Community-Authored Resources for Education

The reality:

Textbooks are resources for learning that provide the structure, content, assessments, and teacher guidance for an entire course.

The dream:

Technology can provide a far better resource that provides the same functions as a textbook, but takes full advantage of computers. This resource would be much more than text on a screen. It would use the best technology has to offer; it would be student oriented, utilizing highly interactive, vivid, inquiry-based activities embedded in intelligent electronic lessons. It would track student use and provide feedback to teachers, giving detailed analysis of student progress. It would be research-based, tied to standards, and well tested. And it would be free.

Developing the dream

How can this kind of resource be developed? Using the current top-down textbook development cycle, a large, skilled team would be needed: content experts who were classroom savvy, software wizards, assessment statisticians, curriculum designers, and university researchers. Developing comprehensive electronic materials for even a single course would be time consuming and expensive. And after working several years and spending tens of millions of dollars, a team might produce a great design, but it might be too advanced or unfamiliar for most teachers to use.

Let’s envision a completely different, bottom-up development strategy. Imagine creating the materials collaboratively through a community of educators who share their knowledge, critique each other, and shepherd the evolution of a cluster of good materials. The result would not be a single, inflexible textbook handed down from on high, but a collection of malleable resources.

This strategy is certainly ambitious, but not impossible.

The traditional encyclopedia is also expensive and time-consuming to create. But Wikipedia broke the traditional development mold. It has mobilized an international community of more than 150,000 volunteers to generate an encyclopedia that has over 11 million articles in 265 languages, used by 275 million people a month. It is far larger than any text-based encyclopedia, easier to use, continually evolving, up-to-date, and free. Its sophisticated quality assurance system keeps most junk and errors out. Volunteers do most of the work, so Wikipedia only needs to raise about two cents per user for operating expenses.

Educators need a similar paradigm for creating outstanding educational materials: a curriculum that is collaboratively developed and shared instead of created by publishers or researchers. In this new paradigm, an instructor who creates an activity could submit it online and have it reviewed. Another instructor or teacher should be able to adapt the activity or materials for his own students.

The result would be community-generated materials that are far more practical than any text. Like Wikipedia, the collection could be almost completely self-supporting, with users generating new materials and serving as reviewers and promoters.

There are many online collections of educational materials that could be confused with what we envision. The National Science Digital Library, Curriki and Merlot, for example, have collections that include fine interactive materials for students. But these are produced and reviewed by experts, and not developed by a community like Wikipedia.

Information Technology in Science Instruction

The Wikipedia analogy is imperfect; a high-quality learning activity is far harder to generate than a single encyclopedia entry. But the Concord Consortium has been experimenting with community-generated materials in a number of projects.

Information Technology in Science Instruction (ITSI) has taken several important steps in realizing the dream. ITSI has a database of almost 100 short activities, each of which features an inquiry activity using a probe or model. Teachers are able to customize these easily for their own use. A central part of the professional development that we provide for these teachers involves learning how and why to make customizations. Teachers are enthusiastic about this approach and have generated hundreds of new activities.

If community-generated materials are to be useful, however, it is important to ask whether teacher customization results in improvements. If, in the interest of saving class time, a teacher simply cuts out sections of a carefully designed activity, the result could be confusing to students and worse than a well-organized text. Our collaborators in the Technology Enhanced Learning of Science (TELS) Center have looked at this important question using the University of California’s WISE (Web-based Inquiry Science Environment) materials, which can be easily authored and customized by teachers. (ITSI was inspired by earlier work at TELS using WISE materials.)

WISE has demonstrated the potential of virtual communities for the development and exchange of educational content. Hundreds of WISE inquiry projects have been authored by a wide range of participants, including educational researchers, teachers who wished to customize existing projects from the WISE public library, pre-service teachers in a curriculum and technology course, and informal science educators from museums, government agencies or nonprofit groups. This huge content development effort was not sponsored by any specific research grant. Rather, the content emerged because WISE was available as a free, flexible, and functional resource to a diverse community of developers.

University of California researchers studied how 20 middle school science teachers from two diverse school districts used evidence from student work to customize WISE units. These units combine Concord Consortium models, simulations, and graphs with student guidance to create five-day activities on standards-based topics such as global climate change, chemical reactions, and mitosis.

A case study in customization

The following case study demonstrates how a WISE teacher effectively customized a web-based inquiry science curriculum. Ted, a 6th grade earth science teacher, worked on a Plate Tectonics WISE unit each summer for three years. In the first summer, Ted made some changes in the unit, but while using the unit in class, he observed that students could not make sense of the multiple processes occurring simultaneously in the models of geological events. The students “got carried away moving [parts of the models] in all different directions… the project needed to be limited, so that students were refining their understanding as they [interacted with the model], rather than burying themselves in something that was not part of their objective.”

Figure 1. Student Performance on Plate Tectonics pre-test and post-test over three years (N= 475 students).
Figure 1. Student Performance on Plate Tectonics pre-test and post-test over three years (N= 475 students).

In the second workshop, Ted customized the materials to help students understand the interactive visualizations. The following year, he reported that Plate Tectonics was “a lot smoother and more fluid.” Students were able to more easily guide themselves through the project, freeing him to focus on motivating students to engage thoughtfully with the models and help them make connections among key concepts. In the third summer, Ted added activities that connected plate tectonics to local landforms based on his desire to make the project more relevant to his class. As shown in Figure 1, these changes resulted in significant improvements in student learning.

The first steps towards a community

The changes WISE teachers made were not created on the basis of hunches or opinions. The customizations were effective because they were thoughtful improvements designed to address parts of the activities that they had seen students stumble over. This experience gives us confidence that it is important to make electronic materials malleable and shared. These beginning steps towards creating a resource of community-generated materials prove that it is feasible. We could yet see a completely new kind of learning resource available to teachers.