Free and Good: The Emergence of Online Curriculum

A trend is afoot on the Internet towards a state of affairs in which teachers and educators everywhere can download high-grade, complete, and low-cost curriculum.

In jargon, this online trend is often referred to as the “open source curriculum” movement or the “open education resources” movement.

Whatever its name, the trend is a good one. We should encourage it in word and deed.

Open-source curriculum, as it takes root, will give teachers and schools across the country an alternative to a small set of dominant education publishers and offer them free or almost free online materials, without sacrificing quality or usability.

For our part here at Match, we have become open-source believers, and we are busy as bees to help it along.  About a year ago, we launched a multi-year effort, via a website called Match Fishtank, to share our K-12 curriculum widely and freely.  I will say a few words about this work at the end of this blog.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Teacher Production and Assembly of Curriculum

Contrary to much public perception, US teachers already search en masse for their own teaching materials and labor long hours to assemble them.

Consider a few facts:

o   99% of elementary school teachers and 96% of middle and high school teachers in the US assemble or write in some way their own lesson plans, unit plans, course plans, and related assessments.

o   Approximately 50% of lesson plans and course materials delivered to students in the US are produced entirely by local teachers, with no material relationship to commercial curriculum.

o   Half of US teachers spend more than 4 hours per week constructing curriculum, and their source for materials is now overwhelmingly the Web.

Schools and districts, of course, often purchase off-the-shelf curriculum and assessments from educational publishers.  The market for commercial curriculum and assessments in the US – defined to include purchases by schools and districts, both in print and in digital form, of textbooks, teaching supplements, trade books and magazines, and assessments of various kinds – is somewhere around $8 billion annually.

Still, when these materials land in schools, teachers almost universally modify and supplement them in order to tailor them to the needs of their students and their local school circumstance.

I will not take up here the debate about whether it is good or bad that teachers write and assemble their own materials to the degree they do.  There are good points to be made on both sides of that argument.

My point for now is simply that teachers do in fact construct their own materials with enormous frequency and exertion.  And as long as they do, the emergence of the Internet as a main source of their materials is of huge importance.

Curriculum Choice as an Intervention

By all the evidence, curriculum choices matter enormously to student outcomes, even in the absence of wider improvements to teaching practice or school design.

For example, studies have shown that improvements in instructional materials have effects on student outcomes that rival those of upgrades to teaching practice, reductions in class size, and the provision of preschool.

The relatively low cost of curriculum change in schools – as compared, for example, to the expense of lower class sizes, improvements in teacher effectiveness, or extended school days – makes it an unusual intervention strategy that is both affordable and consequential.

What Teachers Want

Teachers do not struggle to describe what they want from curriculum, including online curriculum.  Studies have probed this topic, and their findings roll up roughly as follows:

o   Standards-Aligned.  In most settings, teachers need their curriculum and assessments to be aligned to the state standards environment in which they work and, in high school settings, to the standards implicit in the AP, the ACT, and other college-ready exams.

o   Evidence-Based.  Teachers strongly gravitate to curriculum that is credible and backed by evidence.  In the eyes of teachers, that evidence can come variously from a curriculum’s track record in practice, from the credibility of the educators who wrote the curriculum, and from third party evaluations and studies.

o   Complete.  Teachers need complete curriculum that covers full course sequences and includes a full array of lesson plans, unit materials, and assessments.  From complete curriculum, teachers are free to download inputs ranging in size and complexity from a single lesson plan to a complete course.

o   Suited for Differentiation.  Teachers prefer curriculum that is purposefully constructed to give them options for modifying materials and for varying teaching plans in order to meet the needs of their students who will always vary in their learning styles, skills, and knowledge levels.

o   Searchability and Accessibility.  Teachers need curriculum that is easy to find and use.  Teachers in particular want online curriculum that is searchable by assessment standard, by item type (i.e. lesson plan, unit plan, course overview, etc.) and by topic (e.g. insects, Catcher in the Rye, perimeter, etc.).

Predictably, in these early days of the open source curriculum movement, teachers feel mixed about their experience as they venture online in search of materials.  On the one hand, they are delighted.  They must be.  They come in larger and larger numbers.  On the other hand and given the fragmentation of online curriculum, they hunger for faster progress towards online curriculum that meets fully the criteria listed above.

Early Settlers in the Land of Online Curriculum

The online curriculum landscape has been filling in over the past few years.  To give you a sense of it, below I run through some of the organizations that have put down a stake.  I split them into two categories.

o   Market Makers.  Market makers are special-purpose websites where users and producers of curriculum trade and share.  Chief among these marketplaces today is a website called Teachers Pay Teachers.  Amazon.com also recently announced its interest in making a market for online curriculum.  As I define them, market makers also include the search engines and social media sites that invariably route teachers as they venture online and an important, emerging group of quality assurance entities that seek to validate curriculum and facilitate reliable exchange.

o   Content Producers.  Content has to originate somewhere, and a growing and increasingly credible list of professional organizations have begun to freely share their curriculum online.  They include, as I will detail below, a variety of non-profit organizations dedicated to the open-source movement (e.g. UnboundEd), certain venture capital-backed startups (e.g. LearnZillion), and a number of charter school organizations (including Match) that are curating and sharing the curriculum they have produced in their schools over many years.

Market Makers

Teachers Pay Teachers (2006)

Over the past few years, teachers have begun to aggregate in large numbers on a curriculum market-making site called Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT).

TPT allows teachers to upload and sell their materials to other teachers for fees ranging from a few dollars (for, say, a packet of worksheets) to far more substantial prices (for larger, more complex material sets).  Materials are available across all grade levels and subject areas.

TPT claims 2.5 million items and 4 million active users.  TPT is a for-profit, private company.  It earns revenue from transactions fees charged on commerce on their site.

Amazon Inspire (2016)

Two years ago, Amazon.com announced its intention to organize an online marketplace for curriculum under the name Amazon Inspire.  The site launched briefly in 2016, shut down for a year, and then re-emerged in 2017.

Currently in Beta mode, the site allows educators and a variety of curriculum organizations to upload and exchange curriculum materials.  The site is a competitor to Teachers Pay Teachers.

Amazon.com is obviously a potentially powerful marketplace for online curriculum.  Unclear for now, though, is how committed Amazon.com is to winning as a marketplace for online curriculum.

Google, Facebook, Pinterest (various years)

Predictably, Google, Facebook, and Pinterest often serve as teachers’ first step towards online curriculum.

Notably, 94% of elementary teachers and 95% of secondary teachers report using Google to search for curriculum.  62% of secondary teachers report using Pinterest to find resources.

OER Commons (2007)

OER Commons is a non-profit organization dedicated generally to the open educational resources movement, and it maintains an interactive library of free curriculum.  The library is populated by submissions partly from professional organizations (e.g. the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, etc.) and partly from individual educators.

EdReports (2013)

EdReports is a non-profit organization that conducts and publishes independent quality reviews of curriculum, including online materials.  EdReports maintains a network of educators who conduct reviews.  The organization aspires to provide quality assurance to consumers and purchasers of curriculum.

Content Producers

UnboundEd (2016)

UnboundEd publishes open-source curriculum created by in-house staff and sourced from partner organizations.  UnboundEd is a non-profit organization.  It spun out of a predecessor organization, EngageNY, which was established in 2013 to create and share Common Core-aligned curriculum.

BetterLesson (2008)

BetterLesson is a private, for-profit company that specializes in professional development services for schools and districts.  In support of its professional development activities, BetterLesson also maintains a free library of curriculum in K-12 ELA and math.  To source its curriculum, BetterLesson maintains a network of 130 teachers who create materials in partnership with BetterLesson.

LearnZillion (2011)

LearnZillion is a for-profit, private company that sells professional development services to schools and districts and, in parallel, offers free curriculum. LearnZillion’s free curriculum is sourced from a network of about 100 practicing or recently practicing teachers, and it focuses on K-12 math and K-8 ELA.

Open Up Resources (2016)

Open Up Resources is a non-profit organization that seeks to provide districts with complete curriculum solutions.  To date, the organization has partnered with two established curriculum organizations to produce materials (Illustrative Mathematics for math and EL Education for ELA).  Open Up expects to earn revenue from districts for professional development and implementation services.

Match Fishtank (2016)

Match Fishtank is Match Education’s open-source website for curriculum and assessments.  We launched it in 2016.  On the site, we continually update and share for free the curriculum and assessment materials that we use in our PreK-12 school and that have been refined over the last 15 years.

A full-time team of curriculum directors and product managers support the site and work in close collaboration with our classroom teachers and school leaders to curate and publish our materials.

After a year in operation, Match Fishtank has fully or partially published 24 courses in ELA and math.  We expect to add 7 more courses during the 2017-18 academic year and, by the summer of 2018, to have posted 90% of our curriculum in math and ELA for grades K-12.  We also are beginning to release our science, social studies, and history curriculum, particularly for our lower grades.

As published on Fishtank, each of our courses includes the following materials:

o   A course summary that describes the standards. This document includes an annual planning tool that helps teachers plot their year.

o   A set of 5-9 detailed unit plans for each course.  Units guide teachers through a set of standards and learning goals covering approximately 4-6 weeks of instruction.

o   Daily lesson plans that provide learning objectives, key questions, a daily target task, and a framework for teachers to plan detailed and differentiated lesson plans.

o   Unit tests that teachers can use to assess student learning at the end of each unit.

Other CMOs (various years)

In addition to Match, several other CMOs have entered the open source curriculum space.

o   In 2017, Success Academy announced plans, as part of its Success Academies Education Institute, to share its curriculum for free.  As a first step, Success Academies released online its elementary school ELA curriculum.

o   Starting in 2016, Achievement First, as part of an initiative called Achievement First Open Source, released online its full K-12 curriculum in math and ELA.  Achievement First was one of the first CMOs to share its materials for free and online.

o   KIPP has signaled a strong commitment via an initiative called Beyond KIPP to share broadly its materials and intellectual property. As part of this initiative, KIPP recently released to certain partner organizations its full K-8 literacy curriculum.

Conclusion

When I ponder the actors above and the early state of online curriculum, I can imagine a future in which teachers and schools will be able to access high-quality, comprehensive, well-organized, and low-cost curriculum online.

How far off is that future?  I am not sure exactly.  But, I would not bet against it.  The Internet rarely discriminates when applying its powers of disintermediation.

Here at Match, we will do our part to reel in the future of open, online curriculum.  As I type this, Match Fishtank hit its first birthday.  It is buzzing along and growing rapidly.  And we will continue – as a matter of our mission – to invest in it for years to come.

If you’re in the mood, check it out.  Download a lesson, a course, or anything in between.  It’s free.  And it’s good.


Sources List:

Introduction

Curriculum Choice as an Intervention

The Demand for Online Curriculum and Assessments

 The Open Source Space

TeachersPayTeachers

Amazon Inspire

 Google, Facebook, Pinterest

BetterLesson

OER Commons

EdReports

UnboundEd

EngageNY

LearnZillion

 Open Up Resources

Match Fishtank

Success Academy

KIPP

Achievement First