Last June, President Obama unveiled ConnectED, a five-year initiative designed to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless—and also equip public schools with the tools to make the most of the enhanced connectivity.
“That’s a big deal because only about 20 percent of classrooms right now have broadband,” says Richard Culatta, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education. “But just getting those kids online and giving them mobile devices doesn’t actually help much. What does help is when you use those devices to give them access to better, more interactive, engaging, high quality digital material that are aligned to college and career-ready standards.”
Culatta spoke to DA about a new online registry designed to help educators easily find the best resources for their needs.
What were you hearing from teachers?
They said the problem is that there are really great resources out there, but they are very hard to find. Likewise, there are a lot of resources that are easy to find but aren’t so great. They were spending far too much time trying to find quality resources aligned to the instructional standards they were trying to teach to kids. There are a lot of sites, but no one was really sharing from one site to another.
A teacher in California, for instance, may give a thumbs up to a video on that state’s resource site, but if a teacher pulls up the same video in another state, it won’t have ratings from teachers across the country. That’s silly. Why not share what you know? That’s the whole value of having standards.
What was the answer?
We realized that this was an area that was not being filled, so we launched the Learning Registry at learningregistry.org. It’s an open listing of digital learning content and the standards to which they are aligned. It currently lists close to 400,000 resources and continues to grow.
How does it work?
The best way to describe it is to think of a card catalog in a library. Books exist all over the library, but there is a central catalog that shows you the book title, where it is located and so on. That’s what the Learning Registry does, but with one key difference: Anyone can come in and pull up a “card” and add information to it. They can say, “We used this in class with this particular standard and it worked great.”
Then they put it back in the file. So you create this open digital card catalog, if you will, that everyone can update. You have one place and one easy way to share valuable information about high quality digital learning content.
So it’s a wiki of sorts. What kind of protections are there for the content?
Well, you don’t interact with the actual resource, but the information about the resource. But what you ask is important because you still have a question of quality. How do you know that someone hasn’t pulled out that card and written a bunch of junk on it and stuck it back in? What we’ve done is to allow whoever is using that information in that card catalog to view only people’s comments that they trust.
Let’s say, for example, I’m in California, and we want our teachers to see ratings or standard alignment information that other states have put in. We know Michigan does a really good job of vetting its content and making good alignment decisions, so anytime they’ve put information on one of these cards, we’ll show that to our teachers.
But maybe there’s another state that just puts in all kinds of dubious information. Even though they’re adding information in the Learning Registry, we can choose to ignore it and not show it to our teachers. Think of a Twitter feed where you choose who you want to follow.
Who makes those decisions?
It’s up to whoever is implementing a state’s resource website. Illinois is a great example. The state has a Shared Learning Resources site and a team whose job it is to review content and make these decisions. But anyone who has an education site can make the decision of what resources they want to show.
How widespread is the participation?
It’s hard to know because it’s an open system. People don’t have to tell us when they use it.
We do know that a number of states are using it—I’ve already mentioned California, Illinois and Michigan. New York is in the process of integrating it, as are a number of others. But it is also open to various organizations and foundations as well.
Our hope is that eventually all states, at a minimum, will be participating.
But isn’t there value in knowing who is using it and what they are looking for?
Of course. Just because we don’t know who is using it doesn’t mean we don’t have an active community of people and developers who are giving us feedback and building code and resources. It’s truly an open project, like Linux, where the core developers create and share great content. Anyone is free to use it, but they don’t necessarily know who is using it.
How will the Learning Registry identify gaps in learning materials?
One of the promises of the Learning Registry, as we get more of these resources registered, is that we can run a report that says, here are some standards that have only one or two—or no—resources aligned with them. That can be important for, say, a philanthropic organization that wants to fund the creation of better resources or even for commercial publishers.
We hope to get to the point where we have enough data that we can see not just where there are gaps in the resources, but where teachers across the country have given them low ratings. There may be a whole bunch of resources aligned to dividing fractions, but if everyone thinks they stink, this will let us get better ones in there.
The Common Core standards, as well as things like teaching evolution, are being debated in many states. How do you keep one side or the other from driving the conversation when it comes to commenting on these resources?
That’s a great question. We are not a curation department and we don’t intend to be. We leave that to the people who are making the decisions.
You may have somebody who says, “These are resources that we have rated low because they don’t align with our ideological perspectives.” They can publish that in the Learning Registry. That’s totally fine. And if I’m in another state looking for quality resources, I’ll pull that card and I will see those negative comments. But if I also see another five or six comments that rate the resource as high quality, I will check them—going back to the Twitter analogy—and ignore the rest.
If I see a list of resources from PBS for example, and I trust PBS, I am inclined to listen to them. In the same manner, if I see resources from someone I don’t know or don’t trust, I can choose to ignore them. That’s a decision left to the user. We will at least make it possible to share all the information about the resources, but whether it is used is your decision.
How can educators get involved in this?
We want to make it as simple as possible. Teachers can use our tools that are being built on top of existing registries—like free.ed.gov, ilsharedlearning.org and others—to have access to thousands of free, highly rated resources from around the country that are aligned to standards.
My message to people who develop or own sites, like state sites or teacher portals, is to absolutely, please, connect with the Learning Registry. If there are resources that those groups have already identified as high quality, then by all means publish them in the Learning Registry. It’s an easy process.
And through their sites, they can now share great resources that other people have identified. You don’t have to go to thousands of different sites just to find the right teaching materials for your class.
Is it transparent on other sites?
We don’t promote the Learning Registry directly. We don’t want it to be a landing page. The whole point is not to create something new, but to be able to go to wherever you already feel comfortable going and connect to the Learning Registry through that favored site. The site owner can identify it as such or not.
I believe this completely changes how we distribute and share quality learning content, which has been a problem we have had for decades, being stuck in the print phase of education. This has great potential for rethinking how we find good quality down the road.
Tim Goral is senior editor.