Florida adopts open-content reading platform

Tired of investing in expensive textbooks and proprietary software programs, Florida education officials are looking to an open online-learning platform to teach young students basic reading skills.

Advocates of the program say the idea that a public, collaborative, continuously modified online curriculum can be used in the classroom is gaining momentum in schools.

FreeReading.net is a free, sequential, research-based reading intervention program designed for elementary-grade students. Educators are invited to participate in discussion boards; take part in the full, 40-week scope and sequence of lessons; or tailor materials to their students’ individual learning needs.

The site’s content is provided under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License, sometimes referred to as the “wiki” license. This license lets any site visitor copy, share, and distribute the content in any medium, as long as the visitor includes appropriate attribution.

“Schools still spend a huge chunk of their budgets—nationally, approximately seven to eight billion dollars per year—on textbooks and instructional materials. That leaves a much smaller pie that schools must [slice] to purchase formative assessment, professional development, and other initiatives that help teachers do their jobs well,” said Larry Berger, co-founder and chief executive officer of the program’s creator, Wireless Generation.

Berger said he believes FreeReading.net can help free up funding for other services that can improve teaching and learning.

Wireless Generation has created an advisory board of reading researchers who will help guide the site’s evolution. Board members include Fred Carrigg, director of humanities at Middletown, N.J., Public Schools and former special assistant to the commissioner for literacy at the New Jersey Department of Education; Michael Kamil, professor of learning, design, and technology at Stanford University’s School of Education; Barbara Kapinus, senior policy analyst for the National Education Association; Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; and Barbara Taylor, Guy Bond chair in reading at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research.

Joanne Meier, a long-time educator and blogger for Reading Rockets—an educational initiative of WETA, the flagship public television and radio station in Washington, D.C.—said she believes the site provides “terrific resources” for teaching reading skills, including more than 60 activities to teach phonological awareness and even a “Chipmunk Rap.”

FreeReading.net is planning to add vocabulary and reading comprehension resources later this year.

Florida has adopted FreeReading.net on its short list of K-3 supplemental reading programs that schools may use state instructional money to purchase for the 2008-09 school year. This is the first open instructional program to be approved through an official state adoption, officials said.

Berger said Florida’s decision suggests state officials understand how the current practice of K-12 education being “wedded to the traditional model of educational publishing, in which textbooks are updated and reprinted every five to seven years, and schools pay as much as $150 for a single book,” is outdated.

Florida’s decision to adopt FreeReading.net also reflects a national trend toward using open technologies in education.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Richard Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University and founder of the school’s Connexions program, have started the Open Education Movement, which seeks to “represent a natural and inevitable evolution of the educational publishing industry in a way that parallels the evolution of the software industry, the music industry, and the scholarly publishing industry.”

Wales and Baraniuk say their movement is a response to the language barriers presented by all-English textbooks and the fact that many community-college students have to drop out because they can’t afford to pay for textbooks.

“Open education promises to provide children with learning materials tailored to their individual needs, in contrast to today’s ‘off-the-rack’ materials,” they say. “It offers quicker feedback loops that couple student-learning outcomes more directly into content development and improvement. It promises new approaches to collaborative learning that leverage social interaction among students and teachers worldwide.”

The Open Education Movement calls on educators, authors, publishers, and institutions to release their resources openly to the education community, and it urges governments, school boards, colleges, and universities to make open education a high priority. Ideally, taxpayer-funded educational resources should be open educational resources (OERs), it says.

The movement is asking interested parties to sign a declaration pledging their support to OERs. More than 500 educators around the world have signed the declaration since its inception last year.



Open Education Movement

Wireless Generation

Meris Stansbury

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.