Try as we may, it would be difficult to overstate the potential of the web and the internet to revolutionize education. Over the past six or seven years, most schools have witnessed first-hand the ability of the web to make learning more student-centric, more authentic, and more accessible. Many schools, however, have not realized the potential of the web beyond the classrooms of a few early adopters on their faculty. The internet has not become a central part of the school culture and daily operations, and its impact, therefore, has fallen short of expectations.
Most attempts at curriculum integration have been grassroots endeavors aimed at the classroom teacher and her teaching methods. While this is a critical element of a school’s technology integration plans, I find it troubling that more attention hasn’t been paid to the application of technology and the internet to curriculum development and lesson planning.
While some teachers maintain online support materials for their courses, such as lesson plans, syllabi, and homework assignments, the tools to do this often are cumbersome and fail to tap the web’s collaborative potential for department or school-based curriculum development. Others access static lesson plan collections, such as AskEric, but this is only scratching the surface of web-enabled collaborative curriculum development. It’s time we begin a move to a more dynamic, database-driven solution that allows for the search and retrieval of lessons based on various criteria, such as learning objectives, procedures, or assessment models.
By creating a web-enabled district or statewide database of standards, curricula, lesson plans, student projects, and assessments, we will realize benefits for everyone involved. Administrators will have real-time access to what teachers are doing in the classroom and how students respond to various methods. Teachers will be freed from many of the pressures related to outdated models of student assessment. Students will be assessed more thoroughly and fairly and will have a much clearer picture of how their performance relates to their assessment and to the performance of their peers. Parents will have real-time access to their child’s work and up-to-the-minute information on how that work measures up against state standards and that of his peers.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, a district that has a database to store all of its curricula. Rather than submitting a lesson plan to a supervisor on paper, a teacher types it into a form in her web browser and submits it to the database. Procedures and assessment methods are stored in separate fields and linked to performance criteria and state and national standards contained in the database. Students submit the assignment from this lesson to the database via the web. Teachers, peers, and parents do the same with the assessment sheets for this assignment.
Imagine that you’re a department chair or principal in this district. Using the database, you not only can identify which curriculum standards have been met and which haven’t instantly, but you can identify which teaching methods have been used to meet them. You can pinpoint where each of your teachers is in the curriculum, and you can identify differences in grading standards among teachers in your department easily. It is easy to compile a report on the variety of teaching methods a particular teacher is using. You can evaluate which assignments her students tend to do best on, and you can look at samples of student work for these assignments. Performance reviews can include aggregate data, such as the variety of her assignments and teaching methods, as well as the success of students on more self-paced learning objectives.
Now, imagine that you’re a teacher in this district. The database lets you perform keyword searches on your colleagues’ lessons based on objectives, procedures, or general subjects. An English teacher may find a teaching method the biology teacher used that he otherwise never would have thought of. The Spanish teacher searching for a new way to teach a particular irregular verb finds it in a lesson created by a Spanish teacher in another school. The database can help you identify the most effective lessons by ranking them according to student performance on the associated assignment.
Such a database completely changes the concept of your gradebook. Now, rather than boiling down student performance to a numeric average rounded to the nearest tenth of a point, you can associate student performance with your own performance criteria, as well as district curriculum and state standards. By electronically connecting student assessment with assignments and objectives in a database, you can easily pinpoint student weaknesses and identify areas where particular students need more work.
Students in this district also will benefit from the integration of curriculum development and assessment. As a student, your goal is no longer to “get a passing grade,” but rather to master the required content areas. Each of your projects is assessed based on these content standards, and you can access all of these assessments easily through your web browser. Click on the performance standards of any online assignment, and you can see models of the various levels of mastery from other students. You no longer have to wonder how you are doing in any particular class, because not only do you have access to your performance at any given time, but you can see exactly how you rank in any content area against your peers. Finally, because performance is reported in real time on the web and is constantly available, the concept of marking terms is no longer of much significance. You can work at your own pace on learning objectives that might take you more time than your classmates.
Obviously, the complete automation of the learning process from start to finish would have some dangerous, dehumanizing implications. We need to remember that posting a child’s performance on the web is not an excuse for not calling home or pulling him aside when performance begins to slip. The notion that everything couldand shouldbe digitized and assessed online could create unnecessary overhead for teachers and force many lessons to take on an artificial and pigeonholed flavor. Additionally, we need to make sure that any such tool is flexible enough for a teacher to design lessons that allow her own personality and teaching style to come across.
A curriculum database such as this doesn’t require any new technology. Web-enabled databases in products such as SQL Server, Oracle, and Lotus Notes have been available for quite a few years. It does, however, require that we re-evaluate our methods of lesson planning and curriculum development. Some evidence that this is happening can be seen in projects such as the Massachusetts Board of Education’s Virtual Education Space (VES) project. Industry leaders also are responding by developing standards of interoperability between school database components, such as the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF).
We, as teachers, need to build on this. We must stop viewing lesson plans as single, discrete components of a curriculum and come to understand them as collections of objectives, procedures (models), and assessment tools that can be mixed and matched to meet a variety of curricular needs. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as individual teachers isolated in our own areas of the curriculum design process and become collaborators in a process that is much bigger than our small corners of the curriculum.