The Bering Strait School District (BSSD) in Alaska – which spans a swathe of land and sea the size of Great Britain — is one of the few districts in the nation that has replaced textbooks with online content that can be modified by any of its teachers, students, parents and anyone who wants to participate. The school district uses the same user-generated software as Wikipedia — an open-source, online interface that allows everyone in the district (and outside of it) to access and edit learning standards, curricular materials, and projects.
John Concilus, educational technology coordinator at BSSD, told me about the district’s Open Content Initiative and offered his views on the future of open source materials in education.
PROGRAM: Instead of textbooks, the Bering Strait School District uses modifiable, open source software for learning standards, curriculum, and student projects.
COST: Free (after the initial labor investment to build the infrastructure and original content of the wiki. The site is hosted on free virtual servers).
BENEFITS: Allows users to contribute to a growing body of knowledge and resources that benefit students, teachers, and community members around the world.
CHALLENGES: High learning curve for using the software and fear that an open environment will lead to misinformation or inappropriate posts.
ADDRESSING CHALLENGES: Intensive teacher training and implementation of a new, more intuitive interface (the same one used by Wikipedia).
Q: How and why did BSSD begin its OpenContent Initiative?
A: Roughly five years ago, we got the idea for this from a really well-known treatise by someone named Eric Raymond. He was part of the original open source software movement. He wrote eleven precepts about how and why open source projects should be built and why it’s better to use a “bazaar,” or free exchange of ideas, versus using a “cathedral,” or top-down, regimented approach. When I read it as an educator, I was really interested in its application to school curriculum. Continue reading