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Ask Joshua: Top questions from Week 1

A little more than a week ago, we launched an experimental (and definitely semi-controversial) initiative called Ask Joshua, which allowed teachers from anywhere in the world to run ideas on new and existing for teaching by a high-schooler. While theoretically-flawed sounding, we wanted to experiment and understand what happens. We do think that students are the customers and are the best at communicating whether or not a pedagogical or curricular style worked for them. Unfortunately, over the years, we have built pretty complex models of instruction and curriculum, and have distanced ourselves from our customers. We don’t think students have all the answers, but they definitely can help us teachers ground their planning.

We were very happy to see so many questions trickling in for Joshua, and we have filtered the top ones with Joshua’a answers below:

Ciro Santilli asked:

When I was in school, I hated teachers who gave exercises without solutions…

When I decide I’ve searched for long enough just let me have the answer before I forget the problem!

Dear teachers: students also have the ability of not looking if they want to, did you know that?! =)

Joshua answered:

I suggest breaking up a set of exercises into two groups: the first consisting of easier, routine problems; the second should contain problems that require more time and creativity. Assign the first half of the problem set on the first night, and make solutions (not just answers!) available the following day so students can check their basic understanding of the material before moving to the more difficult problems. Perhaps go over one or two of these problems at the start of this class. Then make the second half of the solutions available on the day that this second problem set is due, giving students enough time to fully process and understand the problems–and hopefully solve them–before they can look at solutions.

One of the pitfalls with waiting too long is that students may forget what aspects of the problems gave them so much trouble, and as a result they will read the solutions less actively and gain less from reading them. Thus I suggest you urge students to review solutions the night following when they are due.

Eder Junior asked:

How to teach the concept of negative numbers. Example: -1, -2, -3 As an example of ludico mode.

Joshua answered:

Positive numbers represent the quantity of an object. Therefore a negative number represents lacking that quantity of the object.

The most practical example of this is debt. Debts are usually written as negative numbers. For instance, if you owe 9 dollars, you have -$9.

You are subtracting something from nothing, which implies that you lack the object you need to complete a specific task. Then, as you acquire that object, you add a positive number to the negative number. When the quantity of the object you need to use up equals the quantity of the object you find/get, you end up with a net gain of 0 units of that object.

Eugenia asked:

Well, being an ESL teacher, I wonder what is the best way to learn a lot of new vocabulary in class and at home?

Joshua answered:

The best way to learn new vocabulary is to ingrain it into memory by reading. Have a novel, magazine, or something along those lines on your desk to read before you go to bed, or in the morning while you enjoy breakfast. Highlight or circle any words you are unfamiliar with. Then, later, go back and reread the text surrounding each unfamiliar word and take a guess as to what it means by analyzing context clues. Finally, look up the words in a dictionary or on a website such as www.dictionary.com to find the correct meaning. More important words are more common, and if you look these up enough times, they will be ingrained in your memory without you sitting memorizing lists of words. It is more fun and less monotonous than memorizing vocabulary lists.

Keep the questions coming! We are loving this.

Student-centered teaching: How to get the most out of the classroom experience

I was just at a conference last week here in Japan, and as conferences go, the speakers were somewhat interesting. The real heart of most conferences is in networking, of course, and sharing great ideas on improving, and making our jobs more efficient, more productive, and easier while at the same time providing a high quality of learning opportunities for students. One thing that I heard at the table I was sitting at, when we were on some down time before the next speaker, and there were about 9 teachers at this table having various types of coffee, was “how to make my class more involved, since discussions usually go nowhere.” The teacher was asking us how to make it more productive, because he said it was like “pulling teeth.” He told me he usually stands in front of the class and merely asks questions about what the students read. Now I’m sure everyone has been to the dentist and knows that it is not always the most enjoyable time one can spend in an afternoon, or anytime of the day for that matter, but the real questions is “how to make the class so inviting that everyone wants to participate.”

Like all great classes, there has to be specific and attainable goals, clear objectives, and absolutely particular standards, so that everyone will be able to learn something and not just offer an opinion willy-nilly (that phrase tells you how old I am.)

Fundamental questions should be asked before every time a teacher wants to have a great class:

  1. What is the real purpose of the class?
  2. What are the roles of the students for the class?
  3. What are the goals and objectives the class are working towards?
  4. What standards should students be working on by participating?
  5. And, the most important, how does one actually enable each and every student to participate when the average class size is reaching 30, 35 and for some classes, 40 students?

So when several people looked at me for my response to this dilemma, I said, “You can’t be standing in front of the class all the time, expecting students to participate when they really have no idea what to say half the time.”

And then I told them of the six- principle system that I use every single class period, and one that I have been using for years. I told them I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a great deal of answers. The key is to be efficient and utilize a more student-centered approach. Just because a teacher says his or her class is student-centered, does not make it so. Students need real autonomy and real responsibility– which I might talk about in my next blog post–to enable them to be fully immersed in the class without having to “buy into” any one teaching approach or philosophy.

The format of my class has very distinct elements that I use on a daily basis, regardless of time, or level. (If the time decreases, I decrease everything proportionately):

  1. The essential question. From the very first moment after the bell rings, I want students to write in one sentence—which is an invaluable formative assessment of their style, diction, syntax and vocabulary. I always have them write one sentence down. Many teachers might throw one out at the class, and then quickly move on to the subject at hand, but that dramatically loses momentum and actual educational impact of the essential question itself, and almost makes the entire purpose of the essential question meaningless. My purpose is to get students thinking of a bigger picture, a more general concept that they can see in their own daily lives. This generally takes anywhere from two to three minutes, allowing for me to randomly call on one or two students This one question allows them to write every class and demonstrate their writing ability in a short timed-writing requirement.

  2. Next is what I like to call my opening activity, or engaging activity. It is usually the only time that I do most of the talking. It is my eight to ten minutes of the class where I tell the students what they will be able to do at the end of the class; what skill they will have mastered by the end of the class; and the particular things they will have to do and need to do. It is like my mini-lesson of the day’s activities. If I need them to analyze, synthesize, understand, remember, create or use, I demonstrate to them exactly how I do it, how they should do it, and it gives them the skills and tools they need to master the content for whatever we are studying. By modelling what they have to do, they know precisely what is expected of them, and the results they should obtain.

  3. I then give them the opportunity to reproduce the activity that I just went over and expect them to accomplish it on their own or in groups. I typically allow them eight to ten minutes for them to get it done. I go around the class helping them individually, answering questions, providing feedback motivating and encouraging. I rarely stay in front of the class. Behind the lectern. Far too many teachers ensconce themselves in the front of the class that it appears they have their moat, and can raise their drawbridge at a given notice.

  4. Right after they finish the activity that everyone has just completed, students are given a more challenging activity. Stronger performing students receive a more challenging activity, while weaker performing students receive only a slightly more challenging activity, and they are usually on their own to complete the assignment without my help. They trust me to let them alone when they need it and to help them when it’s required. Many times, no assistance is required, but I still make my presence felt around the class and offer suggestions or tips to help them along the way. I can also give stronger students more challenging tasks, and give weaker students easier tasks. Their ability throughout the class determines where and when I need to differentiate. This may take 10 to 15 minutes.

  5. Right after their two activities, I give them what I call my Exit Ticket. It is a one or two-question summative assessment about the things we did in class, to see if they can apply what we learned in class and use it successfully. This may take the form of everything from multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, true-false, matching, short answer, or a quick paragraph. Usually, students can complete it in two to three minutes.

  6. Finally, I plan for a one or two-minute reflection, and have them reveal their feelings about the class activities, what they would like to see, and what they would like not to see, the next time we do something like that.

This model has saved me hours and hours of time, energy and resources. It is time that I can use more efficiently to help students achieve more. I spend time working to fill the 10 minutes at the beginning of every class, making exit tickets, and spending more quality time doing the things I love to do, along with teaching. I have built up a great library of openings, activities, and exit tickets that allow me to tweak them a little for different classes, and upgrade their creativity every once in a while.

So rather than stand in front of the class and pepper students with questions for something they may or may not have read and be prepared to discuss, establish a classroom where students have a real opportunity to develop their skills.

Let me know what you think of this. ericpollock@yahoo.com

Addressing Tricky Parts of a Curriculum

One convention of most curricula is to end a “unit” of information with some form of an assessment. While this is pretty much always a great idea, there are inevitably going to be parts of the curriculum that the students as a whole understand better than others. Sometimes these holes can be tricky to anticipate, but there are ways to handle them once they are uncovered.

First of all, the passage of time does not make a concept easier for subsequent classes to understand. If a concept gave one class as a whole a lot of trouble, then chances are the next several classes will also struggle with the topic. Keep this in mind, and consider spending more class time on this particular concept.

Furthermore, it is typical for material to be cumulatively assessed and then not touched upon for a significant amount of time, until it is needed again. While this is structurally logical, consider taking half of a class period after a formative assessment to go over any particularly challenging concepts a second time, to help said concepts stick in your students’ heads. This is particularly important in math and science classes where later material is heavily reliant on earlier material. For instance, how can a chemistry class understand bonding if they don’t understand what valence electrons are? If you have pinpointed a particular topic within a curricular unit that is particularly difficult for your students to understand, odds are more students will miss questions on an assessment that deal with that topic. As you hand back a formative assessment, go over these “most frequently missed” questions with your students as a reinforcement of this particularly challenging material. You may be saving yourself a lot of grief later when your students understand the fundamentals so much better.

What Can We Learn from Science Fairs? – Part II

One of the things my brother’s science teacher is making him do is keep recordings in a logbook of his work. If you are looking to organize a science fair or construct a series of smaller assignments to lead up to a larger project, a logbook can be one of your best friends. Why have students keep a logbook? It can serve three main functions to help both you and the future scientists sitting across from you.

The first of these is, quite frankly, that it is another grade that works towards a student’s final grade. Especially at younger ages, having many graded assignments is important so that no one assessment carries too much weight. Every graded assignment helps to make sure that this is true. Of course this is less important as students get older and take more self-accountability for their learning, but if this is something that worries you, go ahead and make it a part of the final grade for the project and the relevant grading period.

The second purpose of a logbook is so that you can monitor your students’ progress and nudge them along a bit if they are falling behind on work. It gives you a way to keep track of where in the process your students are beyond the students’ memories. If they haven’t done any work for a week, or you are concerned that the students’ chosen techniques are not yielding appropriate data, this is your first warning signal.

Finally, it gives students a form of incentive and organization. They feel inclined to view the logbook as “something else they have to do,” giving them more incentive to take care in how they fill it out. I advise emphasizing how keeping good notes is essential for synthesizing the data collected when the students reach conclusions. If they keep sloppy, confusing, or no notes, they will have nothing to draw from when they go to make conclusions and put together a final presentation (usually involving a poster).

I hope you find this information on utilizing the lab logbook helpful for yourself and your students. My brother hasn’t started his yet, but I will pass this advice onto him when he does, in the near future.

What Can We Learn from Science Fairs?- Part I

My younger brother, who is in 6th grade, is participating in a science fair this year. Of course, as his older brother, I am being looked to for help. So why am I writing about my brother’s intellectual journey here? Science teachers who want to organize science fairs at their own school may benefit from hearing about the process bit by bit as my brother completes his project. Keep in mind that my brother is in middle school so the context is a middle school science fair, though my advice can be adapted to organizing a science fair for a different division. In this article, I will discuss how he is choosing a topic and thus how teachers may be able to guide their students in this process.

Science fairs are designed to give students the opportunity to do two things: to exercise the scientific method, and to study a specific topic they enjoy in-depth, in more depth than would be feasible in a traditional classroom setting. If students do not like the topic they are working with, they will become fatigued and lose the motivation to complete their work. Thus I recommend that the teacher allow his or her students to choose their own topics, with your approval for safety and appropriateness.

My brother happens to be a student-athlete; in particular, he has been playing soccer for about 7 years, and he is pretty skilled with maneuverability. So, the topic he has chosen is investigating which part of the foot can propel a soccer ball the greatest distance. I personally love this topic because it is unique. Plus, I doubt my brother will get sick of studying it before he has to present his findings.

Let me note one more thing about choosing a topic: the topic proposal should come in the form of a question, because the purpose of a science fair project is to learn something new, and the project itself should seek to answer the question proposed. My brother is wording his proposal as follows: “which part of the foot kicks a soccer ball the furthest?”

There are so many more elements to a science fair project that I will get to later, including how these elements tie together to create the scientific method. I am excited to see my brother take this challenge on, and I hope you can see the glow of excitement in your students’ eyes when you announce that your school will be hosting a science fair this year.

The Importance of a Balanced Course Load

You may have a student that complains, “I wanted to have six math classes and nothing else. Math all day is my thing!” But what these students don’t realize is the importance of having balance in a daily schedule. Sure, it’s fine to specialize, but having six math classes a day, even in high school, is overkill.

There are reasons why schools insist on students having balanced course loads. It’s kind of like the academic food pyramid–a balance is essential. Exposure to different academic fields allows different parts of the brain to grow and develop, rather than having all of the growth occur in one part of the brain. It allows us to be more well-rounded individuals, which is much of the reason why classes such as art and music find their way into school curricula in addition to “core” subjects such as history and science.

There is also the fear of burnout at any age, and is why all high schools and even most colleges carry some form of a core curriculum (many colleges now use a type of core curriculum called distribution requirements, which allow for some student choice while maintaining the idea of a balanced schedule). A brain, especially one that is young and still developing, is prone to being overly taxed if it is overloaded on one subject in a single sitting. Giving students shorter chunks of classes in different subject areas gives them more variety and makes burnout much harder. Do note that, however, there is no issue with schools allowing students to take two science courses or two foreign languages concurrently in high school. This is generally not sufficient to cause burnout, and it promotes deeper study in an area of particular interest to the student. This flexibility also fosters the development of learners and thinkers that specialize in different areas, leading to different job opportunities that each person is best qualified for.

Finally, the balanced course load approach also better prepares students for their futures. Why? Because many careers are multidisciplinary in nature. One of the most obvious examples is the group of engineering careers, which require a combination of math, science, and computer science in some cases. Some other careers combine other fields. Economists use a combination of history and mathematics to do their work. And most of all, many, many careers are writing-intensive, making a strong writing foundation very important for students to obtain through English classes up until they graduate from high school, and usually past that milestone, too.

Fulfill your teaching cravings with some Yummy(math) MARS!

Who’s hungry for some extraterrestrial math? For if you are in raising your hand right now, we have some great news for you!

Based on your amazing suggestions, we are now introducing ~30 real life math lessons from Yummymath and 100+ highly-aligned and assessment focused math lessons from MARS’s (Mathematics Assessment Resource Service) Mathematics Assessment Project inside OpenCurriculum’s CCSS Mathematics library. Thanks to the authors of the content, every lesson has very carefully been crafted and tagged to standards to ensure solid coverage, while not compromising one bit on highest levels of creativity.

Subscribe to MARS and Yummymath today for being in the loop on all their future updates and conversations – it’s only going to get better! Also look forward to more amazing lessons and activities from publishers you love and adore in the coming months.

A big thanks to Brian Marks from Yummymath for working closely with us to make this happen!

My Story of Global Teaching-Part II

While my work with the summer camp with American and Chinese students was a great opportunity for me to practice my teaching, it complements my work with OpenCurriculum in another way as well: it stands by a large part of the reason why I work for OpenCurriculum.

OpenCurriculum’s mission statement is to provide academic resources to be used in K-12 schools across the world. The italicized part is the most important in this scenario, because I had a chance to directly distribute my knowledge and teaching abilities to another part of the world. It is highly unlikely that I will be able to travel to China anytime soon, so I got to see firsthand what impact I was having on remote communities, and it is safe to say that it is a positive one.

All of the students thanked me for the time I had served helping them open their eyes to the true beauty of science, only reassuring that my work and effort are appreciated. It is things like that that keep me motivated to keep doing work for OpenCurriculum. Sure, it’s one more thing I can put on my college application, but when I take a step back and observe what difference I’ve made in the larger, international community, the satisfaction of helping others greatly exceeds the satisfaction of helping myself.

My Story of Global Teaching-Part I

Alongside writing content for OpenCurriculum, I also spent some time putting my teaching abilities to practice with another, very different activity. Between July 15 and July 25, I spent my mornings in school, but not as a student. Rather, I was serving as an assistant to my chemistry teacher for a special camp. A group of 6th-8th graders within my school joined a group of 8th graders who flew into Pittsburgh from Beijing. My task was to assist my teacher with preparing lab experiments and helping the students to execute them. Overall this was a great experience that combines my passions for STEM subjects and teaching.

The purpose of this group of blog posts is twofold: one, I will discuss some of the teaching techniques I picked up over the course of the camp. The other purpose is to discuss the impact that a global outreach activity such as this one can have.

One of the major themes that the lead counselor emphasized was that he wanted to spend a minimal amount of time lecturing. Rather, he felt that the campers would be better off performing experiments to see how scientific principles worked in action, not just on a whiteboard. That being said, he needed to give the campers a little bit of background to make sure everybody had the knowledge they needed to understand what they saw when they performed the experiments. For instance, he had to ensure everybody was familiar with what a precipitate was before the campers set up and completed a chemistry activity. From there, it was up to the campers to identify when precipitates formed and identify what chemicals were the precipitates, alongside a number of other objectives.

This was a smart approach as success in the field with research requires field experience, obviously. Sure, a student may have fifty reactions involving calcium carbonate memorized, but if they’ve never seen a sample of it up close, that information will only go so far.

The takeaways for the campers are much different as opposed to the case where the head instructor lectured for two and a half hours every day on a new scientific topic. For that matter, the takeaway would have likely been much smaller, as very few students of age 13 have the attention span to endure a lecture of that length.

In the second part of this article, I will discuss the cultural impact of this camp and why it nicely complements my work with OpenCurriculum.

The Importance of Tying Concepts Together

Students may be frustrated to learn information as isolated bundles of facts without seeing the bigger picture. The younger the students are, the harder it will be for them to make those connections themselves, so it is likely that the students would benefit from some teacher guidance here.

In history classes, for instance, different battles likely worked together to give the full effect of a longer-term war. If students just try to memorize the time of each battle and who was involved independently, they will likely struggle, as there is no “faster” way to remember the information. As a teacher, it would be a good idea to ensure students understand the larger, big-picture conflict, namely why the war began, what the motives were for fighting, etc. Students can then draw on this conceptual base as they try to learn facts about individual battles. Let the history come out as a story; that will make it much easier for students to remember details.

In a STEM class, the way in which concepts unify is somewhat different. If students get enough practice doing problems, the ways by which concepts, equations, and theories can be combined to solve difficult problems will become ingrained in their minds. Consider viewing another blogpost of mine for more details on this matter: http://blog.opencurriculum.org/dont-just-learn-it-practice-it/. I encourage teachers to demonstrate a lot of examples in their classes, and indicate explicitly where key concepts are being used and why. This routine, if exercised by a teacher, should become natural fairly quickly.

Giving students bigger-picture ideas gives them the neural foundation by which to remember smaller details more accurately and quickly. The exact techniques used to do this varies by subject and the age of your students, but the same conceptual framework can be applied to a wide variety of classroom scenarios.

The Difference Between Review Guides and Review Problem Sets

In classrooms, oftentimes the terms “review guide” and “review problem set” are used interchangeably. That being said, the two terms actually mean different things and have different purposes. This article helps to remove this misnomer by defining what each term really means.

A review guide, as the name suggests, is designed to give students a methodology for studying for an assessment, giving one possible progression for remembering information. The information is usually provided in a well-organized way, perhaps in the same order that the information was taught the first time. The review comes in the form of statements, rather than questions. It typically summarizes the information provided in a greatly condensed form. Note that these are just outlines and students will need to refer back to notes or their textbooks to look for specific details.

A review problem set, on the other hand, allows students to review by answering questions. This type of handout gives students an idea of what types of questions to expect on the actual test. Unlike review guides, review problem sets may also be accompanied by an answer key. Suggest that students work through the problems on a review problem set for a day or two, and then distribute an answer key so they can check their answers. If you worry about students just looking at answers once you distribute the answer key, you can also have them turn in completed review problem sets before you hand them answer keys on an individual basis. However, this can be logistically tricky in larger classes, so be sure to keep track of who has shown you a completed problem set.

Either a review guide or a review problem set can be a helpful tool for students to study for tests, and in some cases it may be wise to create both. Cater your decision to the age of your students and the subject/topic you are teaching; review problem sets translate to open-ended questions for a history class, for example. Just make sure you’re clear on what you’re asking for when you hand the paper(s) to your students.

Advice on Making Review Guides-Part II

Some teachers like to make their own review guides, while some may prefer letting students make their own review guides. This latter option, however, while sometimes quite effective, has its own drawbacks. If you are considering this technique for your classroom, consider reading this article as an exercise of caution.

The first occasion where using the technique student-made review guides may fall flat is where they can’t be made in the first place. That is, some students are too young to be able to grasp creating problems in such a formal manner. Using this technique with younger [elementary school] students will likely require more teacher input and guidance. For instance, perhaps give them a context and let them fill in the numbers. Here is an example of this technique aimed at elementary school teachers and their students: http://www.opencurriculum.org/9555/counting-money-student-problem-customization/.

The second occasion where using this technique can be problematic is where students lack the motivation to take time to carefully compose a review guide for themselves. To resolve this problem, I suggest making it an additional graded assignment in addition to or in lieu of a review problem set. When a student realizes his or her grade is directly at stake (as opposed to indirectly), they will give it the same amount of attention as any other assignment. To further excite the students, consider making it a group assignment. Pair students up and give them class time to make a joint list of concepts with which they struggle. Then, outside of class, they can work collaboratively to create problems and/or questions that require an understanding of the concepts that give them difficulty.

After a few days, have the students turn in their review guides for a grade, where you evaluate them on effort, quality, and depth. If you are a math teacher, encourage students to make word problems, letting them flush out their creativity and have a little more fun with the assignment.

In general, studying should be a proactive exercise on behalf of the students. Putting more of the absorption of the material in the students’ hands is a great way to do this, provided they are up for the challenge and have proper teacher guidance along the way.

Advice on Making Review Guides - Part I

When a test or quiz approaches in your class, you may be tempted to create a review guide for your students to use for studying. The process of a review guide being made can still be carried out, but preferably by the students. Making one review guide for all students may not give students the best possible help, since some students understand some topics better than others. That being said, it can be effective for students to identify what they need help with.

There is one other, slightly different option, however, if you are tired with the “normal” way of prompting students to review for tests.

You could try asking students make their own review guides because they know better than anybody else what they struggle with. The teacher may have a general idea of where these weaknesses lie, but even in smaller classes, this may be where having students create their own review guides may be advantageous. This is because they have to ask themselves what they need to review again in order to know what to review–it’s actually quite intuitive. As they search for the materials they need to build their own review guides, they will be reviewing the information before a final product is complete without even knowing it! This way, they will have a head start on their studying when they sit down with a finished review guide. And more importantly, the time they’ve already begun to invest in studying has been spent reviewing what they still don’t understand.

In the second part of this article, I will elaborate on places where teachers should be careful when exercising this technique. It is not always the best option, so it is important to pick the method that best suits your class.

Making Learning Meaningful Through Self-Discovery, Part III

As I said earlier in Part II, letting students discover laws and properties for themselves, particularly in STEM classes, is an important part of their learning process. It is a student’s way of learning the how in addition to the what. In this conclusion of this three-part article, I will cover the two examples I touched on briefly in Part II in greater detail. Feel free to use the methods presented here as suggestions for how to approach teaching the specific lessons I am presenting.

The first of these examples is a method by which to allow students to discover the Law of Conservation of Mass for themselves. Let’s say they want to prepare chemicals for a reaction. Now, the mass of the reactants should be the same as the mass of the products. Let them measure the mass of the reactants and the container used separately, then they should execute the reaction. Let the reaction go to completion. To ensure it has gone to completion, it is best to use a reaction that has easily visible evidence. However, be aware not to use a reaction that produces gas, because that gas has mass too, and some of it will escape, tricking students into believing that the Law of Conservation of Mass does not hold.

Once this is done for one reaction, the end mass should be roughly equivalent to the starting mass. Performing this experiment for one reaction alone is not sufficiently convincing–it shows that the Law of Conservation of Mass holds specifically for that reaction. Now is the time to replicate the experiment with different reactions involving different chemicals. They can be single-replacement reactions, double-replacement reactions, etc. It doesn’t really matter as long as none of the products are gaseous. After four or five such reactions students should be convinced that the Law of Conservation of Mass holds for all chemical reactions, even if one of the reactants is in excess.

To achieve the same intellectual benefit in a math classroom, however, a protocol more along the lines of a proof is more reasonable (it depends to some extent on the topic, of course). As long as the students can clearly understand each step of the proof, they will be convinced not only that the statement you are proving it is true, but why it is true. Furthermore, proofs often require the synthesis of previously taught concepts.

One of my favorite examples of this technique is the proof of trigonometric identities. I have written some proofs that demonstrate the step-by-step process and knowledge of other identities. See them here: http://www.opencurriculum.org/user/joshua/files/proofs-of-trigonometric-identities/. However, it is not sufficient to print these up, distribute them to your students, and have them read the proofs in solitude. At least initially, you should go over the proofs in detail with students. They should understand every step, as if they miss one tiny detail, their understanding of the entire problem falls apart. After doing some examples in class, let the students try their hand at writing proofs themselves (preferably in paragraph form over two-column form).

With these two examples in mind, the same conceptual framework can be applied to many different topics in STEM. When live demonstrations are not feasible due to safety or the amount of preparation required, Youtube is your best friend. Chances are the principle you want to demonstrate can be viewed online.

Make Learning Meaningful Through Self-Discovery, Part II

Now that you, as a teacher, are aware of the benefits of learning through self-discovery, the question arises of how to distinguish this teaching model from more conventional ones you may be using. Here I will cover some advice I’ve picked up from being on both the student and teacher sides of the situation.

In traditional teaching molds, the teacher is in charge of the learning. You tell your students directly what they need to know. However, this leaves a gap of how that knowledge came to be: why it is true, how you can prove it, and so forth. This is something that, with proper preparation by the teacher, can be easily accomplished. The key is to identify what the students can teach themselves without knowing anything related to the topic you want them to understand. Note that this topic mostly applies to STEM subjects; students can’t really discover history on their own without time machines, but you can always challenge them to make predictions on new material!

Anyway, back to the treatment of STEM subjects. For students to teach themselves, you must set them up to discover something on their own. This may be a mathematical formula (such as the Quadratic Formula) or a physical principle (such as Ohm’s Law). Students should be convinced that some idea holds true either through empirical data or a rigorous mathematical argument.

Empirical data “discovery” techniques are best used in science classes. One concept this can be used on is the Law of Conservation of Mass. Have students weigh two reactants for a reaction separately, then let them combine the reactants to achieve the desired reaction. As long as there are no gaseous products, the students will be able to see that the resulting mix of chemicals has the same total mass as the products they started with! Make sure they do this with several different reactions so they see that the idea being proposed holds not just in one scenario.

When guiding students through rigorous proofs, however, you must be careful that they are not too involved. Overly complicated proofs will drain the attention spans of the students and they will forget the process you are trying to get them to figure out. These proofs should not involve more than about four steps of algebra so they remain relatively simple. Make them aware of what their “end goal” is: what they are trying to prove. Perhaps give them a starting point for where to begin performing computations, such as another statement they already [should] know is true. As these proofs often take some ingenuity to design, such “discovery” activities are best done in groups. I will cover ways for teachers to guide collaboration in Part III.

Announcing ‘Home’, and a free Common Core math lesson library

Yesterday, we introduced video lesson remixing on OpenCurriculum. But what is remixing content of any use without great content in the first place? I’m psyched to announce OpenCurriculum Home, a window into all great lesson planning and other curricular content for K-12 teachers. While we hope to grow into every single subject out there, we are welcoming you Home with some mathematics appetizers. As a part of this release, we are also releasing of a free (and mostly open source) Common Core math curriculum library of over 5k materials – this is huge! This is one of the largest mathematics K-12 content collections EVER – and it being well-curated makes it all the more special.

Going into the math library, you will find excellent activities from Illustrative Mathematics and Mathalicious, entire amazing lessons from EngageNY and Dan Meyer, exercises from Khan Academy and a lot more. All this content is organized by Common Core standards, ranked by popularity and type, and very easily sortable and filtered.

However, probably the most important parts of this library are ones that you might miss if you don’t focus too hard. In any of these curated sets of content, anyone is allowed to post their lessons for the community – and increasingly popular content surfaces to the top. There is also a community Q&A section where you can make specific requests for resources that you are unable to find on the listings. For the first couple of weeks, we guarantee a less than 24 hour response time by someone in our team who will dig up resources you need to get your lesson ready.

We truly hope you enjoy this! Like always, waiting to hear from you at hello [at] opencurriculum [dot] org.

Varun, Joshua, Z, Kathy, Shailin

UPDATE 07/29/14: We forgot, but now would like to extend our big thank you to several of the teachers who gave us tremendous amounts of insight in building the product. Some of the people we would like to highlight include: Bridget Mason, Daniel Schneider, Kristin Johnson, Nathan Kraft, Andrew Stadel, Monique Jeffers, Elizabeth Hodges, Susan Creenan, Sarah Hagan, Fawn Nguyen.

Introducing: Video lesson remixing with EDpuzzle

I am thrilled to share with you our partnership with education technology company EDpuzzle, which allows you to remix any video lesson content on OpenCurriculum. You may remember that until now we only offered you the ability to remix non-multimedia content using our Google-docs like WYSIWYG editor – but now we are opening remix functionality on all our video content and video YouTube or Vimeo video content that you choose to import (through its URLs) into your folders. Clicking on the Remix button on any video instantly takes you into an easy-to-use video editor where you can add your own voice annotations, trim the video, and even add Q&A for your students! All this. For now, we haven’t made a way to bring back this remixed content back into OpenCurriculum (apart from general HTML embedding) – but we are positive to bring this functionality in the future based on your interest.

Big thanks to team EDpuzzle: Quim, Xavi, Jordi and Santi for an amazingly speedy integration and excitement around this.

Make Learning Meaningful Through Self-Discovery, Part I

Some teachers opt to take the approach of training students to memorize a bunch of facts or equations without allowing them to explore why they are true or how they relate to each other. This can make the students’ job more difficult as now they must attempt to memorize each piece of information as a discrete unit. In this case, the student has no basis of connection, but it also becomes boring for the student to memorize information in this manner. Plus, with an exhausted mind, the student will likely forget much of what he or she tried to cram once its short-term use [for taking a test] has expired.

I took Chinese for four years between middle school and high school and at one point my Chinese teacher shared a cool analogy with me that gave me a suggested way to continue my studies, so I will share it now, because it is perfectly applicable to this teaching misstep. She said at that point that my grammar was very strong, that my house had a solid infrastructure. Now, according to her, the next step was to start decorating it, learning more words that could be used in all the grammar structures I had come to understand. The point I am trying to make is that one cannot decorate a house without having a house. In a classroom setting, that means students cannot expand their problem-solving and critical thinking skills when all they have are seemingly independent facts floating through their minds. They may have all of the pieces of the house laid out, but now it is your task, as a teacher, to show students the blueprint for putting the house together.

Once you realize that it is easier for students to synthesize knowledge after giving them a bit of guidance on how facts tie together to form concepts, the students’ learning capabilities will greatly increase. All that remains is the question, “How do I make my teaching as meaningful as possible?” I will cover this question in part II.

Don’t Just Learn It, Practice It!

Students of all ages often fall into the trap of thinking that they understand material as soon as their teacher is through with explaining how to do a problem related to said concept. Really, a student can easily look at another’s work and automatically nod, “I understand what is going on” with each step, but do they truly understand? Would they be able to replicate the steps on a similar problem by themselves?

Perhaps. But one can never know this for sure until they’ve actually gotten a chance to do so. Even if they can replicate another’s steps a single time, there is a differentiation between knowing and understanding that must be made. If one knows a procedure, it merely means they can robotically replicate the procedure for a different problem as long as no wrenches are thrown in. But once the person that knows a procedure is presented with a problem where the verbatim procedure they learned does not work, they feel defeated, frustrated, and helpless. The person who knows material is inflexible in their approach to solving problems, and that is never a good thing. However, students may not realize this until they are in college if previous teachers don’t allow students to test their flexibility and adaptability when solving problems. It is suggested that you evaluate the formatting of assignments you give to your students, as you may be able to improve their intellectual profit for completing your assignments.

Here is an analogy for the above situation: you hand your student a rock and tell him that he can shatter glass with it. He proceeds to shatter ten pieces of glass with the rock. Then you take him to a site filled with lava. With no other option previously presented to him, the student throws his rock at the lava, hoping it will “break” the lava. He is shocked and disappointed to see that the lava just eats up the rock. If you don’t tell the student to try digging for a hose to extinguish the lava, then you may have missed giving your student one of the tools he needs.

One who understands material, on the other hand, can manipulate the underlying concepts to achieve so much more than the student who merely knows material. Then the question arises, “how do we get students to go from knowing material to understanding material?” The answer may surprise you because it is so simple: practice. And when I say practice, I advise that you do not present a worksheet with twenty problems that are essentially identical. There are two disadvantages to this practice: one, students will eventually get bored of rote repetition and will subconsciously “tune out,” defeating the purpose of giving the assignment in the first place. The second disadvantage is that such assignments make students think that completing math problems is a one-dimensional science, whereas in reality it is a multidimensional art.

Thus part of your job as a teacher is to prepare students to face this reality as they advance in their academic careers. Assignments should contain a wide variety of problems where the exact chain of steps required to solve a problem is seldom reused. This allows students to exercise their creativity and critical thinking skills from early on, and trains them to be flexible while problem-solving, rather than robotic.

One of the best ways to do this is by putting problems into context. Disguising math problems as real-world scenarios gives students practice performing computations like non-word problems do, but they also have to set up equations themselves, which serves as a check for students as to whether they understand the underlying concepts and have not merely memorized equations. Believe me, studying mathematics in real life is about a lot more than memorizing equations. Having participated in math competitions for five years, I know that problems require a vast array of applications of fundamental concepts to be solved, and this same idea extends to other disciplines as well. The ideal math curriculum should prepare students for this, the real world, by promoting understanding and ingenuity. Those are the qualities that have allowed many famous mathematicians and scientists have risen from the ashes; try not to make it harder for your students to be the next of these!

Want to help us protect our Internet freedom?

Friends, Teachers, Internet(wo)men,

Lend me your ears. Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear. Today, we are under threat. The past 20 years have been huge in the world of communication around the world – primarily because it has given each one of us a freedom that we previously never had – and it’s called the Internet. It has improved our lives in far too many ways to try to elucidate – and it’s become a freedom we have all taken for granted. It’s a freedom millenials don’t know how to live without. A freedom is more than being able to access a new form of liberation – it is the ability to have the choices of opportunities. And boy has the Internet given us opportunities. We have built knowledge over it, our social lives revolve around it, and many of us don’t remember the last time we visited an electronics store to purchase something.

Entire economies depend on its founding principles of openness, and OpenCurriculum couldn’t exist without inherent faith in the purity and innocence of this medium. There is just no argument around openness when its distribution is like a water faucet whose flow is not democratically controlled and determined.

Yet, here we are, where the stupidities and ignorance of the greedy is dragging us into a hole we might never be able to get out from. For these past few months the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has been very seriously deliberating and moving forward on new rules on network neutrality that allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to discriminate amongst internet traffic. Yes, this is a different form of slavery – and what’s different is that you and us are going to get pretty severely affected in a time when man is not too far from discovering life on other planets.

Anyways, John Oliver from HBO does a much better job of explaining this:

What we are doing about this

We are beginning by not tolerating any of this. Last week, triggered by Alexis Ohanian and eventually assisted by the very amazing Marvin and Lavon Ammori of the Ammori Group, we filed an FCC comment opposing these new set of changes.

What you can do

The open internet has definitely given us power to share URLs – so before it goes away, read what CodeCombat suggests you could to save us from an Internet catastrophe.

Please act now. Time is running out!

Now, you can do the obvious

Thanks to a complaint from @coreyrobinson, we decided to allow users to do the obvious: view and change their personal profile / preferences. We have started simple, so go ahead and try out accessing your preferences here or through the menu on the top toolbar.

This is the power of user feedback on our site. If something bothers you, just send us a message. We will resolve it sooner than you think!

Teacher spotlight: Ms. Mason + her weekly lesson plan template

Ms. Bridget Mason, a high school geometry teacher originally from Chicago and now teaching in Philadelphia, isn’t your average math teacher. Her set of highly effective activities & engagement tricks inside and outside the classroom, accompanied by her sheer passion about everything she does around school, make her the role model for every young teacher in the school district. I still remember talking to her for the first time – it was around 2:30am her time (with a school day the next morning) and she wouldn’t give me any less than the most insightful perspectives into her best practices and early learning as a teacher. This week, she decided to do something special – she decided to share her to-the-point weekly lesson planning template that helps her “visualize the entire week”. And we have done the bare minimum of paying it forward by allowing any of you to build off of that (details below the interview).

We caught up with Ms. Mason to learn about her pro-tips for new teachers and exactly learn how she turned her “exhausting” planning process into a far more effective and smarter process:

OC: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ms. Mason: “Teacher” was never on a list of professions that seriously interested me until I began running a volunteer program that brought college students in to work at city high schools. I loved running the volunteer program, but thought that I might enjoy teaching because my favorite part of the volunteer program was interacting with the high school students. After a year working in public schools, I went through an alternative certification program that allowed me to student teach over the summer, take a month-long crash course in educating, and start teaching in the fall while taking graduate courses at night. It seemed like a convenient concept at the time, but in retrospect, I would have been better off with a lot more preparation. I arrived at my first school, certified to teach high school science in a classroom for children with special needs. When I got there, they had different plans: I taught two levels of English, Algebra 1, Remedial math, and Health as a first-year teacher. After that year, I decided I most enjoyed teaching Math, so I took the test to become a certified math teacher and have been teaching just Algebra and Geometry for the past four years.

OC: How do you plan your lessons? What do you consider in trying to make them engaging and effective?

Ms. Mason: Lesson-planning has always been a challenge for me. I am most effective as a teacher when I’m prepared, but I get caught up in the details and planning a single lesson sometimes turns into an hours-long process. When I started teaching, I would plan day-by-day every night. It was exhausting and ineffective. After another teacher suggested that I try to start planning for the whole week, I tried it out and found that it worked well for me to have a week-long set of learning objectives, a pre-made assessment for the end of the week or the set of objectives, and adjust the specifics of the plans day by day depending on whatever variables happened to be in play (student misunderstanding, poor attendance, snow days, sick days, etc). Having a chunk of objectives to tackle in a week and an assessment to which I align my instruction and practice work has made a world of difference in student performance. I definitely still have those lessons that take hours of forethought and prep, but now a far more sustainable number of them.

OC: What are your favorite tools (websites, software, non-digital tools) in the planning process?

Ms. Mason: Honestly? Screen shot. I teach primarily Geometry this year and don’t think the textbook that is available through my district is the best resource for myself or my students. After an unsuccessful year of trying to use the provided textbook as our primary class resource, I’ve tracked down digital versions of half a dozen different geometry books, powerpoint presentations and practice activities of other teachers, and math tutoring websites. I pick through everything to find the examples and practice and activities I want, and instead of having to recreate things, I just take a picture, save it to my desktop, and insert it onto a powerpoint or handout.

Also, I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve started to think that Pinterest is an excellent resource. Lots of the stuff available is more on the elementary side, but there are some great project ideas that I’ve used outright, or modified to make them more appropriate for my students. If you haven’t yet, check it out.

And students. My kids never hesitate to tell me if they don’t understand something, don’t like a way I teach something, or have a better idea for how the class can understand or practice a concept. Though I haven’t yet figured out a way to accommodate daily requests for “survivor jeopardy,” scavenger hunts, spaghetti projects, and carousel competitions, I haven’t yet found a student who has lied about a way he or she DID want to learn. When I can figure out a way to make accommodations of the above sort, it’s often a good bit of extra time and effort, but I almost always get that same extra time and effort from my students in return.

OC: What do you like most about OpenCurriculum?

Ms. Mason: The only way I’ve improved as a teach has been through collaborative efforts, whether with students, administrators, or other teachers. School days are a crazy whirlwind from 8am to 3pm, and I rarely have time to observe or interact with other teachers during the course of the school day. Additionally, many teachers don’t have time to observe me, and a lot of them have other jobs after school and aren’t available after the mad rush is over. I love the idea of OpenCurriculum as a space where educators can collaborate, including time outside of the school day, so that we can get and give feedback that will inevitably benefit our practice and the learning of our students.

OC: Give a little bit of a rational behind your weekly lesson planning template.

Ms. Mason: Like I said earlier, lesson planning is kind of a challenge. The weekly planner helps me visualize the entire week and be realistic about what material I should expect to cover with my classes. It also forces me to succinctly identify objectives and the steps I need to take to ensure that my students reach those objectives.

OC: What would be your one pro tip for new teachers?

Ms. Mason: Take care of yourself. Don’t skimp on sleep or healthy eating. There’s a huge difference between being hungry and sleep-deprived, and being hungry and sleep-deprived while in charge of educating/entertaining hundreds of teenagers for the next 7 hours. If you’re miserable, your students will know it and they will be miserable with you. [I made the picture a few years ago and most of my colleagues agreed it was pretty accurate: It's inevitable that your first year will be supremely difficult and you'll probably find yourself feeling less competent/less confident/less a capable adult than you ever thought you could (see picture), but whenever you get a chance, try to be good to yourself. Eat a vegetable and take a nap.]

(end of interview)

And now, we introduce some glimpses of Ms. Mason’s template:

How to start using it right now? Create an account or login with your existing account, go to ‘Files’, ‘Create New’ -> ‘Lesson’ and select the ‘Weekly Planner’ template. Enjoy!

How to make a backwards lesson plan

Understanding by Design and UbD are registered trademarks of ASCD and the sample lesson was created by Grant Wiggins. We thank them for releasing this framework to the world.

7-minute lesson planning

I am excited to share some new features which will allow you to drastically reduce the amount of time you spend in planning your lessons (we think its going to come down to 7 minutes per plan – do correct us if we are wrong). This comes with the ability to not just place these template-based lessons in folders, as was always possible before, but also inside Units, a new concept we are releasing with this planning update. Here is what it looks like:

This is a very early version of these features, and we are looking to constantly improve this, so if you have any feedback or suggestions (based on the video or after you try it out), drop me an email at @opencurriculum.org. There is a lot of amazing things that can be done at this point with these features to take them to the next level, and your advice/thoughts will actually be the most consequential in the process.

Get pulled…by our articles

I remember reading it all the way home after finishing up another semester of college. Vivid words, sharp connotations, and a diction I wish was my own. I sat on the couch and continued reading, and when my mother wanted to fix up the chairs, I sat on the floor with it still in my hands – I didn’t want to let it go. I had heard many things of Toni Morrison’s writing, her book Beloved was exceptionally written and I was glued to every page. But I am not writing this to praise Beloved or Toni’s unique style, or provide my own annotations as to what happened to Beloved, but rather, I am amazed at the Toni Morrisons working in Content at OpenCurriculum, creating that same pull for others in concepts.

You don’t see climactic events happening in the Pythagorean Theorem or in analyzing primary resources, but what you do see is hard work and understanding. Writing is hard, and writing an article explaining a concept is even harder. Intelligent individuals such Josh Siktar and Andy Minton (go Content team!) work diligently in formulating the right words to make sense of theories and events. Simply being part of long email chains with ideas blossoming, you gain an appreciation for all books and written resources. You realize that you learned so much in high school than you originally thought (and believe me, it is A LOT!). This also makes you feel bad about all the textbooks you never read entirely (which, in my case, are also a lot!). The way education culminates and builds upon itself is hard to show, and even harder to get people to see and pulled in, but we try anyway. And we try hard.

One of the craziest things that I’ve discovered working in Content is that just as we devote our time and energy into creating that “AHA! I get this!” moment for a student, so many teachers have done the same in the OER space, juggling their class curriculum and their own article inventions. There are tons of Toni Morrisons out there with spectacular content but they are so hard to find. Coming into Content, I didn’t think there would be a problem finding materials because everything can be found with Google, right? Well, not quite. So many things are buried within so many different sites and layers within a site, and really, who goes beyond the first few pages of the search results anyway? After a few pages and a few hours of research, I end up wishing everything was at one place…and then I realize that is exactly what OpenCurriculum is doing.

Knowing that we are working on making content easier to find and enjoy for all students and teachers makes this job all the more rewarding. Now everyone can get pulled to the stories of the many Toni Morrisons at OpenCurriculum! And hey, the more the merrier! I love Toni Morrison(s).

Print is Alive!

My fascination with print started early. As a young boy living at the edge of a jungle in Nepal, I would sometimes find a candy wrapper with a different language written on it. There weren’t many man-made objects around, so finding a shiny plastic or exotic paper with colors and letters on it was always fascinating to me.

As a boy, I was fortunate enough to attend good schools, where my love for reading was born. I read everything I could find, scanning words, examining the various sizes and colors of books, and fingering the various papers.

Some books were made of crude rice papers with fibers, and my interest would be heightened by corners that were torn, folded, curled, or even burned, which made turning each page a joy.

I possessed no book of my own until I was eight. It happened one day after school, when two oddly dressed women — Franciscan nuns, as it turned out — were handing out Bibles to children. While religious proselytizing was regarded with suspicion by the village, and talking to nuns and such was considered unsafe, I was nonetheless eager to have my own book. I brought the forbidden loot home, hid it, and read it as best l as I could.

Turning fish and loaves into an unlimited food supply didn’t seem so far from the deeds of Krishna to me, so I was unsure what all the worry was about. I continued to read, without understanding much, but it was my Own Book, my very own to read. The book even had pictures! It made me happy just to sit somewhere and read my book.

It wasn’t until I came to the US in 1989 at the age of 13 that I discovered what having real access to books could be like. Though our family was poor, my parents attended classes at a local university, and I spent much of my teen years in the library. There I found solitude and answers to nearly any question I could think of. There seemed to be millions of books — and countless thousands of topics — to browse and read and learn from. Just a short time before, back in Nepal, I had been nearly starving for the written word!

Many years (and thousands of books) later, members of my family had the chance to bring Kindles and other ereaders to a Nepali village school through Rukmini Foundation. (The foundation bears the name of my great grandmother, widowed at the age of twenty, who through courage and foresight managed to provide an education for her only son.)

Once the devices were distributed, problems became obvious. What is in them? What do we do with them when there’s no electricity? How do we get internet access? Such questions pressed — as a pile of books sat torn, old and unused in the corner of one room. That was the school’s library, and it contained only a handful of tattered books that matched neither their needs nor interests.

Currently, around the world, including the U.S., there are hundreds of millions of students who do not have textbooks. Many more millions of students live where neither electricity nor Internet access are options. These students will need books — so they too can feel the joy of turning pages, being surprised, and feeling captivated by words, images and ideas.

Long live print!

Announcing OpenCurriculum

Today, I have some great news to share with you. It gives me great pleasure to announce the launch of OpenCurriculum: our online platform to create, access and share K-12 learning content. OpenCurriculum is the product of two years of work driven by a vision of open, collaborative, and free educational content for all.

This is a follow-up to our official launch / demo day event at the Hub, San Francisco, end of last week, where we were judged as the venture with the biggest impact. Just one look at what we have created easily explains why.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty product details and features, I want to talk about the significance of the launch in the context of moving open K-12 education forward. 2-and-a-half years ago, I made a very strong commitment to opening up K-12 curricular content creation and distribution, coming in with a very strong belief in democratization and freedom in education in development of society. Fortunately, there were some amazing models and ecosystems to tap into, like open source software, Wikipedia, Mozilla and the OER movement, to discover patterns and best practices, alongside discovering opportunities to fill gaps. We have worked hard so far, with very limited resources, to stay true to our mission of bringing openness and innovation to K-12 education. Today, I am psyched to bring you into this vision as we open our doors to the community! All this means more discovery and access to better educational materials, more authentic local educational discussions and more & easier emergence and dissemination of ideas and best practices.

Today’s launch will reveal many new features within OpenCurriculum. I’d like to personally walk through some of my favorite ones:

Create and share to YOUR heart’s “content”

Screenshot at 2013-08-06 18:28:50Beginning today, we are not only bringing resources to the platform ourselves, but we are making it easier and easier for you to bring and share your resources with the your friends and the world. With the introduction of user profiles and user resources & collections, it has never been easier to create new worksheets, and quizzes/tests, and lesson plans. Apart from having very streamlined interfaces to create / import these materials from scratch, you can now bring in existing content you have from your Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive and 6 other sources. Use collections to organize all these materials, either for your personal or school needs. And all of these can be shared with a simple click of a button.

Huddle up in Projects

We wanted to recreate the experience of working across departments in schools, school districts and local K-12 educational organizations to share curricular resources on the web, either privately or publicly. This has been a painful process for teachers so far, and they are forced to rely either on bad / exorbitantly-priced tools or on platforms misfit to serve their needs and represent their identity. Beginning today, we are bringing in early institutional partners into sharing on our platform using easy-to-use workspaces called Projects. You can start discovering some of this content from the home page. Projects allow communities to work collaboratively on shared material, and interact with each other in creating better and newer learning content. It also replaces the needs for learning management systems like Blackboard and Moodle in many cases.

We would also like to open up accepting sign-up applications for early adopters of Projects, so sign up today to be the first to try Projects.

Knock knock, let’s collaborate?

Our premise from the very first day of the conception of OpenCurriculum has been that if we work together on common goals, rather than work collectively on individual goals, we can achieve something greater not just for ourselves, but for the community. Launching now, all open community educational articles are open for collaboration – which means anyone can make any changes to the article content and submit it for moderation. With your contributions, we can bring better and more content in the commons.

To make this process even smoother and social, we are launching the Notifications feature. So just like on your social media accounts, when another member offers feedback on your work, you are instantly notified on the top-right-handside of the page. Isn’t that amazing?

More resources and even easier to find

With a stronger search functionality, and our work in bringing in resources in the hundreds on a weekly basis, we are all set for over 10,000 resources on the platform before the end of August. Welcome to the world’s new one-stop shop to discover learning materials!

This is just the beginning

As we release our platform, we realize and want to tell you these are very early stages. Neither are things on the platform perfect now, nor do we think we have even accomplished the tip of the iceberg. And so, you can consider this release a BETA one. In the weeks and months to come, with your help, we are going to take the platform, the content and the community to the absolute next level, and have some really exciting features and sub-products in our pipeline (that are currently small experiments) – that we will share with you when the time is right. To give you a little hint into things: we will increasingly focus on better localization for content, improve facilitation of content exchange, and make the content more useful outside of our website.

Now, I need your help. We want more people to be able to take advantage of the product beginning today, so I would love if you could share this post or the website itself with your friends (teachers and non-teachers) on social media or through email. Share feedback with us and tell us what we can do better. Together, we can make the lives of teachers and all educational organizations around the world easy!

Thanks to Sean Connolly of Neighbor.ly for the picture

Moe: The Creation of

What makes an icon successful? And then how does one go about implementing that knowledge? An icon is a mascot of sorts that is a company’s way of creating an emotional interface with their customers. An icon like Tony the Tiger not only gives a recognizable images that represents Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, but it also unquestionably links the brand with a persona through which the company can communicate with their audience. A good mascot is more than cute, well-modeled or accurately drawn—a good character causes the user to really connect emotionally with a simple illustration. Unconsciously, all the time, we are empathizing and interacting with the simplistic, humanoid models around us; we anthropomorphize in order to find emotional context in the technology we are constantly confronted with in our everyday lives. As technology continues to far outpace the average humans’ ability to understand it, it becomes more and more of an imperative to reconnect the cold interface of advanced technology to human emotionality. The trend we see of companies presenting their users with visual items to personify the ‘personality’ of the company marks a move into a more interactive, satisfying relationship with technology.

A couple months before the summer of 2013 started, I got an email from a man named Varun with an email address i didn’t recognize. Being accustomed to spammers targeting college students with fake job offers, I skimmed over the email at first, moving on to more pressing emails from professors. What caught my eye in the email was the name Jen: a student who attends the same university as me whom I had met up with to have lunch a month previous. She had gone to middle school with my older sister and when we discovered we were going to the same university, across the country from where we had both grown up, we decided we needed to meet up. I had talked with her about how I was confused about what my job opportunities for the summer would look like -I was a sophomore Math and Fine Arts major and I had never had a real ‘business’ job. It turns out that Jen knew Varun and had brought my name up to him. So quickly I was whisked off into phone calls and interviews. It became apparent to Varun that he had an opportunity in hiring me that he had perhaps not considered for this summer. As a mathematician with some programming experience I would be able to work on smaller projects that needed to get done and as an artist I would be able to revamp the current mascot and really do him justice. Varun explained to me in my interview how important it was to have this connection to your audience and how his current panda mascot might need someone just like me to step back and reassess the situation. This was incredible. I was going to be able to pursue my two passions in one job, something I simply had not expected due to their differences.

So I started with an animal (the panda), a name (Moe), and a couple of articles on the basic psychology of mascots. I knew pandas were fluffy and adorable but I wanted to understand what Moe meant to us and what we wanted him to stand for. Varun’s vision for OpenCurriculum was an incredible one, something that in today’s world is more than needed. Students spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks that they use for one school year and then never look at again. Even with textbook sell-back rates, which are at a fraction of the original book’s three-figure cost, people who can’t afford to are losing money on education everyday. OpenCurriculum aims to open up textbook resources to all users, hopefully making it globally easier for students to learn. So Moe stood for change, he stood for hope and hard work, as well as determination. Moe needed to be there to usher users through the process and make them feel comfortable in a perhaps trying situation. As an artist, I already had a small idea of what it would mean to infuse one little drawing with this much character, but quite frankly, I had never worked on anything like this before. From the perspective of a creator, mascots are especially difficult: if I spent enough time with any model, I would develop an emotional bond, create all sorts of personality traits in my head to accompany the little creature I had brought into being. But in reality, I needed to hit a perfect balance of an initial emotional connection as well as long-term enjoyment on the part of the user. Not only that, but this particular mascot, meant to act as a guide through our website to a wide range of students, needed to be a character accessible to users of different maturities and backgrounds. In my research (and from my personal experience) I found that younger students tend to desire an authority figure that they can put their trust in while teenagers prefer a cute younger character to entertain them while absolutely not infringing on their independence. So you see, Moe needed to be older and younger all at the same

I started very abstractly, open to and pursuing all options of which I could conceive. I attempted to experiment with a diverse range of shapes, ages, weights and demeanors. Consulting my directors in the project, Varun Arora and Zeinab Mohamed, allowed me to expand my perceptions of what visually signifies a panda. Having a diverse set of minds working on the project together greatly helped the development of Moe. I would draw up 15 or so versions of Moe and tape them up on the wall; Varun, Zeinab and I would look at all of them together, selecting the elements that were successful and dismissing those that were not.

The original discussions revolved around what the feel of Moe was going to be and what just naturally appealed to us on first looks. We decided fairly quickly that Moe should not look overweight to avoid having a look of laziness while keeping in mind that if he was too skinny he just wouldn’t be a panda anymore -we were looking for the golden ratio of panda plumpness. Next came a wave of more developed Moes, that started to hint at what we were looking for along with the idea of a toolbelt- an accessory that Moe could pull on to interact with his users. It also gave a clear message to the user that he was ready to do some work.

Fairly quickly we settled on a body that was the perfect collection of characteristics we desired: his legs bend under his soft and pudgy belly; arms hang down from his sloping shoulders by his sides, fingers curled close to the body, ready to direct and patiently waiting for the user to require his services. We knew his head would rest high on his shoulders, to keep him looking alert instead of sleepy or disinterested.

What took the most time was deciding on the specifics of his face—would he have big round eyes resting low on his face or small beady ones in the top half of his face as a panda does? Would his nose be of the triangle variety or include details of the curvature of a real panda’s nose? Head shape also became a topic of controversy.We realized to move any further we really needed to see what our customers would say.

At this stage of the process I developed a simple 30 second survey to check in with the outside audience—all three of us, Varun, Zeinab and I already had a clear idea of what appealed to us personally but it was time to open the discussion up to the outside viewer: the real users. The survey was tremendously helpful; I was able to analyze the results and figure out what was really working for our general audience. Trends like big eyes and a chubby face were characteristics that did well across the board. Taking this knowledge we decided to go forward with a round head shape, eyes centered, with sloping, egg-shaped black patches around his eyes. We achieved a good age-ambiguity in this respect while still making him adorable for the older users.

I feel that we went about the whole process of Moe very smartly, allowing the different themes that appealed to each of us to lead the direction of Moe’s progress. Moe is a panda you could converse with—his human-like features and form allows one to empathize with him and ultimately learn to care for him. We as a team wanted Moe to embody openness, fun and the desire to help. The next step is going to be creating Moe mannerisms to really solidify an attitude about him that appeals to all. It was a pleasure to get the Moe project off the ground and to its current point and I hope to see much success in his, and OpenCurriculum’s future.

-Laurel Michel-Schrottman

Thoughts on Affordable Private Schools in India

For as far as I can remember, Affordable Private Schools, often just referred to as the APS sector, have been of much interest to me. I have even constantly talked about it, including on my personal blog. When I visited India in December 2011, I made it a point to visit a couple of such schools in Hyderabad, after being hosted by some wonderful people at the Indian School Finance Company and the International Development Exchange (IDEX). Very interestingly, it was only a couple of weeks back when I got to understand the motivations when I met the founder David Kyle in Washington DC.

Recently, I also had the chance of getting to know two IDEX fellows, Hila Mehr and Yasmin Lakhani, who were kind enough to share really deep insights on how they viewed the challenges and opportunities while working in these schools over a year’s time. Hila and her co-author Kim Cambell best capture some of the reasons what educational technology can do for such schools, in her article on the ed-tech debate site:

“Technology works in environments that support it. APS schools self-select for parents who are willing to invest financially in their children’s education despite their low-income. This can create an environment where parents are open to trying new approaches to helping their children succeed academically. We witnessed this personally in the tablet pilots when parents showed a willingness to pay for personal tablets that their children would use in the classroom despite never having used a tablet themselves.

Because the schools are for-profit, capital investments must have some kind of value-add to justify the cost. These levers of accountability can create incentives for trying new technologies and actually being invested in adoption.

But perhaps the most important reason why we need to be having a conversation about ed-tech in APS is because private schools are the future of education for low-income communities throughout the world. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a quiet exodus from public schools in slums throughout the world. Enrollment in private schools across India has increased from 18.7% in 2006 to 28.3% in 2012. The Pratham’s annual ASER report adds: “If this trend continues, by 2018 India may have 50% of children attending private schools even in rural areas.” The trend of increased enrollment in private schools is growing from Lahore to Lesotho and shows no signs of slowing.

Private education is going to be a substantial part of educating children, so it’s in everyone’s interest that the quality of private schools be the best they can be. Through thoughtful implementation and well-designed solutions, technology can help accomplish that.”

I highly recommend a read of the report produced by Hila and Ben Mayer on designing educational technology for the APS sector in India.

Intern Speaks: About Me

Hi! I am a rising sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University studying Information Systems. My entrance into the world of solving global educational problems came in January, when I registered for the Heinz College Social Innovation Solutions Challenge. The goal of the challenge was to split students into groups to brainstorm products or services that meet a global need. This was the first year the event was opened to undergraduates, and I believe there were only four in the competition . The groups were randomly assigned by topic, and my group decided to search for solutions to educational problems in Latin America. I managed to keep the fact that I was at least 7 years younger than all other members of my group a secret until the day before our final report was due because I didn’t want them to reject my ideas due to lack of experience (they were more intrigued than disdainful but I thought it was legitimate concern).

We ended up winning the entire competition with the idea for a web portal called “ColaborNacion”, a play on words of “collaborate” and “nation” in Spanish. ColaborNacion (which has an accent over the last ‘o’) would provide a centralized system of online educational resources to help teachers in Peru and by extension the rest of Latin America improve their teaching capabilities. The initial content would come from American teachers, and later through various incentives, teachers in target countries would contribute their own resources. We decided to focus on Peru for 3 reasons, 1, because One Laptop Per Child had previously worked with the government in a plan to distribute 600,000 laptops around the country (the program didn’t work), 2, because on average, Peruvian high schools have a 50% dropout rate, and 3, because one of our team members was Peruvian. The project gave me great insight into brainstorming innovations and working with others who were more educated than I, as well as working with people of different nationalities (our team of 5 was comprised of American, Indian, Chinese and Peruvian students).

After the competition, our group sort of disbanded, but I wanted to continue working on the project so I applied for and received a grant to turn ColaborNacion into a reality. A month or so passed without much progress when through various mutual contacts I met Varun Arora, who introduced me to OpenCurriculum. OpenCurriculum is based on the same guiding principles that led our team to create ColaborNacion, except in terms of operations it provides more to teachers than our team could have possibly imagined. After a short period of communications and a couple of meetings, Varun and I decided I would commit to an apprenticeship of sorts at OpenCurriculum, which is where I am now. In my job I both learn front- and back-end web design and user-experience design, and apply the knowledge and principles I learn to create pages for OpenCurriculum.

I believe OpenCurriculum has the potential to create a worldwide network of teachers for K-12 education. Content that was once exclusive only because people couldn’t find it online will now be easily accessible by those who search through the site, and content that does not exist will be created by teachers both locally and globally collaborating on projects and articles for use worldwide. OpenCurriculum fills a gap in accessibility to content and teacher collaboration that many people want, but no one knows how to ask for, and when the site goes live, I believe the site will become any teacher’s go-to professional tool.

Editor’s note: Heinz College is Carnegie Mellon University’s graduate school for Information Systems Management and Public Policy Management.

And we go… live!

It gives me a tonne of joy and pride to announce that OpenCurriculum is now live. We are going live with 43 high-quality articles (with a lot more in the pipeline) and ~300 associated learning resources, including quizzes, videos, games, websites, etc. All for free! At this point, this is what our home page looks like:

While this is not a main launch of our platform, as we are very much gearing towards bringing you and your contributions in into the experience of using OpenCurriculum, I would still like to share with you some of the amazing things we have released today and give you a little sneak peek into what we are spending our near future energies on, leading up to our launch.

Article and resource links

Very early, while browsing our growing collection of articles, you will observe each article has been linked to related open educational resources from the web. This is extremely useful to teachers and learners alike, as it models their usage patterns in looking for various kinds of content related to a particular topic. While the article will aim to serve as the definitive and canonical “textbook” resource, the related rich resources will extend the capabilities of the article’s text/images to broaden the range of resources one can learn from. This list is ever changing, and is going to depend entirely on user inputs and ratings in the future.

Search

You will also notice the really big focus and presence of search all throughout your usage experience. Search has been an extremely crucial aspect of this release, as it points to our continued commitment to reduce the time it takes to look for exactly the resources you are looking for, and reduce wasted time in the process. So, apart from building a search functionality with rich indexing of content, we are introducing powerful search filters, for high-speed searches and filtering through all resources on the website. As we bring in more content and evolve the search tools further, we promise to make these filters even more versatile with tighter control on what you are looking for.

Support for LaTeX in Math

Very early into planning this release, we realized how important math equation rendering on the website was. Not many pure web resources support its rendering on the web browser, with inline math seeming like a goal for the future shown to us in Minority Report. And so, we’d like to announce the support for true LaTeX rendering in all our articles. This means that every user on OpenCurriculum will be able to write and collaborate on LaTeX math article in our text editors (after our forthcoming releases). We expect this to explode with the math community’s interest in creating and sharing material on the web.

What’s coming ahead

Okay, let me try to tell you just enough such that we keep some excitement in anticipation for our future releases going.

Today, OpenCurriculum is a website. Articles, images, resources, search – everything you would expect a resource aggregator in the Web 1.0 world to be. But we are thinking far ahead, and believe in the power of community and rich social engagement in creating and sharing content, and that is what a real platform is all about. In trying to be the largest high-quality article repository on the web, we need a large community and lots of actively created and edited articles, much like Wikipedia and open source software. It is this direction that we are embracing to the fullest – so expect to see a lot more of YOU being at the center of activity on OpenCurriculum.

Until then, to put it in the words of one of our fans, OpenCurriculum is OPEN!

A little bit about me…

So here I am – a Chemical and Biomedical Engineer by major – and yet I port content online. I’ve only ever learned about distillation columns and fugacity, and so how did this jump into the open education world happen? Well, it’s…complicated.

When I was a kid, I didn’t go to school. School was something that came with a price tag – transportation, school uniform, books – all of this required money that my family didn’t have at the time (and internet wasn’t all that available where I was either). So instead of joining the young girls who went to school, eating packed lunch while chatting about the latest school gimmicks, I simply hung around the house, occasionally bothering my mother and scribbling on random sheets of paper. When I did start school at the age of about 9 or 10 (after arriving in the US), I was ecstatic! I didn’t know what was going on in classes or what people were speaking, but everything was unreal and felt amazing. I remember missing the school bus once, and I cried that whole day because I couldn’t get to school. Going to school meant being surrounded by students of my age who were learning the same thing, eating school lunch (and drinking chocolate milk!), and even if I wasn’t the best student, I was still a student. That meant the world to me.

In my junior year of college, along came Varun and OpenCurriculum. We were neighbors for months, and only spoke about halfway through the fall semester. Initial introduction to OpenCurriculum came from surveys and questionnaires Varun made to see how users responded to it. I didn’t know the details of OpenCurriculum then, but the conception was one I was always willing to help with. Providing a free books and materials for education to people, everywhere, was something I was going to support to my full ability; and so it went from there. From taking surveys about online data to finding online curricula to porting data, I came to where I was today as part of the OpenCurriculum team. My hope is that someone somewhere will find the content online and use it to learn whatever they can so they don’t just scribble and play around the house the whole day.

I guess the story wasn’t all that complicated.

Need for a real OER API

One of the early goals of OpenCurriculum’s platform is to bring with it an API (application programming interface) to provide developers the access to thousands of OERs (open educational resources) we will be indexing and the community will be creating in the months to come. To that, you may ask: hold on – aren’t there already free external APIs for the massive OER repositories on the web, like on OERCommons, Curriki or Gooru?

If you are asking such a question, hats off! You already seem to know a lot about the state of this space. But what you may not know is that there actually is not a single usable OER repository API amongst there options and more. OERCommons maintains an internal API shared only with limited network partners and Curriki doesn’t not implement a third-party developer API. Gooru, on the other hand, actually implements an API, but no experienced or novice web developer may call this very usable. With manual registration of developers and lack of support for unauthenticated requests to open content, the APIs flexibility feel restricted. We believe that practices like these significantly deter and stifle innovation, and we wish to fix this.

OpenCurriculum has begun a journey of building a REAL developer API. An API that will give access to objects and native content types including true external URLs, so that developers get the opportunity to create rich applications with OERs, and innovate without bounds. But until the day we release such an API, if you are a developer, we hope you can sit tight and watch for our updates, because when we do, we will give you tremendous power.

New Year and exciting announcements

Over this past year of 2012, we have had a bumpy yet enjoyable experience in creating and releasing a product, and then bringing it down as it failed to meet our and the community’s expectations. It has been hard to digest, but the amount we have learned over this period has given us a tonne of energy to strike back and and give this another shot, a better shot.

During the process, we have been fortunate to make some relationships with people who wish to go out of the way to help us realize this big opportunity. One of such groups is ThrillMill, whose newest program Hustle Den is where we have found our first official incubation. Unlike several other incubators of this nature, Hustle Den has been gracious to support us despite being a non-profit entity. This is important and much appreciated at several levels as this gives us the opportunity to realize our ambitious product goals, much like for-profit entities, without having to partner at unconditional terms. We have moved from our shared workspace in Oakland (Pittsburgh, PA) at Project Olympus, and are now based in East Liberty, Pittsburgh, around a hub of new activity.

What’s even more exciting is the work we are doing to release our new early product out to the public. Our new platform is not only developed using a completely different stack of technologies, but is also very different in terms of the value proposition to our customers. We plan to go into final testing stages by early February and release some parts of our platform between mid and late February. Until then, we are going to use this blog as a means to communicate our progress, so make sure to sync the feeds from this blog to your devices to stay tuned to whatever we are upto. Gracias!