Brief Thoughts On Digital Content in K12

I was asked to speak about OER in K12 at the VMI STEM conference a few days ago. The speaker before me gave an accurate definition of OER and listed the normal places you’d expect – OpenCourseWare, MERLOT, Curriki etc. For what it’s worth, I listed those sites as well but when the places where I found digital content to be more interesting tended to be other places.

It seems like the bridge that is far enough (but not too far) in K12 may be something that provides a central pillar of approved, vetted, standardized and permanent1 but that provides a access to fairly ephemeral, topical media elements. The image in my mind is something like the vine image below.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Randy Son Of Robert

What becomes interesting is how you might do that. You could create a platform that allows those people with the time/interest in finding and sifting through things to populate content for those that don’t. It wouldn’t be hard using RSS. It seems like it’d be something like SuperPunch where someone who is passionate about a particular topic combs through different sites for things that are interesting. You could do state standard based aggregation but that’s likely to get messy and require an organization that will be onerous if you want stuff to “stick” near the concept long term. If you’re willing to accept that the ephemeral content will “drift away” over time things become much easier. If you’re ok with simple subject tagging things also become much more pleasant (for the tagger anyway). If the learning registry takes off you’ll have a good repository of interesting metadata attached to traditional learning objects. I’d be really interested in associating data like that to media that people would use when not coerced.

In many ways, I think that a decent amount of content that is meant to bleed away is good. It would be interesting to see what became part of the core and what was let go over time. That would cause some problems depending on the source of the content. I made some argument that for all intents and purposes OER was pretty much equivalent to free media that you could link all your students to or have them download (as intended). You would wander into licensing issues if you wanted to add that PARPurposely available resources- stuff put on the Internet to be consumed or used by an audience. content to your core content with the goal of having it available year after year. I’m not sure that would happen that much or that if it did how much of a problem it would be. I have no idea how much of the web is lost to attrition or paywalls each year. It seems most of my Delicious bookmarks last a good while.

It does seem important to me to expand the concept of educational materials far beyond how we typically define them. MOOCs, OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, for the most part, all seem to be reinforcing the idea that this material ought to be modeled after direct teaching and often is simply video lectures. That should exist sure but I don’t find it particularly interesting or new. I do think our access to raw data, live commentary from participants/experts, interactive data visualization tools etc. are both unique and important when we think about what educational resources are. I also tried to push the idea that open source tools and platforms are a vital part of the OER concept.

I also feel pretty strongly that the focus on super vetted content that parallels textbooks in terms of being of reading level X and approved by committee Y will lead us to the kind of homogenized pap that fills textbooks today. I know of few people who have ever enjoyed reading a textbook. If the teacher can’t help students work through information then you’re likely dealing with someone who isn’t going to be able to teach them either. You’d be better off firing the teacher and buying the textbook. The rise in concern over the validity of textbooks is probably tightly tied to the declining faith in teachers.

In case you wonder what random things I threw out there to the audience as potential fodder for instruction, here is the delicious list with a few random conference related items thrown in as well.

1 Think textbook refresh permanence.

Comments on this post

  1. Erin said on October 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    In response the process that you are implementing (your initial post on Reflective Friends); have you ever considered asking the teachers what they truly believe? I am saying this not just as a critic but as someone who has heard a lot of input from other teachers. Our beliefs and practices deviate from your system of evaluations and their results. Although I/we understand the original intent, a means by which to collect data, what is the ultimate result of that? You are comparing apples and oranges. The variables are so extreme and your methodology only follows the guidelines of randomization and blindness (although we know the later is not true). Who is the control group? What is your baseline? Is the follow-up complete (especially if teachers are asking for feedback)? I must disagree with you “in putting the power in the hands of the right people”. The right people are the teachers and the students, not the top-heavy system we currently have in place. All the best, em

    • Tom Woodward said on October 26, 2012 at 11:35 am


      I’m not sure which post you’re referring to but I think I can respond anyway.

      I’ll try to break down my responses by referencing your questions to keep things clear.

      You ask-

      “have you ever considered asking the teachers what they truly believe?”

      The strategic plan was developed by multiple constituencies within the HCPS community that included teachers, parents, and students. This document is what is important to Henrico County as a division. The focus on 21st century instruction is evident throughout but most specifically in goals 4, 5, 6, and 7. At this point in Henrico County neither 21st century skills integration nor the integration of technology is a choice. This is how we, as a district, will teach.

      “Although I/we understand the original intent, a means by which to collect data, what is the ultimate result of that?”

      The goal of the data collection is to determine where we stand as a district in our efforts to integrate 21st century skills and what progress we are making towards defined best practice in those areas.

      “The variables are so extreme and your methodology only follows the guidelines of randomization and blindness (although we know the later is not true). Who is the control group? What is your baseline?”

      While you are listing different aspects of research, we are not doing research. We are gathering data. Sometimes we can look at that data longitudinally, other times that doesn’t make sense.

      Our “random” selection group is certainly not anywhere near a truly randomized sample. It’s constrained by any number of factors at the school and further constrained by past participation. There attempt there is to prevent unrealistic depictions and to involve more classrooms.

      Regarding control groups, they aren’t a necessity here because, again, we aren’t doing research. We do look at different groups and see what data based around those groups might tell us. For instance, we do look to see if teachers who have worked with ITRTs extensively do better than the teachers who did not but that’s an attempt to assess ITRT effectiveness.

      “Is the follow-up complete (especially if teachers are asking for feedback)?”

      This process is not meant to drive individual teacher professional development. It is meant to help us look at where we are as schools and as a county. It provides information to building administrators and to ITRTs about things they might want to focus on.

      Based on demand we did start offering a limited form of feedback. After school conversations with the observers are now provided but that’s a short conversation with a person who is, in most cases, a stranger. I would not expect that kind of one time interaction to create any meaningful change. Real feedback relies heavily on the building ITRT and a much longer term conversation.

      “I must disagree with you “in putting the power in the hands of the right people”. The right people are the teachers and the students, not the top-heavy system we currently have in place.”

      I can’t find that particular phrase on my site, so I can’t address it directly but it sounds like something I might say (feel free to point me to the post). It is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I remain unsure where things move from leadership or direction and become dictatorial and oppressive. That line seems to vary by person and by the perception of the goal (If I like it, it’s leadership. If I dislike the idea, it’s oppression.) I don’t think it’s as easy as asking teachers to do “what they truly believe” because those beliefs vary pretty widely and there are many more constituencies involved than just teachers. What do students believe/want? What about parents? Colleges? Employers? The list of people who believe they have a right and responsibility to shape education is pretty long.

      With all that said, I know we aren’t doing this in anything approach a perfect manner. We are trying to make this process better and more transparent. We are trying to improve our communication with the teachers participating as well as those who aren’t.

      I appreciate you taking the time to write and hope I’ve offered some degree of clarification.