Memo to OER Purveyors: Teachers Don’t Want Content, Teachers Want Curriculum!

It’s not an uncommon mistake — especially for those who have no classroom experience — to confuse content with curriculum. After all, the “stuff” that is supposed to be learned in a K–12 classroom is content and curriculum is, well, a kind of content, right? For example, we have heard — on numerous occasions, in fact — educational technologists say statements of the sort:

  • "We have to make sure the teachers have the content they need."

And, here is a definition from an educational website that appears to be conflating the two notions:

  • "The term curriculum refers to … academic content …"


But: curriculum is not a type of content. Curriculum does include content, but curriculum includes all sorts of other elements too, e.g., learning goals, instructional strategies, methods of assessment. And, curricular elements are sequenced and organized in a structured, coherent fashion. Curriculum is constructed; curriculum is created through an active design process. And, teachers use a curriculum — not content — to direct them in helping their students learn the content. As well, students use a lesson — an example of a curriculum — to guide them in their learning activity.

While textbooks were dominant, there was no big need to worry about the distinction between content and curriculum: Textbooks — and their accompanying teacher’s guides — provided teachers with curriculum. Of course, of course, of course: Teachers changed the curriculum that was provided to them — to take their own locale into consideration, to differentiate the materials to better address differences in their students’ learning abilities, etc.  

But, with the demise of textbooks, K–12 teachers are being asked — encouraged, might be more accurate — to create curriculum — to actively engage in a design process to produce instructional materials for their classrooms. So, teachers need to construct coherent, rationalized sequences of learning activities that use content-oriented resources, e.g., watch a video, read a PDF, write a report, collect specific things.

So, if textbooks are out, where do teachers find content-oriented resources which they use in the construction of curriculum? Drum roll, enter, stage right:

  • "Open educational resources (OER) are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes."

And, most conveniently, there are a number of websitesOER marketplaces — that provide teachers with those content-oriented, "free and openly licensed educational materials." For example,, one of the OER marketplaces, points out that it contains “2 million” OER resources.

Here’s where it becomes "interesting." (Translation: Here’s where the challenges arise for K–12 teachers.)  

While some OER sites are providing actual digital curricula (e.g., has posted 35-plus full courses as OER), the focus of the OER marketplaces tend to be on the pieces of OER content, e.g., the 2 million PDFs, videos and assessments. But, curriculum is a product of an active design process. Yes, each of the OER marketplaces does have tools to support teachers in creating curriculum using their content-oriented resources. But, quite frankly, the UI — the user interface — of the OER marketplace tools leaves much to be desired in the UX — user experience.   

Indeed, as we have argued before, in moving to a 1-to-1, digital classroom, support for the entire life cycle of a digital lesson needs to be provided:

  • Create a lesson/Modify a lesson: A teacher must be able to quickly and easily create a digital lesson from scratch using OER resources — or take an existing digital lesson and modify it, e.g., add/delete an OER resource. For example, see Collabrify LessonBuilder, a tool that enables teachers to construct digital lessons from OER elements, e.g., check out a sixth grade lesson on thermal energy expressed as a Roadmap — a node-arc, visual depiction of a lesson.
  • Distribute a lesson: A teacher must be able to send a lesson to her/his students quickly and easily. Importantly, a teacher needs to be to put students in groups so that the students can work collaboratively on the lesson. (Of course, it must be quick and easy to add/delete a student from a collaborative group, since on the day of lesson enactment, invariably students will not be in class.) For example, see Collabrify Dashboard, a tool that enables teachers to distribute lessons to groups of collaborating students or to students working solo.)
  • Monitor the enactment of a lesson: A teacher must be able to quickly and easily "watch" what her/his students are doing as they are enacting the activities in a lesson — and make both written and verbal comments to the students on their work. For example, using Collabrify Dashboard teachers can monitor students as they enact the learning activities in a Roadmap-specified lesson, while the students themselves are using Collabrify LessonLauncher, a tool that enables students to engage in the learning activities specified in a Roadmap-represented lesson.
  • Post-enactment, assess and provide feedback: In a lesson, students may well create three to five different artifacts using artifact-appropriate applications, e.g., use a concept-mapping tool to create a concept map, use a word processing tool to write a report. Teachers must be able to quickly and easily access all the artifacts created by the students (solo and/or collaboratively). For example, teachers can again use Collabrify Dashboard, this time to view all the artifacts created by students during lesson enactment.
  • Provide learning analytics: Teachers must be able to quickly and easily see key analytics that characterize student performance. For example, if the students are working in groups, a teacher needs to see at a glance if one of the group members is not contributing.

Over the years, in textbook-based classrooms, teachers have developed effective procedures for managing paper-based assignments. In contrast, it is early days for OER marketplaces and LMSs (Learning Management Systems) in supporting all the phases of the life cycle for digital curriculum. For example, while a specific digital lesson can use an OER element such as a video or a PDF on the OER website, when the lesson calls for a student to write a report, say, the writing application is, typically, accessed outside of the OER website making the monitoring of students’ actions and making access to the resulting students’ artifacts challenging, to say the least. And, while the tools in our free, device-agnostic, Collabrify Roadmap Platform (e.g., LessonBuilder, LessonLauncher, Dashboard) address many of issues in the life cycle — we readily acknowledge that more work needs to be done!

There is no question that OER marketplaces are wonderful sources of content for K–12 teachers. But, the following lament from a third grade teacher reminds us that teachers don’t want content per se — they want content as it is integrated into curriculum:

  • "In the absence of textbooks, individual teachers are forced to spend hours searching the internet for resources. The process is not only time­consuming, but much of the material online has little to no editorial oversight. With no textbooks, every teacher becomes an improvisational curriculum designer, which they try to do on-the­fly while also teaching their classes every day. When this amount of effort is multiplied by all the teachers doing the same thing around the country, it is clear that we are reinventing the wheel, nightly, to the detriment of both the students and the teachers."