The Bering Strait School District (BSSD) in Alaska — which spans a swathe of land and sea the size of Great Britain — is one of the few districts in the nation that has replaced textbooks with online content that can be modified by any of its teachers, students, parents and anyone who wants to participate. The school district uses the same user-generated software as Wikipedia — an open-source, online interface that allows everyone in the district (and outside of it) to access and edit learning standards, curricular materials, and projects.
John Concilus, educational technology coordinator at BSSD, told me about the district’s Open Content Initiative and offered his views on the future of open source materials in education.
Q: How and why did BSSD begin its OpenContent Initiative?
A: Roughly five years ago, we got the idea for this from a really well-known treatise by someone named Eric Raymond. He was part of the original open source software movement. He wrote eleven precepts about how and why open source projects should be built and why it’s better to use a “bazaar,” or free exchange of ideas, versus using a “cathedral,” or top-down, regimented approach. When I read it as an educator, I was really interested in its application to school curriculum.
The idea is that the more eyeballs you get in front of an article, the better the quality. If it’s very participatory, it gets very good. I was passing copies of Raymond’s ideas around and that’s how I got others really excited about it. It was very appealing to us as educators. I don’t think ten years from now I’d want to be in the curriculum materials business. I think knowledge wants to be free.
Q: How much did it cost to start the program?
A: Very little. We were convinced it was the right thing to do, so it wasn’t difficult to start the program. I donated some energy (some “sweat equity”); we built it, showed teachers and administrators what was good about it, the curriculum department people put up some posts.
Rick Holt, who’s now a principal in Roaring Fork, Colorado, was our curriculum coordinator then. [The IT team] supported it technically, he sold it to the teachers and administrators, and it grew and grew. Getting that buy-in was important, but it’s free software that runs on any Linux server. Using open source content has a little bit of a learning curve, but it doesn’t cost anything.
Q: How often do teachers use and modify this content in the classroom? Is it a large part of the district’s curriculum?
A: Teachers use it all the time, every day. [Note: In addition to the BSSD wiki, the Data Analysis and Reporting Toolkit, or DART, is an online, open source information system that helps BSSD teachers use student performance to shape their teaching and helps students understand what they need to accomplish.] Using the wiki and DART are both on teachers’ evaluation instrument. They have to be comfortable with it. We train them all and make sure it’s used. But it’s not just a job requirement — teachers use it because it’s useful.
If a teacher is planning instruction, for instance, and she sees that there’s a weakness in polygons, a teacher can link from the DART system to the BSSD wiki’s polygon page [where there are multiple educational resources]. Now, that material is there not only for the student, but also for teachers who are teaching the same concepts.
In other words, it’s more than just a textbook type of thing — it’s a collaborative space that supports our curriculum. The wiki allows students to really demonstrate competence about a standard. If you look on the links at the left side, you’ll see that it grew to have all sorts of projects associated with it. For example, we wanted to get the kids involved in place-based education. So, instead of assigning worksheets, teachers asked students to create entries for a multimedia dictionary for Inupiaq [one of the region’s local languages]. The kids put together the only comprehensive multimedia dictionary for this language that’s out there. They did it all piecemeal, too — different teachers, different students.
Q: Are there educators outside of the district who use or modify the site’s content?
A: Of course, it’s more useful for people in our district, but because it’s open content there are other districts who have taken all fourteen thousand pages. And that’s fine. Anything that’s posted to our wiki is open and free for anybody to use.
This also means that our students get a real, outside audience for what they’re writing. For this dictionary project alone we have anthropologists from Russia and the Czech Republic really interested in the content that the kids have created. Several school districts in Alaska and Maine have contacted us, interested in trying a similar approach.
Q: What’s been the reaction from parents and students?
A: I wouldn’t say parents use it to the degree that teachers and students do, but parents, community members, outsiders like anthropologists or whatever, all can and do use the system.
Parents can long into their kids’ portfolio on DART and click on what the student needs to know, for instance. But many of these families live in isolated communities with out great infrastructure or technology, so parents use is not as high as you would see in other environments.
And the kids like doing it. Kids are social networking creatures, and this is a social network, basically. You get notified when someone makes a change. It’s very natural for them; I think they prefer interacting with it than some of the traditional assignments. If it’s about engagement, that’s half the battle. If the students want to participate, they’re going to learn more from what they’re doing.
Q: Are there any pitfalls? What are the challenges of this program?
A: There is a bit of a learning curve. But we just installed a new interface a month or two ago and it’s much improved, much easier to edit. It takes out the barrier that we used to have, which is that you had know a little bit of “WikiText” to use the system. It was cumbersome for some users; you had to know about six or seven tricks. Some training was required. But that’s gone now — that pitfall has been removed.
Another challenge is getting teachers and administrators to feel comfortable in an open environment. People are terrified of openness, thinking that bad things can happen. As a school district, we have an obligation to protect kids from inappropriate things, but we’ve had every few incidents. The more people you have sharing responsibility for monitoring the wiki, the better. Something inappropriate might exist for a moment, but we can take care of it very quickly.
[Note: BSSD is not an entirely one-computer-per-student district yet, but, says Concilus, “We are close to that ratio. Perhaps 1.2348 to 1. We don’t believe there is a magic ratio, but shoot for ‘ubiquitous access to technology’ instead. This means that we try to ensure that technology any user needs (teacher, student, etc.) is available when needed. This was improved over the last year by using Ubuntu Linux netbooks for elementary students.”]