by Jake Miller, Live & Learn, August 31, 2007
WEB 2.0 GROWS UP! In the last few years, working alone and in exciting new collaborations, ordinary people on the Internet have revolutionized the worlds of publishing and politics and redefined what we call a community. In 2006 Time magazine named "You" the person of the year in honor of all the authors, editors, and publishers of Web 2.0, as this amateur, user-generated content is known. Bloggers have changed the way news is reported and analyzed. Wikipedia has changed the way we get information about everything from history to a plot summary of the episode of Lost that we missed last night. even the tragic unfolding events on campus at Virginia Tech. "Netroots" activists are harnessing the grassroots power of online activists to shape local and national elections.
Up until now, Web 2.0 hasn't had much impact on the world of education, but that will all change quickly, if the folks at Curriki have anything to say about it. Curriki is a non-profit organization that is building a set of tools to enable educators to create, edit, and collect content-individual classroom activities, integrated curricula, even complete text books-and to share that content with other educators and students around the world. In addition to building curriculum, Curriki.org, the group's website, will provide tools for building a virtual educator's community. Already, members can have their own blogs and form online workgroups for collaborating to develop new materials.
After six months online — as of mid-June, 2007 — the site has 35,000 members (which includes both contributors and people who joined to view content) and 3,000 educational assets online (about 20% of which are complete curricula). There are links to integrated, interdisciplinary math, science, and writing units, and interactive demonstrations of the power of natural selection and the mathematically elegant simplicity of flocking behavior in birds plus an accessible introduction to the language of mathematics.
From Any Classroom to the Whole World. In addition to inviting submissions from individual contributors, Curriki is also working with the education departments of India, the U.K., and South Africa as well as several states in the U.S., which should both accelerate the development of online materials and the dissemination of those materials to the teachers and students who need them.
Curriki, whose mission is to make learning possible for anyone anywhere in the world, was founded by Scott McNealy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, a Silicon Valley company that built some of the hardware and software that made the internet possible. The director of Curriki is Bobbi Kurshan, a pioneer of educational technology who developed Microsoft's first-ever educational software and created early products for Apple, and who has spent the last two decades working on the frontier of high-tech education.
McNealy stepped down as CEO of Sun in April 2006 after 22 years, and while he continues as Chairman and as a liaison to their top customers, he spends a lot of his energy on education, especially as spokesman for Curriki.
"Over 100 million kids around the world do not have access to a primary education, something I believe is a basic right," McNealy told NRTA Live & Learn recently. "I also believe that while no child left behind is important, the child held back is an equal disaster. There are a lot of smart, talented kids out there who should be able to move as fast as they can, in any subject they choose. These are the kids who are going to tackle some of our biggest problems such as energy demand and avian flu." Curriki can provide basic educational material for both kids without access to schooling and kids who want to jump ahead independently.
"Over the past decade or so many folks in my industry and in the government have been focused on wiring schools," McNealy explains. "No question, it's good to deliver network access to kids. But it doesn't do them a whole lot of good if there's no content once they get on the network. Curriki is all about delivering web-based, self-paced, open source curriculum to anyone, anywhere.
"We're adding two million people a day to the network, which means we'll have 730 million new people connected by year's end," he adds. That provides a great opportunity to deliver educational materials to those new users, he says. "And, this opportunity will continue for the foreseeable future since 75% of the world is on the wrong side of the digital divide."
Curriki was founded by Sun Microsystems in 2004 as the Global Education & Learning Community (GELC). In 2006, Sun spun GELC off as an independent nonprofit to create an online community for educators and a site that could serve as a repository for curricula and other educational material. The organization changed its name to Curriki, combining curricula and wiki.
Quick, What Is Wiki? Wiki — from the Hawaiian for quick — refers to software that uses a collaborative interface to make it easy and quick for users to add, remove, and edit web pages from the Internet. Wikipedia, the best-known wiki, was founded in 2001 and according to the online encyclopedia's website, it currently has more than 75,000 active contributors working on some 7,800,000 articles in more than 200 languages. That includes 1.9 million articles in English. As of July 16, 2007, Wikipedia has approximately 7.8 million articles in 253 languages, 1.888 million of which are in the English edition (it wouldn't be hard for Curriki to catch up to that pace if each of the 3 million active teachers in the U.S. uploaded one favorite lesson plan).
A website can grow this quickly by using the power of "open source" community development, which harnesses volunteers from the community to produce and improve content. McNealy says that Sun has been using open source as a strategy since it was founded in 1982. "It's what we know best," he says. "In fact, I like to say we're the Al Gore of open source."
The Flowering of Open Source. "Open source lowers the cost of entry. In the case of Curriki, the cost of entry for the user is free. This means knowledge and access to an education is no longer proprietary; it's open and universal. Open source also lets you build very large communities, communities that contribute and can help evolve curriculum. Community building is another practice we've perfected at Sun," he says, citing the six billion devices that run programs in Sun's open-source programming language Java and the 1700 Java Community Process members who have contributed to Java over the past 10 years.
People participate in open source projects like Java or Linux (an open-source operating system that powers many of the servers that run the Internet) for three main reasons, Bobbi Kurshan says. "One, they're geeks, meaning they love the details of their craft in a way that seems odd to people on the outside, but that other people in the field understand completely in a second. Two, they're looking for someone to notice the quality of their work — everyone wants to feel that they have something special to contribute and wants a way to share it. And three, they hope that it might help them get a job. It's a way to do professional development that opens all sorts of opportunities."
In the case of teachers, Kurshan says, it's obvious that they're passionate about their work and that they feel they have something important to contribute. It's equally obvious that Curriki will be a ready vehicle for getting their work out to the public where it can help other teachers and students and where it can get the attention it deserves. She adds that there are also many teachers who would love to write textbooks or lead professional development seminars, and participating in Curriki will open opportunities for them in both of those areas.
Creating Greater Access. Another key element of the open source model is that it allows people to re-interpret, re-use, and improve the work of others. Some of the material that is up on the site now is only available to viewers with particular kinds of computers or with particular software on their machines, because of the specific needs and limited resources of the teachers who created it. Rather than leaving the material frozen in those formats, the open source model enables (and encourages) other users to let that content flow into new forms, so that it is available to more users. Curriki is encouraging all of its members to use a Creative Commons "attribution license," which requires that anyone who uses the material cite the original source, but places no other limitations on the way the material can be revised or re-used. Critics say this practice salutes intellectual property rights without actually protecting them.
The open source model has some special benefits for non-profits, Kurshan says, including opening the possibility of educational collaboration with publishers: publishers can release some material under creative commons licenses, have the benefits of community editing, and use the community's innovations to develop new products. Writers can showcase their work for the publishers, publishers may find new writers to use on future projects, and readers get updated, free curricula and other educational resources.
Out of Drydock into the Mainstream. Curriki plans to get back into action some good materials presently sitting high and dry: that is, existing curricula and educational tools that were developed with government and foundation funding that have lost their homes when funding for the projects ran out, or that were funded without a significant distribution plan in place. The taxpayers have already paid for them, teachers invested their time and energy to develop them, and these work products just need to be made available. Curriki is negotiating to make itself a permanent repository for these orphaned materials.
The nonprofit is also working with office support companies who can donate or offer deep discounts on bulk scanning, so that projects that don't exist digitally can be brought online quickly and easily. Curriki also is eager for additional tools that will make it easy to upload content in a variety of digital formats (from Microsoft Word documents to flash movies to web pages to PDFs) and to automate the process of getting those documents into Curriki's markup language for easy sharing/customization/collaborative editing; for now, since they are still in the early stages of development, much of the content that's up on the page is still in whatever format it was in when its creator uploaded it, so you can follow links to existing web pages or download Word documents, but within those documents there aren't links that lead back to related pages throughout the Curriki site.
"Our first goal is to involve teachers and to provide them with the tools they need to build curricula and to collaborate," Kurshan says. As part of that process, Curriki has signed an agreement with the NRTA and AARP to bring on retired teachers as volunteer expert reviewers and contributors.
Careful Criteria. Curriki has adopted very inclusive terms of service. Anything that is deemed pornographic or inciteful is removed immediately, but other materials are allowed to be judged by the community and by a core of professional reviewers. "The group made a decision that we aren't going to be the content police," Kurshan says.
Controversial material like "creation science" would be reviewed by a panel of science experts. If the submission doesn't meet the basic standards of science education, it would receive a poor review and be labeled that way on the website, but it would still be available for any users who wanted to include it in their educational program.
Instead of offering only the material that they like, the staff of Curriki is trusting the community to make sound decisions. They are developing a system of community review similar to the scoring system on eBay, where users rate vendors after each transaction.
Is 'Community' Trustworthy? This is one of the key challenges that Curriki faces, Kurshan says: can you trust the community that's building this? There's also the question of whether the world of education is really ready for open source, given the realities of rigid state and national guidelines and the context of "No Child Left Behind," which put real constraints on what teachers in a given school can teach. The other big question, she says, is whether teachers — who often don't have specific training in developing instructional material — can truly collaboratively build curriculum.
But Curriki isn't the only group that's asking big questions about where education is headed. Publishers are struggling to find new model that incorporates the flexibility of the web and changing concepts of intellectual property, teachers are looking for new ways to collaborate and to meet the changing needs of their students and parents and students are looking for the best educational material for their needs.
In spite of all these questions, Kurshan is confident about the answer. "Curriki is the model for the 21st century," she says.
Jake Miller writes about education, nature, and other subjects of interest to adults and children. This article was published in the Summer, 2007 issue of NRTA Live & Learn.
Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.
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