she says. “Then they blog about it, and then go backto the wiki to make more changes….The wikis are awesome.”

Both wikis and blogs belong to an emerging family of networking tools known as social software. Wikipedia defines this as software that “enables people to rendezvous, connect, or collaborate through computer-mediated communication.” E-mail, instant messaging, and podcasts are typically included in the category, and the entire group is becoming a hot topic in corporate IT circles. At the end of January, IBM’s Software Group wowed attendees at its annual Lotusphere conference with Lotus Connections, the company’s first integrated bundle of social networking tools. Scheduled to ship sometime later this year, Connections aims to provide companies with business-ready tools for blogging, bookmark sharing, user profiles, and software to track activities and build online communities.

The use of the wiki add-on has made collecting and utilizing input from teachers not merely more convenient, but more inclusive, says Haden. “My committee consists of one teacher per campus,” she explains. “The wiki makes it simple for that one teacher to get other teachers’ input, which we’re happy to have….So all of a sudden, we’re getting ideas from a lot moreteachers than just the people who are on the committee.”



Online CollaborationCurriculum-mapping software is designed toshow what is actually occurring on a dailybasis in the classroom. It provides a systemof accountability by comparing classroomactivity to district curriculum objectives andgoals. A curriculum map can help to identifygaps and repetition in the scope andsequence of a district’s curriculum.

'Sometimes people confuse our tool with curriculum mapping,” says Christian Contini, co-founder of OnCourse Systems for Education, maker of the OnCourse Lesson Planner.“But that’s a different process. Our tool, we believe, enhances curriculum mapping and can be used in conjunction with it. Because our tool tracks lesson plans, it can make sure that curriculum maps are being enforced or followed.'

Curriculum Designers lists several computer- and network-based curriculum-mapping applications on its website, including:

  • TechPaths: A successor to the Curriculum Compass tool, TechPaths (part of Performance Pathways’ suite of educational software) is a curriculum mapping system designed to allow data entry of such curriculum map elements as essential questions, contents, skills, assessments, and lessons. The system provides search and share features to enhance collaboration among teachers developing maps.
  • Curriculum Mapper: Developed by Collaborative Learning and considered the first web-based mapping system, it’s designed to allow teachers to input curricular data and easily attach lesson plans, rubrics, and the like to their maps. Syncs with the WebGrader online grade book and report-card generator, also from Collaborative Learning.
  • Atlas Curriculum Management System: A web application designed to encompass the process of curriculum mapping and collaboration among teachers across subjects, grades, and schools.
  • Curriculum Creator: An online mapping tool designed to allow users to create and edit their own curriculum maps while searching and referencing the maps from an entire school or district. Based on the ideas and models developed by author and curriculummapping pioneer Heidi Hayes Jacobs.
  • MapSter: An online curriculum mapping tool, also based on models developed by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. Designed for creating curriculum maps linked to the New York State Learning Standards and performance indicators.
  • NCREL Curriculum Mapping Website: An interactive site developed by the US National Research Center for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study at Michigan State University and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory outside Chicago. Designed to assist school districts in reforming mathematics and science curricula. Free to registered users.
  • TeacherEase: Web-based curriculum mapping. Designed to allow users to define and distribute standards-aligned curriculum. Available to individual teachers and schools, and to entire districts. State standards are preloaded for all 50 states, but districts can create their own standards. Maps are searchable and customizable.
  • Odyssey Curriculum Mapping Tool: Developed by the Santa Rosa County Schools in Florida for its own use. The website allows visitors to view published maps by clicking on 'Search for Curriculum Maps.'

“The wikis have definitely increased the collaboration in our district,” Cearlock adds. “The more teachers feel that they havesome say in what the final product will be, the more likely they are to use them. I think they’ve changed our whole culture.”

Cearlock has discovered her own use for wiki technology. She had been sending out a kind of online gazette, created with Microsoft’s Publisher program, to keep members of the curriculum committee informed about relevant issues, but she about to make the switch to publishing the newsletter on a wiki that she can continuously update. “It’s so much easier and more efficient,” she says. “I just put up the page and add to it without having to publish a whole new document each month.”

No one wants to pull teachers out of classrooms fordevelopment meetings. Now we’re getting much more inputfrom teachers, because they can offer it anywhere, anytime.
— Jill Doga, Acadia Parish School District

According to Funk, the entire Amarillo school district is now using the Blackboard program this way. “It actually took some getting used to,” he says, “because it’s both a change in methodology and in the way you interact with the content. But adoption has been amazing, because Blackboard itself is avery intuitive system.”

Sharing Lesson Plans

Enhanced collaboration capabilities—particularly the sharing of lesson plans—were also at the heart of a culture-changing simultaneous rollout of a new curriculum and a new lesson- planning approach at the Acadia Parish School District.

One state over in Crowley, LA, Acadia Parish is smaller than Amarillo, composed of 27 schools and about 700 teachers. But it is no less techsavvy.“We don’t like to be onthe bleeding edge,” says Acadia’stechnology facilitator JillDoga, “but we’re real comfortable on the cutting edge.”

Two years ago, Acadia’s superintendent, John Bourque, and Margaret Jones, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, attended a product demonstration by neighboring Vermilion Parish Schools. The demo involved a webbased lesson-planning application from a New Jersey startup called OnCourse Systems for Education. The OnCourse Lesson Planner, the company’s flagship product, is delivered via an application service provider (ASP) model. The tool and the data it generates are stored on the vendor’s servers and can be accessed by any computer running a standard web browser.

Won over by the demo, Acadia Parish launched a threeschool pilot of the OnCourse Lesson Planner in January 2005, giving the product a test run in an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. “We wanted to work with administrators and teachers before we made a districtwide investment,” Doga says.

“Teachers have been organizing their lessons on paperfor hundreds of years,” says Christian Contini, OnCourse’s COO and co-founder. “For the past 10 to 15 years, they’ve been using computers to plan their lessons, mainly Word and Excel. These are great programs, but they’re not lesson planners. They force teachers to struggle with features they don’t need, and to print and e-mail their lessons—and they hate that. I know: I’m married to a teacher.” (Contini’s wife, Nikole, teaches sixth grade.)

The OnCourse planner automates much of the lesson-planning process with online templates. It’s also designed to allow teachers to copy and paste lessons from week to week, or year to year, and to share them throughout a school or across a district. Teachers, principals, and other administrators can review and react to these plans online. Bourque was struck by this capability and its potential to facilitate collaboration among faculty members.

Though the company’s original goal was simply to put the lesson-planning process online, Bourque’s insight proved to be on target, as the posting and sharing of lesson plans soon emerged as a most appealing benefit to Acadia educators.“Teachers and administrators were telling us there’s all thisincredibly valuable data just sitting there in stacks of paperson teachers’ desks,” Contini says. “Those plans should bereportable and they should be shared. So the product evolvedfrom a tool for individual teachers to a schoolwide tool forlesson-plan sharing.”

“The teachers can follow the curriculum without having to consult a stack of three-ring binders,” Doga says. The program provides a natural way for teachers to communicate and share their lesson plans without needing to make photocopies, explains Doga. The ability to share best practices extends even to neighboring districts, which is particularly valuable for teachers in smaller schools, where there may be only one teacher in each grade.

Lesson plans are stored online for about five years, Doga says, affording teachers an easily available reference for looking back on how their plans have evolved and maybe finding something they can use again today. Teachers can log on and look up, say, last year’s plan, and adjust it to the needs of the new year. Or they can lift good ideas from other teachers’ plans. “They’re not always reinventing the wheel,” Doga says. “They can do searches—even searches for the peoplethey have shared lessons with.”

Along with the lesson-sharing, data-accessing features, the OnCourse Lesson Planner provides a level of accountability that was attractive to Acadia leaders. Comprehensive Curriculum outlines grade-level expectations for every discipline, and even provides specific lessons for teachers to use in the classroom. Working with OnCourse, Doga and her IT team implemented data sets that would enable teachers to map lessons directly to state standards with just a few mouse clicks.

“Teachers are accountable for teaching certain concepts and grade levels,” Doga says. “What’s so good about OnCourse is that those curriculum pieces are listed, and the teacher just clicks on them and they link to their lesson plan.”

Doga adds that the district intends to encourage teachers to take advantage of the OnCourse planner’s website capability, which facilitates the creation and maintenance of classroom web pages. Now that all of the district’s lesson plans have been uploaded to the system, and virtually all of the users are trained, Doga says the district plans to explore additional reporting and analysis capabilities within the tool.

According to Bourque, some of the teachers in Acadia Parish were apprehensive initially about the idea of having their plans so easily accessible to school and district administrators. And Doga admits that the district expects the OnCourse tools to help maintain a level of control and consistency. But Acadia also wants to promote and support innovation. The lesson-sharing capabilities allow the district to promote best practices, she says, while leaving the door open for innovative ideas.

“On one level, this is all about facilitating deeper collaboration on curriculum issues,” she says. “But it’s also about efficiencies. No one wants to pull teachers out of classrooms for development meetings. Now we’re getting much more input from teachers, because they can offer it anywhere, anytime. And we are getting better buy-in, because everyone is on the same page.”

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John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.