Imagine a world where science teachers in India could swap lesson plans with their counterparts in California, or where students in a rural high school in Nebraska could try their hand at mathematics problems written for an audience halfway across the globe–in China, or Germany, or Italy, for example.

Ten years ago, such academic collaborations would have seemed ridiculous to most classroom educators, many of whom hardly have enough time during a typical day to network with co-workers in their own school buildings, much less cultivate relationships with colleagues hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Thanks to the internet and the evolution of web-based software programs in schools, however, many of those geographic barriers no longer exist. Now, a new online resource has emerged that promises to democratize the process of curriculum development, giving educators the ability to tailor instructional content to the needs of their students, wherever they are, free of charge.

Dubbed the “Wikipedia of curriculum” by its creators, the online community known as Curriki–accessible at www.curriki.org–aims to provide a place online where educators from anywhere in the world can post curricula and lesson plans for review and use by fellow classroom teachers.

Like Wikipedia, the organic online encyclopedia that lets its users edit and update existing entries, Curriki employs a philosophy of open access, encouraging its members not only to use the content available on the site, but also to upgrade it, modify it, and tag it to suit the needs of their students, wherever they are.

The brainchild of Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, Curriki was founded as a way to provide disadvantaged teachers and students around the globe with open and unfettered access to high-quality educational content.

So enamored was McNealy with his vision that he decided to spin the company off from Sun into its own freestanding nonprofit organization. Based in Washington, D.C., the group is led by longtime educational software designer Bobbi Kurshan.

In an interview with eSchool News, Kurshan, whose resume includes work with industry heavyweights Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer, talked about the challenges associated with turning McNealy’s vision into a reality, and particularly with applying the controversial notion of social networking to open curriculum.

In conversations about the project, Kurshan calls Curikki “a dangerous and exciting proposition” for education; exciting, she says, for its ability to revolutionize how educators approach and integrate new learning resources in their classrooms–and dangerous for its potential to shake up the current market for traditional, standards-based curricula in schools.

Because Curriki is a free resource based on an open platform, Kurshan says, the learning materials posted by members of the community to the web site will be accessible to educators anywhere in the world, regardless of their computer’s operating system, as long as they have an internet connection.

That means educators in Germany or England, for example, will be able to post and share resources with the same freedom and ease as teachers in the U.S. or India, wherever they are.

For schools, Kurshan says, the benefits of such a resource are obvious. For one, it gives educators across the globe a chance to review and integrate learning resources beyond those immediately available to them in their own schools or districts; second, she says, Curriki’s open architecture lets participating educators tailor the content to meet the needs of their students; and third, because the resource is free, it gives teachers and students–especially those who hail from rural and disadvantaged communities–access to high-quality educational content at no cost.

At a time when schools everywhere are charged with preparing their students to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy, Kurshan said, the hope is that Curriki will empower “the haves to help the have-nots.”

But Curriki isn’t simply about giving teachers access to more resources–it’s bigger than that, says Kurshan, who believes the site also will help start “a wave of conversations in schools about what it means to be open.”

Open technologies have been widely adopted by colleges and universities for years, she says, but K-12 schools have been slow to catch on. The hope is that open solutions such as Curriki–which makes its source code available for educators to view (though not to edit) online–will help move that trend forward.

Early indications are that, so far, the approach is working.

After celebrating its official launch in October, organizers report that as of press time membership in the online community had ballooned to more than 15,000 registered users, with more educators coming online daily.

Like Wikipedia–currently one of the ten most visited sites on the internet–the reach of an always-on, constantly evolving online community has the power to spread quickly, Kurshan says, adding: “It’s viral.”

Already, parents and teachers have written in to offer their endorsements. William Kaufmann, a parent who has used the site to find learning materials for his two girls, said the site is perfect for parents who want to find additional resources for use at home with their children.

“I could go on and on,” wrote Kaufmann in a letter to the organization. “I am very enthusiastic about this site and its potential.”

But success rarely comes without its share of challenges and, as Kurshan tells it, Curriki–despite its potential–is no exception.

For one, she said, educators and others who use its resources must be willing to accept the fact that Curriki, by its very nature, represents “a work in progress.”

Unlike traditional classroom resources, many of which come store-bought in boxes, packaged with certificates detailing their effectiveness based on results culled from carefully constructed focus groups and control-based research studies, the free-flowing resources featured on Curriki boast no such guarantees.

But that’s precisely the point, says Kurshan. With Curriki, educators can customize the resources featured on the site to fit their needs and those of their students. The real benefit comes in the ability to expose educators to resources they otherwise would never have access to.

Getting educators to buy into the philosophy of open curricula won’t be easy.

For one thing, Kurshan said, educators, especially in U.S. schools, are so bound by state and local standards that integrating any resource into the classroom without prior approval constitutes a risk some might not be willing to take.

Translation also might be a problem. Because the materials submitted to the site can come from educators anywhere in the world, Kurshan said, it’s not unlikely that some resources will include grammatical errors and other mistakes that are the result of language gaps or other cultural misinterpretations.

Rather than shrug those materials off as ineffective or inaccurate, Kurshan said, the community enables its members to weigh the program based on its educational merits and potential. If an instructor finds the pedagogy to be sound, he or she has the ability to update the lesson and modify it to make it work within any given educational system. To help educators navigate the community, organizers are training a group of current and former educators to serve as mentors, whose jobs it will be to help teachers learn to use the resource effectively.

Curriki also is taking steps to make the resources more user-friendly, Kurshan said. As the project evolves, featured curricula will be displayed in a three-tiered system. The first tier will consist of fresh resources not yet reviewed or edited by Curriki curriculum experts. These resources will feature a disclaimer that warns educators to use them at their own peril, said Kurshan.

The second tier will feature only submissions that have been reviewed by Curriki’s curriculum team. In many cases, she said, Curriki reviewers will contact contributors with suggestions about how to tweak and improve their lessons before approving them for use on the site.

The third and highest tier will feature so-called “premiere” curriculum resources that have been validated by the Curriki team after careful consultation with the author.

Like Wikipedia, Kurshan said, Curriki is an evolving online medium, which means that the strength of it resources is dependent upon its ability to cultivate and sustain participation among its users.

As the online community grows, she said, so, too, will the resources featured on Curriki. The more educators who review the materials, the more detailed and effective each resource will become.

“Users have to understand that they are part of a process,” said Kurshan.