Inside scoop on curriculum, teaching and product improvements
How OpenCurriculum is different from other OER platforms

We are often asked how our product is different from OER* repositories (or referritories**) like OER Commons, Curriki, Gooru, Open Ed, and Amazon's upcoming site, to name a few. While we understand that this may not be entirely obvious from each of our marketing pages, I have never placed OpenCurriculum in that category.

That is not to say that these products aren't solving the right problem or that OpenCurriculum shouldn't be considered an alternative OER platform. Instead, it's got more to do with our belief that what defines a company's product / service is not just what they do, but what they choose NOT to do. We have seen that customers (at an individual and institutional level) spend all their energy comparing features. We recommend that they give equal amount of importance to understanding where each of the products/companies FOCUSES their energy and time***.

Where a company focuses their energy is the most sincere reflection of their understanding of the problems customers face. And in this case, a reflection of the company's vision on how teachers can openly share and adapt better curriculum, in order to focus on what matters the most: improving learning outcomes and changing student lives.

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Not an OER search engine

OpenCurriculum is not meant to be a search engine for millions of open educational resources. That is just not what we think we should be doing to really help teachers (even though they say "we want lessons/activities for this topic at this grade level" all the time). Here's why:

  • Google is rather amazing at helping surface good curriculum, albeit that's conditional to you knowing what you are looking for. Each of these platforms, on the other hand, is substantially worse in the kinds of results they produce for a wide range of teacher needs****. Teachers are not looking for a 20,000 search results - it's not an open-ended window shopping experience - they want one thing. And the filters for license and grade band don't adequately help them find the needle from the haystack.

  • Teachers need resources that work for other teachers like them. While all these OER platforms claim that they are all about peer-reviewed resources, you hardly ever find useful and not-rigged comments/reviews that substantiate that claim and help you find the right resource (as probably the only OER platform amongst these made by former teachers, we get this). If this hasn't happened in the past 8-10 years of their existence, it's most likely not going to change once you adopt it.

  • If the end goal is to improve teaching and learning in the classroom while making your teachers' lives easier, then you really ought to be critical of an OER search platform as a means to that end. Most of these sites have no vetting process, leave alone mechanisms to identify adherance to good instructional and curriculum models, or alignment to CCSS and other standards. The marketing of these products sincerely underplays the importance of these aspects - but these are all that matter. It's far easier to collect hundreds of thousands of links (which, as I say above, is irrelevant) than it is to have quality control on a few.

  • OER search sites inevitably become jungles of resources in all kinds of formats all across the web. While this is a core tenet of how the open web was meant to function using search, we have seen that it causes such a high cognitive load on the part of teachers that they simply don't end up coming back the next time around to looking for resources. This is primarily why the engagement number of most OER search platforms are dismal.

All that being said, yes, we find and curate open educational resources for individual projects (for example, our CCSS Math library) and school districts pretty often - but we do so only after understanding the needs of the organizations fully well. We also have an excellent product to support building libraries of materials.

Additionally, OpenCurriculum has one of the best real-time search systems within the OER world. Analogy: OpenCurriculum's search is like the search on Gmail OR Google Drive while OER search engines are more like a Google or Bing search engine. OpenCurriculum has been designed to find the best results from within your school, district, or other kind of institution - based on our knowledge of your background needs.

Empowering teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators

We are convinced that teachers are most inspired and empowered about quality curriculum and instruction when they are engaged in the process of making curriculum themselves. We believe that process is as important as the product. Unit planning, lesson planning, and pacing instruction are at the core of the focus of OpenCurriculum.

Most of the other OER platforms fall under one of two categories on "making curriculum":

  • they either have no ability to make curriculum, and are simply places to organize materials produced in tools like Word, after being uploaded.
  • or alternatively, they have a very simple editor text editor (that is a second-class citizen) that where teachers can write text and drop images and attach files, perhaps shallow-ly associate standards, and publish this as curriculum. Unsurprisingly, these are sparingly used.

OpenCurriculum takes this problem very seriously, and spends a majority of our research and development time on this curriculum and instructional design process. Majority of our work is geared towards triggering the essential critical thinking that helps a teacher bring a lesson to life and target deeper learning, whether a new lesson is being created or remixed. Our tools also help teachers master pedagogical skills that complement the curriculum they are building or adapting. Other OER platforms make an implicit assumption that a good resource, once found, will by itself magically solve students' learning problems.

OpenCurriculum is also designed to give schools and districts their own spaces for sharing and give the individual teacher control of their experience. OER search engines just don't have this goal, even when they try to do blended learning on the side.

Beyond the views and the likes

No education administrator I have spoken to has ever said that the most information they need about the district or school curriculum is how many times teachers are looking at it or what teachers found cute. These surface level metrics don't seem to really help improve or expand upon curriculum and instruction - as they don't provide us insight into either the teacher's practice or the collective state of adoption and integration by a district.

You know what they look for instead?

  • Vertical and horizontal alignment
  • Thoughtful application and connection to standards
  • Completeness of standards
  • Coherent units
  • Ability to curriculum to prepare students for tests
  • Rich and engaging activities, and reflections on these
  • Application of instructional goals of the school or district
  • Pacing of instruction during the semester or year
  • etc.

OpenCurriculum provides right insights and analytics into each of these pieces.

Now you may argue that these are not the goals of OER platforms - and that each school or district is responsible for their own mechanisms to do this. The reason we believe differently is because we think open resources are useful only when they create a high level of educational value; value that should be captured and understood an iterative manner. Openness, by itself, it not a value that improves our education system. It is merely a catalyst. And that the medium where these resources are found and organized happens to be the best place to also apply them in some way.

Appropriate cost

Lastly, as you make your decision, I want you to consider this: how does this organization / company make money? If their means to sustainability is the product and the product itself: you should be worried about the price tag. But you should be probably more worried if the majority of the support for the organization comes from foundations, without whom they can't survive. Because the organization's goal is to serve its financier: and if that's not you and the product you are getting from them, their goals will most likely change when the minds of the people providing a bulk of the funding change. This also holds true in the case where selling premium resources in a marketplace is the revenue source - get ready for a bunch of cutesy garbage being targeted at your teachers.

On the other hand, if the product is heavily subsidized because the real business model is Professional Development, you can be assured that the product will not be most self-explanatory (making your teachers struggle) and the service will be of variable quality because the organization really wants you or your constituents to buy PD services from them to allow them to survive. Which can actually be prohibitively expensive. So you need to worry about what that total cost of ownership would look like. In an ideal world, an OER platform should not be in the business of PD. I have found people who started OER platforms to be, across the board, very well intentioned people, and they are trying very hard to exist without doing the wrong thing.

Sometimes, this is hard to know from the outset. My recommendation would be to push the platform organization to, instead of entering a long and heavy contract, let you try a minimal version of what you need for a short period. Actually, try a bunch of different platforms internally for a month or two. Pay a nominal fees if it is needed. The learnings for the long term will significantly outweigh any delay or cost you might incur in the short term.

As far as OpenCurriculum is concerned, we believe in a tiered model rooted in the idea: we should get paid for the amount we help you succeed. We don't charge for individual teachers on the open platform, but once we give you your own space, we charge incrementally for each teacher you add, and at a high price tier, you get unlimited user accounts, but pay for individual a la carte features. We never lock you in for more than a month, so we are on our feet the whole time to make you happy. This goes further because bulk of our income comes from customers, so we work extra hard to make our customers and product (and not fundraising) the epicenter of our work.

Our hope is that this article helps you in your decision making and evaluation process, regardless of whether or not you choose OpenCurriculum eventually.

* Open Educational Resources

** Credit for this word goes to Karl Nelson, or at least that's where I got it from

*** That's not just a philosophical stance; it makes all the difference between products which teachers love and one's that they will not come back to after their first login. Because anyone can make buzzwordy advertising and claims on a large number of products, but product efficacy comes from it's details.

**** We have proof for ourselves, but I recommend you gather a group of teachers and ask them: "what are some of the things they will be teaching in the coming weeks?". If they find highly useful things, let me know in the comments section, and I will happily update this post.

Varun Arora
Varun Arora is the Founder and Executive Director of OpenCurriculum