Open source maps a new education future

Shared Learning Collaborative combines tech, standards for common skill tracking

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A new initiative is hoping to ease educators' massive and growing workloads using a combination of open standards and open source software. Such programs are not unusual… but one of the main funders of this particular solution may be: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) is a multi-state program with a very challenging task before it: figuring out how to effectively implement technology in the classroom, for both teachers and students.

There are a lot of problems associated with technology in the classroom. One of the biggest perceived problems has been cost: if only computers weren't so expensive, people will lament, then we could get a computer to every student and introduce the kids to a technological nirvana.

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Yeeahhh… no.

Just plopping down a computer in front every child is not nearly enough. Lesson plans have to be created around the new machines, every student will come in with vastly different computer and typing skills, and the teacher will need to be trained as well. And that's not even taking into account the support costs for all of the machines, their respective software, and the network.

This is just the top of the iceberg that educators and school boards in the U.S. have faced, in an atmosphere of varying state educational standards, increasingly tight budgets, and educational programs that demand more intensive tracking of students' progress in order to ensure that state and Federal standards are being met.

Complicating it further are the widely varying bits of technology that appear within school systems and within individual schools. Visit a local school and you may very well likely see the detritus of past administrations that appear in classrooms like the finds of an archeological dig, when this superintendent mandated all Macs, and this principal opted to start buying Window XP boxes, and one forward-looking teacher got a grant for inexpensive Linux laptops for a reading lab. Oh, and that's just the hardware. The combinations of software for the students and the teachers is simply mind-boggling.

It is an IT administrator's nightmare, and it is part of the overarching problem that the SLC was formed to solve, using a shared-technology approach, according to Danese Cooper, an Open Source Strategist with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cooper is a familiar face within open source circles… a former board member of the Open Source Initiative, she held the information title of Open Source Diva in her tenure at Sun Microsystems. I ran into Cooper quite unexpectedly at the Strata Conference, and I took the opportunity to talk to her about her work with the SLC.

The SLC, co-funded by the Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, "is working to change the way educational data is gathered," Cooper explained. "All of these different technologies have created islands within the schools"--islands which prevent the holistic examination of a student's data during their educational path. Even if one school has its act together and can effectively track a student in that school, what happens if that student transfers to another school? Or wants to take additional classes as an institution like the Khan Academy or Maker Faire, Cooper asked. Right now, such extracurricular learning opportunities are rarely tracked.

But a new initiative being implemented across 44 U.S. states is working to change all of that. The Common Core State Standards Initiative is working to break state standards into sets of discrete, common skill sets.

The Common Core standards can then be mapped into a learning map for each student and presented in a map-like interface who can see and update the progress a student has made for each particular skill, which teachers, parents, and students can see.

Which, given the massively heterogenous state of technology within school corporations I just described, sounds like Yet Another Layer of Reporting for teachers to track using highly disparate systems. Indeed, using the method of discrete skills acquisition proposed by the Common Core standards will move the number of facts tracked about each student dramatically upwards.

How dramatically? When people my age were learning about ballistic arcing through the delivery of spitballs (not that I would know anything about that), there were about 1,000 facts tracked about us during the entirety of our K-12 education. Now nearly 30,000 facts will need to be tracked under a program like Common Core.

But the needs for a common educational measuring and tracking system is critical, so what are educators to do?

This is where the SLC comes in. Using open source software, open standards, and open APIs, the SLC is working to create a single point of authentication and tracking for educators so that no matter what software tools they are using to track students' progress, the information will be gathered by the single common multi-tenant data store.

Any data from an SLC-compliant data will be mapped into the data store by a single schema, which can then be mined for use by SLC-provided apps, or--thanks to the open APIs--any third-party vendor that wants to get in on the market.

This means choice for school systems, instead of a single mandated solution, and competition to keep prices for participating schools down. Having all the data in one place will also effective solve the issue of sending data to the Federal government for their enforcement of standards.

Better yet, as discrete skills are tracked, Cooper explained, the need for high-stakes tests (like the SAT, ACT, or state-mandated in-school progress tests such as the ISTEP here in Indiana) is sharply reduced. Colleges may still want to see results from SAT- and ACT-like tests, but the reduction or removal the overhead of state tests would be a blessing for many school systems to have to waste the time and money needed to administer those tests annually.

These are just some ways the SLC can help improve the state of technology in schools, and with open source at the heart of it, it's a program we can all get behind.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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