La Dolce Vita: chapter 10, in which we embark upon a ridiculously ambitious enterprise.

There’s a ton of educational material for elementary-age school kids online. Just a ton of it. For all grades, for many different learning styles, for many different teaching styles. Software and content. The more you look, the more you find.

So why isn’t it all more… useful?

There are three things that stand out to me.

One: the vast majority of this content isn’t freely redistributable. There’s plenty of content, sure, but can you just take it and use it? It’s unclear. Take a look, for example, at the Math Tools site. Seems like there’s lots of activities, but dig a couple of layers deep and follow the links, and you see some common patterns emerging: rudimentary tools, pointed copyright notices, walled gardens. If I find a Java applet out there that might help me teach a number line, great — but can I give it to anyone I want? Can I improve upon it? Where’s the source?

These are, of course, the fundamental questions of free software and free content, and those of us who live in this world understand why these questions are important. It takes rules to build a sustainable digital commons, and most people in education don’t understand those rules yet.

There are plenty of people out there producing suitable content. We should reach out to them and educate them, and ask them nicely to give it to the whole wide world.

Two: this content is frequently not organized clearly in terms of progressions. In other words, there should always be an easy answer to the question: “Hey, I learned this, now what should I learn next?” The fancy name for this list of progressions of skills is a “curriculum framework”. Really, it’s pretty simple: it’s a long ordered list of “the stuff you should learn next”. Classrooms don’t work without these lists.

There are lots of curriculum frameworks out there; now that I know what I’m looking for, I see them all over the place. Yet somehow, the content I find doesn’t fit nicely into these frameworks. Why not? Why should everyone have to connect their own dots?

It’s entirely possible that these maps between content and various curriculum frameworks exist, and I don’t know where they are. Info welcome.

And yes, I know: because there are lots of curriculum frameworks, there are lots of potential maps. That’s fine. Show me one such map that is comprehensive, please, in which both content and curriculum framework are freely available to all.

Three: there are no associated mechanisms for assessment. Even if you do find the right content and tools for learning a particular lesson, how do you know when you know the material? This is particularly important in the case of empowering self-directed learners. Remember: one of the contentions of OLPC was that, in the developing world, teachers often don’t show up for school at all. In such a world, self-assessment tools are pretty urgently needed, right?

Tests are obviously vital. Tests tell you whether you’ve mastered material or not. And in the age of the computer, there’s absolutely no reason why whole categories of tests shouldn’t be self-grading. “Want to know if you’ve properly understood long division, Johnny? Take this simple internet test.” Sure, it’s more complicated than that — but not impossibly complicated.

* * *

So those are the three broad sets of tools I’d like to see. Free content, in context of real curriculum frameworks, with self-assessments. And here’s the thing: once these tools are available in the digital commons, they are available to everyone, forever, for all time. No takebacks. The digital commons only grows; it never shrinks.

This is obviously a gigantic task. A fool’s errand.

Where do we start? 🙂

We start with 4th grade maths, that’s where we start. Why? Because I said so.

The state of Massachusetts has thoughtfully provided their entire mathematics curriculum framework online. Great. Let’s steal it. Since it was produced by a government entity, it’s ours now. We The People, and all that jazz.

(John Concilus, I like your curriculum for Alaskan kids, but I like the Massachusetts framework just a little bit more.)

From the Massachusetts framework, I have produced the holy list of 4th grade maths lessons, made available in a convenient wiki format. Awesome, right? I know!

Now what?

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but here’s what I’m going to do with the next few hundred spare hours of my life. Needless to say, I would really love to get lots and lots of help in this enterprise.

First, I am going to find every piece of freely available material that I can find that corresponds to each of these lessons. Content or code. And by “freely available”, I mean “made explicitly available under a copyleft license that does not restrict commercial use”. Where that content exists, I will link to it.

Second, when I find content that looks suitable but is not “freely available”, I will contact the copyright holder and do my utmost to convince them to make it freely available. This may be a Herculean task, but it’s important. Until people understand why the digital commons matters, they will not add their content to that commons.

Third, I will encourage Sugar activity developers to write activities that fit somewhere within the scope of these lessons — and I will encourage those activity authors to either include assessment tools, or reference them. There are a ton of awesome activities out there already, but I would dearly love to be able to say, someday in the not-too-distant future, “Sugar is the best platform in the world for the teaching of 4th grade maths.” Because if we can prove the superiority of Sugar in one particular case, we can then apply that model again and again. But we must prove the first case.

Help welcome. It’s a wiki. If you find content, add a link. Simple.

So, um… I guess I’ll get to work now.

(Footnote #1: Big ups to Ben Schwartz, by the way, for the hourlong IRC discussion that drew a lot of these insights into sharp relief for me.)

(Footnote #2: I could be completely misinformed. There could be a whole ton of stuff out there that looks exactly like what I’m asking for. If I’m wrong, please, please, please tell me where to find it. I know perfectly well that I’m not the only one pursuing these ideas.)

(Footnote #3: If you’re going to tell me that I’m wasting my time, save your breath. I love nothing like a good windmill tilt.)

La Dolce Vita: chapter 10, in which we embark upon a ridiculously ambitious enterprise.

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