Content, Anyone? Free and Always Available, Web-Based Open Source Materials Are Providing Educators with a Fertile, Ever-Adaptable Supply of Instructional Resources

Article excerpt

KEEPING SPENDING IN CHECK while ensuring educators have up-to-date teaching materials has long been a balancing act for school districts. Textbooks are prohibitively expensive to replace yearly or even biannually, sometimes forcing teachers to look for alternative sources of content. Fortunately, the internet has paved the way for access to a plethora of community-based materials.

Open source content--customizable content that is uploaded to wikis or other sites and made available for free--is quickly becoming a viable resource for instructors as they look for ways to bolster or update their existing instructional materials while cutting costs wherever they can. The content is provided by teachers, educational foundations, and other sources, and because of the nature of wikis, users are expected--even encouraged--to annotate, edit, or add to the content, or they can choose to use it as is.

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"The cost of textbooks is astronomical, and a lot of school districts are looking to balance costs with building curriculum," explains Bobbi Kurhsan, executive director of Curriki (www. curriki.org), an open source content site whose name is a merger of curriculum and wiki. "Looking at the growth of social networking and the growth of open sourcing of music, I believe we are at that tipping point where the publishing industry and curriculum industry need to reinvent themselves."

Curriki is one site where educators can contribute, edit, or download content based on their needs. It functions in the same way as the hugely popular, user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org). Content on Curriki is broken down into subjects, and users simply log in to access the library of instructional materials. Everything contributed is tagged, making it searchable based on any number of search terms associated with it. For instance, an American history lesson on the Battle of Bunker Hill could be tagged with "American history," "high school," "American Revolution," "Col. William Prescott," "Bunker Hill"--the list is virtually endless.

Other wiki-based open source content sites are also making headway, proof of sorts that teachers are hungry for alternative avenues for instructional materials, and that more school districts are warming up to the idea of getting content from sources other than textbook publishers.

Rob Lucas, a doctoral student at Stanford University and a former sixth-grade social studies instructor in Rocky Mount, NC, was distressed enough by the staleness of the textbooks from which he was teaching that in 2004 he developed a wiki site he named The Teachers' Lounge (http://teacherslounge. editme.com) where educators can share content.

"I was frustrated as a young teacher with what I thought was the dated quality of my textbooks and the lack of a system for collecting the best stuff that veteran teachers knew from around the country," he says. "It was kind of hard to find the good stuff--I spent a lot of time searching the web for lesson plans, but it was taking me longer to find them than it was to create them from scratch."

Lucas, who has ported the content from his site to Curriki, was so affected by the state of traditional academic resources and his difficulties with finding editable instructional material online that he decided to go back to school and get his PhD in instructional design.

"I think open source content is going to change things pretty significantly over the next five years," he says. "We'll see a lot more sharing of resources, but I also hope the textbook publishers and school curriculum planning committees will use open source resources so schools will have up-to-date teaching tools."

David Stevenson, vice president of business development and government affairs at Brooklyn, NY-based Wireless Generation (www.wirelessgeneration.com), says tightening school budgets are helping drive the trend toward open source and away from printed textbooks. …