Sunday, 26 August 2012

Curating content for the classroom

Catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Chinese proverb

Catch a man a fish and you can sell it to him.  Teach a man to fish and you ruin a wonderful business opportunity.
Karl Marx

Catch a man a fish and he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he has no time left to do his day-job.
Mark O’Neil

Three contrasting views of the world.  Let’s look at what these might be taken to mean in the context of a teacher, and teaching.

There is a lot being written out there in cyberspace right now about how the digital revolution in the classroom spells the end of the textbook.  In Australia, for example, there are state and federal government initiatives to collect vast amounts of discrete digital content so that teachers can search for content and build their lessons for a new curriculum from the ground up.  The principle is that teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime.  The teacher, having been given access to an ocean full of content can pull out what they need, throw back what they don’t need and build an entire course themselves.

There is also a movement out there in cyberspace that suggests textbooks are the results of large publishing companies trying to control what is learned.  The suggestion is that publishers are withholding something from teachers in order to create a business opportunity.

And then there’s the third view – mine.  When your doctor diagnoses what is making you sick, you don’t expect her to then pop into a back room and manufacture the drugs you need to recover.  You don’t expect a baker to grow the wheat she needs to make the bread she sells.  So why, suddenly, and because technology affords an opportunity to improve schooling, are we expecting teachers to become the sole curators of content?  Some teachers have always done this – compiled their own content and built their own courses to match a curriculum.  Many of these teachers are called ‘authors’ – because they publish what they have done for the benefit of other teachers teaching the same course. Publishers provide the mechanism for this to happen – meaning that many teachers can benefit from the efforts of a few.

In the digital world there is still a role for curators of content.  Whether traditional publishers or new tech-led entrants continue to collect, collate and curate content or whether some teachers choose to curate their own content is a choice.  Just as teachers have always had a choice from a range of textbooks written by authors of varied experience - including a choice not to choose – then surely teachers now will still look to experienced colleagues to curate content.

Is it a problem that curators of content expect to be paid for their services?  I don’t think so.  We don’t expect the wheat farmer to provide the baker with free raw materials.   

This is also an issue, it seems to me, with government-sponsored collections of discrete items of content.  A teacher searching for a diagram of what is happening in a chemical reaction – for example – is likely to get multiple hits at varying levels of difficulty and have to spend precious time sifting and searching for the relevant content.  Are we seriously suggesting that every teacher should find the time in their already packed schedules to plan lessons in this way?  How many times does the wheel need inventing?

Good teachers have always supplemented their core materials with what they have found that they believe will engage their students. They might find these extra resources in a government-sponsored web collection of discrete content. But only when these state sponsored collections are properly curated so that a teacher can find the right content at the right level of difficulty for the right course will these collections become viable sources for complete course content.  Once they are curated and organized in this way there will be a word to describe what they do – publisher!

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