Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part III: Open Source Curriculum

A discussion of the concept of transferring the open source model of software development into curriculum development by teachers.


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I’m going to branch out from my original premise of fostering interconnectivity and visualizing public schools as ecosystems and extend that concept further specifically into the realm of curriculum development. Right now, most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which is a promising advancement, as it gives all educators in the nation a common reference point in developing curricula, as opposed to varying state defined abstractions. This is the first step toward developing a basis for educators to collaborate in more innovative ways in developing their units and lessons. It means, theoretically, that an educator in Iowa could collaborate with a colleague in New York and know that they will have a common reference with which to base their objectives and assessments on.

The next step will be to establish a solid curriculum that can be developed, shared and refined by actual classroom practice. Traditionally, schools purchase their curriculum from companies such as Houghton Mifflin, McGraw Hill, or some other company that contracts with schools districts. Then they give the program to teachers, and teachers get these gigantic lesson plan books that have all these boxes and colorful little sidebars, and I’m sure they have some good information embedded somewhere in there. I’m not saying this curriculum isn’t necessarily well developed and effective. But there’s a disconnect between the classroom and the curriculum that does not need to be there.

There’s another disconnect in education that occurs on the level of research. Some researchers do a study on effective teaching strategies and find out some interesting findings and report those findings in a journal that maybe a few teachers read in a master’s class they take and have a classroom discussion about. And maybe those teachers have to apply some principles of that research into their classroom as part of their grade and they then write a paper about it. But that tends to be about as far as much research penetrates into actual classroom practice. I mean, for God’s sake, the concept of learning styles has been essentially debunked according to most research, but you would not know it if you are in the field of education right now. Again, as in the curriculum, the problem is not that the research might not be potentially useful and valid to classroom practice, but rather that the research does not often directly involve the teachers who are in classrooms everyday. It also doesn’t help that often educational research can become highly politicized.

Both of these disconnects can be resolved if teachers were the ones actively doing the research and developing the curriculum themselves in a transparent and rigorous manner. I believe that the potential to do this at a low cost and at a large scale can be found in the example of the open source model used in software engineering. This model has produced amazing work that can often be far superior to traditional, proprietary means. There are parallels in the development of software and the development of curriculum that hold promise for the transfer of the open source method into curriculum development, though there will be some caveats to that, of course.

First, however, it’s important to distinguish what I’m really talking about when I state the “open source model.” There’s a common misconception about what open source means, and most people will probably think I just mean that I think curriculum should be free. But open source refers to a process, not a product. This is an important distinction that I think gets lost in the examples of “open source curriculum” websites that I have seen out there (Curriki, FlexBooks, OER Commons). Note that I don’t know that any of these sites specifically claim to be “open source”, but they do tend to denote that concept by placing the word “open” as a frequent descriptor to content. What they are just saying is “free”. I think what they are doing is great, and I am not knocking them at all. But I think it is important to point out that simply having a repository of free lessons that have been designed by real classroom teachers and ratable by users is not open source curriculum. It’s useful, and it’s a great step in the right direction. But this is not what I am talking about.

What I’m talking about is actually designing units and lesson plans collaboratively using technology, with actual teachers developing them together (for free) from the ground up. The teachers doing this would have to be relatively sophisticated and dedicated pedagogues, as well as capable with technology, but the end users of this curriculum would potentially be any and all classroom teachers K-12 in the US, and eventually, any classroom teacher anywhere, given that our new standards are placing us more on par with international standards. As these end users utilize the curriculum, they would provide feedback and round out the curriculum based on their specific students’ needs, and even join in on the process as they explore the application of the curriculum as a living, breathing, evolutionary product.

Teachers could also collaborate on research using this model, and carry out research in multiple classrooms simultaneously in order to pool their data and observations, thus building a research base of “action research” that can better bridge that disconnect between academic research and actual classroom practice. This research could also feed directly into the curriculum development.

This is the big picture, the big idea of what I’m proposing in the transfer of the open source model into curriculum and research development. There’s a number of issues that are already evident even at this grand level of generalization, such as the fact that many teachers aren’t exactly tech savvy (I’m still trying to get most of my school to log onto Google), for starters. And then just the little nitty gritty details like the fact that you would have to design a platform that would enable this collaboration to take place effectively based on the lessons themselves, not just on conversations about them. This would require some kind of standardized format of a lesson such that it can be modularized and broken into pieces and built upon.

It certainly won’t be easy. But it’s possible. The tools are there and the potential is there. As busy and abused as teachers are, I think there’s enough committed, innovative ones out there to get the community started with just an ounce of dedication and a whiff of extra time here and there. Wanna join me in the effort?

Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

4 thoughts on “Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part III: Open Source Curriculum”

  1. You are spot on about the definition of OER needing to include open source. From the very beginning, when Curriki was a project that lived inside of Sun Microsystems (it’s been an independent non-profit since 2005), the idea has been to build a community of practice around resources, and for the resources to be continually improved upon by the community – akin to the Java Community Process. Curriki provides the opportunity and the space for teachers to connect, co-develop curriculum, and share that curriculum. Not only are they sharing curriculum, but best teaching practices, as well. Typically a group of educators will form a group, work on curriculum they can keep private on the system over a period of time and share the content with the rest of the Curriki Community when it is “ready for prime time.” There is a fantastic example of a group, the San Diego Area Knowledge Exchange for Developmental Math: a faculty team from the San Diego region community colleges. They are collaborating to mobilize knowledge, expertise and resources to enhance learning experiences and improve student success in Developmental Math (in affiliation with the CCC Success Network). I hope you’ll check it out.

    Not only does Curriki encourage contributors to upload open source documents so they can easily be modified to suit anyone’s needs, they provide open source creation and editing tools on the site.

    It’s not just lesson plans and unit plans, it’s student facing content as well as teacher facing content. It’s video clips, it’s simulations, it’s webquests, it’s smartboard presentations, it’s full courses, its labs, activities and exercises. Big chunks and little chunks waiting to be found and repurposed and edited and remixed and mashed!


    1. Gayle,

      I’m honored that you took the time to not only read my post but to write an extended response. Thank you for sharing more information about the great work that Curriki is hosting on the web. I didn’t know that it was originally incubated by Sun Microsystems!

      I think Curriki is doing a great job establishing a forum for the sharing of educational resources. I’ve superficially picked around a tad in Curriki and I checked out the link you posted above. I’m impressed by the extent to which teachers are using Curriki to share and develop resources.

      I may be missing something, but I feel that my critique about whether we can call that type of sharing truly open source (as opposed to simply “free”) still stands. When I am talking about the open source process translated into curriculum development, I envision it as more closely aligned to the manner in which software code is developed, which is that the process of collaboration is taking place directly within the product that is being developed. One person adds a line of code to the established body of code, another person adds a few extra lines, and then they merge it together. So in curriculum development, this collaboration would occur DIRECTLY in the context of the units and lessons being created, such as the collaboration that occurs when multiple people are writing and editing a singular document in Google Docs.

      I may just have a different interpretation of curriculum, but what I see on Curriki (again, I haven’t gone deeply into it so I may be missing something) is a loose collection of resources aligned to a topic, which can be a highly useful supplement to a teacher’s own unit, unless the teacher decides that the unit plan posted on Curriki (if there is one) is one they want to use. But I envision one common template unit document, aligned to the Common Core, in which not only resources are being shared, but furthermore the manner in which that content will be delivered is presented in a standardized, easily applicable format.

      This is hard for me to articulate, but I see this process as a step beyond educators sharing resources. Rather than disparate pieces thrown together, I envision a singular product crafted through collaboration. So a unit on realistic fiction, for example, would be one document in which many different educators have crafted a common vision on how to best present the procedures and understandings necessary to master that content. Within that single document, there would be multiple pathways presented for presenting the material, but it would be arranged as a sort of menu by subtopic. For example, there could be many different “language objectives” that could be presented for a given content objective which a teacher would choose from based upon their own students’ abilities. If that teacher didn’t find any of the available suggestion applicable to their students, they would give feedback or become directly involved in developing the next version of the unit, such that the updated version (like new releases of software) would better encompass a diversity of student needs.

      Look, I’m not claiming to be an expert on any of this, and I realize that my own conceptions of open source may be based on a misinformed non-techie user’s understanding. Utilizing technology effectively in education is the new frontier. Right now, I view Curriki as akin to an effective concept of a Collaborative Design Environment (CDE) in software coding. It’s a great first step. But a CDE is only half the equation. The other half in software design is the Version Control System (VCS) which allows for a unified, actionable product (code) to be created and adapted by multiple people. If Curriki can utilize it’s established collaborative design environment to better hone standardized platforms of units that unifies best ideas and practices, I think we can then truly state that Curriki curriculum is developed via the open source process.

      To see some more on implementing my vision, see

      I look forward to corrections and critiques of any holes in my logic or misunderstandings of Curriki or open source I may have presented above! :)

  2. I would like to commend you on your perspective that classrooms or schools are ecosystems. There are educational researchers who have written about the need to study classroom events and interactions within the lens of a complex ecological model. My co-researcher, Bettie, and I are facilitating a roundtable discussion in November at a conference for educators and instructional designers who often investigate the impact of innovative uses of technology in classrooms. We hope to create a group of researchers to document, analyze and evaluate innovative practices within this lens of an ecological model.
    Please let me know if we are able to share your posting and perspective. I also appreciate your mention of the Curriki community and their effort to fine-tune what is used in classrooms. Bettie and I also hope to nurture the communication and sharing of these innovative practices so more students benefit from such insightful resources that respond to students’ needs and align with enhanced understanding of what is needed to reflect societal change.

    1. Sure, you’re more than welcome to share any posts I’ve made here. All of this here content is licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 license (!

      Susan, some work that might parallel what you are investigating in a different field is that of the ecological design principles established by permaculture ( I think that these principles provide a useful foundation for the kind of model you’re contemplating.

      I’ve been meaning to begin looking into how these ecological principles can transfer and apply to educational ecosystems for a while now myself. I would love to hear more about what you and your colleagues’ discuss and the outcomes from your roundtable!

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