Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Using an open source tool for curriculum development

For the last year or so, I've been subscribing to Teacher Magazine. When I taught before, I was a plankowner subscriber to the magazine. Certainly, the format has changed a bit since then, but the gist is the same: to help teachers and alleviate the profession. Each issue usually has a least one good nugget; usually I come away with several.

The October edition had an interesting feature about Paul Edelman and his lesson plan website called Teachers Pay Teachers.
“Why reinvent the wheel every night?” Edelman says of the lesson-plan preparation ritual many teachers go through. “Why waste your time when great ideas are already out there?”

Putting course materials online isn’t a revolutionary idea—many other sites offer curriculum resources for teachers. What’s new and different is the notion, expressed in the site’s URL, that teachers can do something with their valuable materials at the end of the year besides chuck or give them away: Sell them....

Because buyers can customize the products, rate them on the site, and send written feedback, Edelman maintains that TPT actually encourages better teaching materials, and ultimately, better teaching.

“Giving teachers the opportunity to sell the educational products they create will lead to innovation,” he says. With the monetary incentive, he adds, “The best material will eventually rise to the top. … This is the process by which education will move forward and advance into new realms.”

Edelman has described TPT as like eBay, only without auctions, but it’s more like an electronic teachers’ lounge where the vending machines are stocked with lesson plans, study units, and quizzes instead of junk food. The mechanics of the site are about that simple: After paying an annual $29.95 fee, teacher-authors can upload as many products as they like onto the site, pricing each item as they see fit. Some sample materials are free, so that users can get a sense of an author’s goods, but most lesson plans or one-day activities cost $5 or less. Unit plans average $5 to $25, and whole courses are available for $20 to $80 and up.
Now, that's all well and good, and I applaud the idea of putting lesson plans online so others can use them... but I'm not too keen on the idea of selling them.

Sure. Sure. They're intellectual property, and the developer teacher spent time on the product and ought to get something for their effort.

But I'm an open source, transparency kind-of-guy.

This morning I saw Joanne Jacobs' post about Open Planner, a similar, but very different site from TPT. Open Planner is, well, open. Notes Andrew Stillman, one of the founders of Open Planner, ;">We imagine a world in which curriculum is actively developed and made freely available by teams of classroom practitioners. Open Planner certainly takes the notion of collaboration and open source and puts it to use.

Last week, Kathy Sierra posted in Creating Passionate Users a dissertation about the wisdom of crowds. She noted that in many cases, the masses merely dumb the content down (okay, I'm wildly paraphrasing here, but that was the general idea); in some cases, she says, that's not necessarily true, however. I'd say Open Planner is one of those tools where collaboration will help.

About Open Planner, Ms. Jacobs notes,
Using open-source software, teachers work in teams to build and refine curriculum. Teachers are encouraged to modify the curriculum to suit their needs, try it and report back on the results.
That is the power of collaboration.

I've signed up, and I look forward to posting a few tools I use in my consulting work which might be of some use to (middle & high school) teachers. And, I'm even more excited about the possibility that next fall will provide, as I am once again a full-time member of an academic community.

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