Thursday, April 12, 2007

What tasks teachers have on a learning resources portal?

The attitude of "if we build it, they will come" has resulted in national and regional learning resources portals where the offer, no matter how many learning objects or assests, does not necessary match the need of teachers. Why is that? What is it that teachers look for?

Curriculum coverage

I first started by looking at 29 different learning resources portals that national and regional educational authorities offer for K-12 teachers in Europe. My task was to find out how many of them offer curriculum related material, i.e. so that a teacher, knowing that tomorrow he has to teach an area that covers a certain goals of the national curriculum, can just go to the portal and pick a resource that actually goes through this particular area.

This type of standards-based curriculum material seem to have been on the offer in the US for some time. Two examples could be the DLESE, focusing on Earth Science and IDEAS, a repository held by Wisconsin educators. In both teachers can search for a curriculum coverage.

I found that in about 10 out of 29 examples in Europe teachers can explicitly look for curriculum coverage on learning resources, however, it was not always very clearly indicated which goals or skills a resource aims to attain.

On rest of the portals teachers were able to find resources that were categorised by the school level and subject, thus, by using teachers internal knowledge of curriculum, they would, with little poking around, find the matching material. But the problem with this case is that there is nothing that makes the teachers' tacit knowledge externalised for other users, no one else can take advantage of the fact that this teacher knows how well this piece of learning material covers certain areas and goals of the local curriculum.

In MELT, we are trying to get to the core of this problem by encouraging teachers to add tags to resources that they find in the repository. We'll be eager to see whether tags can externalise any of that tacit knowledge that teachers have, and that could help other teachers in finding and using the material.

In Calibrate, another project that I have a minor involvement, we have an opposite approach to the problem. A few topic areas have been selected where 3 EU-countries share a similar curriculum. We try to map the different curriculum through its goals and skills, and match that with the material available. A complex task!

Tasks at hand

Then, I started thinking whether learning material that clearly covers the standard-curriculum is what teachers want? One could think that a busy teacher would really appreciate it, however, there might be other reasons why do they come to a learning portal. So I made a little poll with some tasks that I thought teachers could have, and asked some teachers to vote. I only got 36 votes so far (you can still vote here), but it seems that, at least for these teachers, the curriculum coverage was not what they preferred!

The majority of the respondent teachers (I don't know who they are) seem to be leisurely window-shopping while at the learning resources portal (I browse around to see what is available) or looking for material that could support the lesson that they are planning. Only one teacher is looking for learning resources with an exact curriculum coverage!

This rises two questions in my mind: either teachers have given up to look for curriculum covered material, because a) it never was on the offer, b) it was never successfully on the offer or c) they have better sources for that, like school books, etc.

Secondly, maybe teachers don't really know what to expect from a learning resources portal or a repository. Maybe it was never clear for them what was the intended goal of a learning resources portal and they just come there to see what's up, what's in there and maybe they return if something good is found.

Seriously thinking, do we even know for what tasks and goals the resources repositories are build? If we think of libraries, we know they have a clear goal, or a school book, yes, it has a clear goal. But a LOR (for learning object repository), isn't it something in-between, kind of pretends to be one or the other, without being either of them.

I just looked at the sneak-preview for Yahoo!'s new service for teachers. Pretty neat. They clearly aim it to be to create learning resources, and re-use the ones from other teachers. They also offer neat peer-networking possibilities. It's about using and re-using material that is in the center, not searching for it! A very different focus.

So, I think what should be build in on learning portals is a better support for the tasks that teachers and learners have at hand. So, when they come to a portal,
  • if they clearly are just window-shopping, let's provide them with first-grade Champs-Elysees shop-windows. Make nice pre-views available of resources that are there with added value lesson plans and case studies how others have used them in their lessons. Allow browsing other users' collections of learning resources with annotations and comments. These other users can be from any part of the continent, as the goal is to inspire and show how things can be done. If we know anything about the user, let's try to match them with like-minded peers!

  • if they look for material with curriculum coverage, let's lead them to an area where they can either search for material with curriculum coverage, or browse bookmarks and tagged resources for cues from other teachers on attaining certain skills and goals. For the latter, it could be useful to first show "traces", e.g. bookmarks, tags, pedaggical annotations, from teachers who come from the same area, like Yahoo! peer-network allows getting close to teachers from the same area (=same curriculum).

  • etc.
The point that I'm making is to be clear about the task, and the information seeking patterns in general that teachers have, and then match it with the best way providing search, social navigation, recommendations, shop windows, etc., but always thinking what would yield the benefits for the user and task at hand.

That's something to study deeper, and don't worry, I'm on it ;) We don't know yet if the best benefits can stem from using underlying social networks (location) or more implicit ones (profile, tags, similar bookmarks), or from using a search or what?

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