Guest Post: Effective technology should help teachers access and utilize Web-based information.

September 24, 2010 •

Editor’s note: Each Friday we feature guest bloggers that are involved in rethinking what is possible with schooling and the education system.

In this guest post Bob Bilyk, founder and former director Cyber Village Academy, a charter school in Saint Paul, envisions technology’s capacity to customize education for students. Now, the founder of LodeStar Learning, he argues most vendors’ curriculum is so expensive that teachers cannot mix and match curricula. He argues for a new type of school, and a new attitude that focuses on integrating the full capacities of technology to help both teachers and students access and effectively utilize Web-based information.

When I first became a teacher, our department prepared for North Central accreditation. We convened to review the course syllabi. In amazement, I saw that the syllabi were mostly derived from the table of contents of the adopted textbooks. The whole student experience for American Literature, for example, was being defined by a textbook company.

In 1997, a group of teachers and I were given the rare opportunity to build a charter school from the ground up with current technology. That school was Cyber Village Academy, located in a multi-use redevelopment in Saint Paul but actually chartered by Minneapolis Public Schools. Our mission at first was to build an online/on-campus school that could reach out to seriously ill children and to homeschoolers. Later we would become an International Baccalaureate School and broaden our reach to families who simply wanted an effective education.

At first we had few textbooks and no blueprints of how to educate children in a hybrid online/on-campus environment. A major publishing company had a ‘complete’ online curriculum that we could simply adopt. The title screen of its fourth grade reading lesson spelled out the letters, ‘The Murder of Aunt Sue’ against a black screen with the crude graphic of a dagger dripping blood.

Knowing that we could do better, we rejected the curriculum and set off to create our own homespun lessons. We had few resources but we did have passion and a strong sense of instructional design. Our online lessons engaged students in knowledge quests, working through problems, consulting offline resources, manipulating gadgets to understand general concepts—in short, a variety of activities that focused on engagement rather than presentation.

This was very hard work and crude and messy at times. It has been facilitated in part by LodeStar Learning, an eLearning tool built by a CVA board member and myself that enables instructors to choose from a wide variety of templates, fill in their content, and export to the web or to their online course. The teachers do not need to create all the content; instead retrieving it and shaping it with great efficiency.

With this model we always struggled with the concept of comprehensiveness. We didn’t have comprehensive online curriculum in any discipline unless we purchased one—from a new version of the traditional textbook company.

Our mantra: teachers who know their students and are passionate about their content area should be able to take existing online content, re-sequence, supplement, edit, expunge…In short, online curriculum should be this living and breathing organism that involves the teacher as a contributor rather than as a proctor.

The promise of LodeStar was that any teacher could build highly interactive lessons with no programming experience. Just as important, the teacher could export the lesson to any learning management system through a standard called SCORM. We envisioned schools as gatekeepers of their learning management system, building highly interactive instructional experiences based on the varying needs of each of their students.

At the post-secondary level, teacher-generated lessons far outweigh purchased curriculum. LodeStar is used widely there to engage students in a diverse range of activities from decision-making scenarios to web quests to the rehearsal of terms and concepts through simple games.

Meanwhile, access by K-12 educators to technology is becoming less and less of a problem. And a majority of teachers choose to use technology. But only half of those teachers have received between one and eight hours of professional development in technology. More importantly, once technology is accessible to teachers and they are adequately prepared to use it, they are given very little of the time they need to use technology well.

During my first teaching experience, the textbook companies provided a resource that teachers never had the time to create for themselves. Traditional district schools didn’t allow the time. Today, teachers can potentially create highly interactive, individualized educational experiences with a range of available tools. But traditional models of education don’t support teachers as designers of instruction. They aren’t given the time. They aren’t given the training.

Very few teachers also leverage the power of sharing through open source repositories. The old pattern resurfaces. The creation and control of content shifts from the teacher to the vendor. Yesterday, the vendor was the textbook company. Today, that vendor is replaced by companies who presume to be able to teach our students any subject anytime—comprehensively—using information and learning tools that are on-line.

Fortunately, there is a better way to capture digital content.

Alternatively, teacher and student-friendly software can help identify not just online sources, but helps determine its relevance and reliability while providing teachers with tools to engage the students with online sources. These sources can be used for periodic assessments of whether they are understanding and retaining material.

LodeStar and similar software can fill this gap, and be helpful to teachers in developing curriculum that is accessible to and used by students online.

Image: Bilyk, at LodeStar workshop in West Africa