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Biomes, from OpenCurriculum

Most teachers have file folders and flash drives full of material that they use to generate awesome lessons year after year: activities, projects, discussion questions, texts, audio, video. But they don’t always have easy ways to share these ideas, or discover new ones.

A new non-profit ed-tech start-up called OpenCurriculum, based in Pittsburgh, launches this week aiming to change all that by focusing on the ease of creation and building local communities of sharing. It’s designed to work as a place where teachers can easily create, edit and exchange textbook-style content and step-by-step lesson plans.

“Youtube made the creation and sharing of videos a much easier process,” says founder Varun Arora. “We’re trying to nail creation for educational content.”

There are lots of other versions of this idea out there: ShareMyLesson is backed by the UFT, BetterLesson was created by a Teach for America alum, and Teachers Pay Teachers has the unique take of having teachers buy and sell lessons rather than sharing for free.

Open Curriculum is trying to differentiate itself by focusing on the nuts and bolts of creating and sharing resources, and the development of local communities of sharers.

Github, a website where developers can collaborate on open-source software projects, enables “forking” and easy control over many different versions of a single program. OpenCurriculum uses super-simple language and a web-first interface to allow teachers to do the same thing. You can upload using Dropbox, Facebook, or gmail or create projects directly in the browser.

Making cool learning resources is one part of the problem OpenCurriculum is trying to address. The other issue is finding them. In simplistic terms, the Internet enables anyone t0 learn anything about anything. In practice, that too often means Wikipedia. Tons of Creative Commons-licensed educational content is out there, in “Open Educational Resource” repositories maintained by leading institutions, but it’s often hard to find, hard to browse, hard to adapt and therefore hard to reuse. The anemic reuse of open educational content has been a perennial issue since the beginning of the movement ten years ago, and there’s been a move to shift from talking about open educational resources to talking about open educational practices–what has to happen in schools in order for open educational resources and open learning to be a robust part of education.

I’ll give a simple example. My cousin was teaching a college art history course, and she spent dozens of hours assembling her slides. In theory, she could have saved that time by adapting other slideshows created in previous years by other people teaching the same or similar courses. But first of all, she didn’t think of that. Secondly, she didn’t know where to find the other slideshows, thirdly, she didn’t know how to easily customize them. Finally, she also couldn’t share her completed slideshow freely because of copyright issues with contemporary artworks.

It turns out that local academic cultures may be hugely important to sharing. Arora, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, studied the One Laptop Per Child program, trying to figure out why the ambitious technology giveaway hadn’t had more of an impact on learning in countries around the world.

“We realized the problem was no locally relevant content,” he says (a common criticism of the OLPC program in various implementations around the world). It’s not just about language–teachers need lesson plans that fit local ideas and academic requirements. “K-12 especially is very specific to certain areas.” This would seem to work against the “universal” premise of sharing free and open learning resources. But Open Curriculum is reaching out to local education communities in Pittsburgh, where they’re based, as well as South Africa and Nepal. The idea is that once teachers get the hang of pooling resources and collaborating locally, the sharing bug will spread.

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