A Facebook for lesson sharing: Will Internet collaboration replace professional development?
For years, teachers have been telling students not to rely on things they find on the Internet: Wikipedia entries that are occasionally inaccurate, blog posts that may tell only part of the story.
At the same time, experts have been saying teachers need to spend more time sharing lessons—scrutinizing and learning from concrete examples of one another’s work, rather than operating in isolation in their classrooms or in passive professional development sessions.
But what if the lesson sharing takes place online—outside of workshops and common planning periods and structured professional development? That’s the reality many school districts are now dealing with. More and more, teachers are sharing and using lessons online. Whether it’s a good thing or not is the subject of much discussion.
The idea behind online
Lesson sharing is that it allows teachers to promote and adopt lessons that may be as good or better than anything that’s being handed to them by their principal or district, regardless of geographic location or what time of day it is in any particular part of the world. In theory, teachers can find exactly what they need, exactly when they need it. And these lessons are not only vetted, but peer rated.
This idea is nothing new outside of education. Amazon.com lets readers rate books and other items. On Digg.com, users vote on how interesting they think news stories and videos are. The most popular items float up to the front page. Everything in the Web 2.0 world is personalized, asynchronous, and done by popular vote. Everyone is pretty much on his or her own.
Lesson planning is just one aspect of education that’s moving online, and—even more important—moving toward a more bottom-up, democratic approach to doing things. TeacherTube, an education-focused website, lets educators share and rate videotaped lessons and presentations online, just like YouTube. In a little more than two years, the site has mushroomed to include 54,000 videos and 800,000 visitors each month. DonorsChoose.org lets teachers post their own wish lists of supplies and activities, which are then funded directly by individuals.
But things are heating up on the lesson-planning front. Earlier this year, BetterLesson, a Boston-based startup, beat out a slew of other, brand-name folks (like Teach for America) to secure foundation funding. BetterLesson bills itself as providing “collaborative curriculum development.” It sounds like Yelp (or Metacritic) for lesson plans. Or, sure, Facebook.
Of course, lesson-sharing sites have been around for years. And BetterLesson has lots of competition, especially among nonprofit “open education” types. Curriki, funded by former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, is one of them. Creative Commons’ education resource project is another. But none has become large or popular enough to become useful to teachers. There is no Google for lesson plans—yet.
The main challenge is to find a model that is easy enough to be useful for time-harried teachers, and yet has enough content that there are plenty of lessons to sift through. The sites also need the kind of ranking and sharing software that is increasingly widespread.
Other, more fundamental challenges also remain. Only the most motivated and Internet-savvy teachers go online looking for lessons. It still takes time for teachers to search for lessons, much less rate and share feedback about them. There’s no guarantee that the lessons—even the most popular among them—are really any good. They may be flashy or fun but not convey much information or ask much of students.
Someday soon, however, teachers will be getting lots of ideas from the Internet, and we can only cross our fingers that they will be good ones.