How the Internet Is Complicating the Art of Teaching

Educators design lots of lessons and other learning resources, and increasingly they’re being shared online—often free of cost and in ways that are too personalized to be universally applicable.

A student raises her hand as her teacher leads a lesson on a SmartBoard. Questions are being raised about whether teachers should be paid for the lessons they create.
Franka Bruns / Reuters

A time-honored nugget of the political stump speech is the anecdote about the teacher who brings breakfast for a hungry student in need, or maybe the one who purchases supplies out-of-pocket for an underfunded classroom. These are sweet stories that build on teachers’ well-deserved reputations for sharing with students, but teachers’ work also thrives on the amount of behind-the-scenes sharing they do with one another. Whether it is a homework assignment, a rubric, or a classroom game, teachers build a lot of their curricula on shared materials, authored and tested by experienced peers.

In my first year teaching, I was saved by the binders upon binders of activities, quizzes, and other tools that seasoned teachers shared with me. I tailored what I found in these treasure troves to fit my own style of teaching and the needs of my specific classes. As the years passed and my larder of teaching materials grew fat, I started sharing digital copies of my tried-and-true materials with newer teachers over Google Drive, where they could easily edit to fit their needs and developing teaching styles. Digital platforms have use beyond just ease of editing, though: They are helping teachers bring their best ideas and materials to audiences much larger than the tight-knit communities of copy rooms and teacher’s lounges. As great assignments grow in their reach, though, it is hard to keep the personalization that individual teachers bring to the table from getting lost in translation.

As educators continue sharing with wider audiences, it will be important to figure out how teacher-generated resources will be received into the world of Open Educational Resources (OERs). According to the Department of Education, all OERs must be three things: digitized, free, and editable. Many commercially produced digital textbooks and resources are licenced for use in only one classroom, school, or district at a time. Digitized historical documents are wonderful assets to the open curriculum, but are rarely editable and therefore hard to loop into a classroom-friendly curriculum. The Google Drive scenario of sharing between colleagues represents an OER ideal on a small scale, but both effectiveness and ethics are become more complicated as teachers try to replicate similar exchanges with a larger district, the wider world, and otherwise for-profit technology giants. When suddenly laboratories of ideas need to take the form of finished products, both personalization and collaboration can get subsumed by ideas like intellectual property and compensation.

On the one hand, I am in love with the open culture of OERs. I write for The Public Domain Review, a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation that brings light to interesting artifacts within the world’s digital libraries. I actively design assignments that mine the incredible resources of digital libraries. And I have had major frustrations in the classroom when I have lead kids through a research project only to find that resources they need are only available for sale or are locked down in subscription only databases. In the world of higher education, JSTOR has caused a lot of controversy by restricting research articles with fees that do not go to benefit the academics that produced them or the universities that have funded them.

The DOE has been an active champion of sharing teacher-generated, commercial, and historical resources freely. On his blog, Andrew Marcinek, the former adviser of Open Education, writes that bringing more teacher-generated resources into OERs is the ideal way to find out what would happen if “we looked within our classrooms for innovative ideas and amplified the voice of educators.” Since the launch of the #GoOpen campaign—an effort to motivate the education community to use open-license materials—the DOE has encouraged school districts to use this sort of resource sharing to broaden horizons within the classroom, carefully examine and reevaluate curricula, and save money on commercially produced educational material. The informational packet released by the DOE suggests that schools wishing to “go open” begin planning a year in advance to bring together all materials needed for a course. A committee would curate items from around the internet as well as assignments, activities, and assessments generated by the district’s own faculty, creating an entire curriculum that would become a part of a districtwide, if not nationwide, cache of available teaching resources.

The popular resource-sharing platform Teachers Pay Teachers, a private company in business since 2006, predates the #GoOpen campaign; although the site has 4 million active users, it is not one of the DOE’s suggested platforms as much of its material comes with a price tag. On the site, teachers upload a mixture of resources that are free to download and ones that are listed for sale, ranging in price from 99 cents for a slideshow or activity worksheet to $40 for an entire unit plan. Individual teachers are generally the shoppers, sometimes paying out-of-pocket, sometimes using school funds allocated for materials. Copyrights on materials can also be pretty guarded: Some teachers sell licenses for the right to re-share materials with colleagues while others offer their work only as un-editable formats like PDF.

When I first signed up for Teachers Pay Teachers back in 2008, I was giddy—not only was the website founded by another New York teacher, Paul Edleman, but it also cast teachers in the role of author rather than drudge for commercial textbooks. Not to mention that it rewarded (both financially and through networking) one of my very favorite parts of teaching: the reflection, research, and return to content that goes into creating materials. A well-honed, engaging assignment, when it is not shared, can feel like a fleeting success as it can really only be used once per class per year.

But then I sat at my desk, trying to open up shop, flipping through countless resources that I was truly proud to teach, and realized that not one of them could be shared without some serious editing. What I hadn’t understood before this tentative jump into the broader sharing economy was that making assignments is so much about personalization. Much of my work already had the flow of lesson plans written into the materials. Grouped lists of students names, references to specific comments in specific discussions, staggered deadlines, page numbers referring to other texts and activities, and regional jokes all littered my materials. Nothing had the gloss of the commercial. For them to be appropriate for a general audience, I had to wipe them down and make them blank slates. Selling material, or even sharing it for that matter—Teachers Pay Teachers requires all sellers to offer at least one free resource—would have been an intensive project. My colleagues kept my binders and Google Drive links, but my shop did not launch.

Tracee Orman, an Erie, Illinois, high-school English teacher who creates materials about contemporary books like The Hunger Games, is concerned that the GoOpen campaign’s call for teachers to share resources freely reflects a general misunderstanding among policymakers of the difference between lesson plans and the materials the teacher uses as part of the lesson plans. Teachers write lesson plans to reflect the organization and flow, not the content, of their day-to-day classes; materials, on the other hand, are rich in content and take vastly more time and expertise to generate from scratch. For Orman, writing the two things involves separate skill sets, and asking teachers to share enough material for an entire course without additional compensation imposes a huge burden and sends the message that teacher-authors are not valued on par with textbook authors. While many teachers choose to create their own materials, it has generally been to supplement curriculum rather than design it.

Another popular Teachers Pay Teachers seller, David Rickert, creates hand-illustrated poetry worksheets as a labor of love.* He chooses not to us one of his most popular products, a comic to accompany the text of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” in his classroom. Instead, he prefers to keep the materials he sells and the ones he uses for his own students separate. That is not to say that his materials aren’t classroom ready—he, like Orman and many Teachers Pay Teachers sellers, writes a blog that is full of ideas about best practices for using his resources. Unlike Orman, though, he is enthusiastic about the prospect of the DOE’s #GoOpen campaign. He said he would be interested in creating additional comics if his district were to join the #GoOpen initiative because he’s always looking for new ways to reach more kids. He initially joined Teachers Pay Teachers not for the money, but simply because it is “a great way to get [my] stuff into classrooms, and I wouldn't want to shut that off.”

Although it is unclear how districts and schools looking to adopt an open curriculum will look upon teachers who are already selling their resources on Teachers Pay Teachers, if the #GoOpen campaign is to succeed, it will need a centralized platform where teachers can seek out each other’s work and find community. The Learning Registry is one DOE-endorsed tool that aggregates free education resources. Marcinek, who worked closely with the Learning Registry and the platforms it serves, looks to the music industry for design inspiration, citing playlists as an ideal element to help teachers curate and share quality lessons.

Amazon, currently testing its new education platform, Amazon Inspire, is another company poised to step into this role. The company’s resource-sharing resembles Teachers Pay Teachers and is comprised only of free and openly licensed materials. Rohit Agarwal, Amazon’s director of education, estimates that teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week searching for resources, and he hopes that Amazon Inspire will help to streamline this process. This great goal may be helpful to teachers in the role of consumer, but Amazon has had more difficulty assessing the needs of teachers who create materials. The company has not always recognized that well-honed and polished resources are not just something teachers have lying around ready to share. Amazon Inspire’s rollout showed little regard for the work of educators when it used teacher-generated resources taken from Teachers Pay Teachers without permission. To foster an intellectual community, it is important to respect the creative output of teachers as intellectual property.

There is no right answer to whether teachers should be paid for their materials. The types of work represented on Teachers Pay Teachers span such different uses: There are the rigorous lesson plans on American literature that could make our country a better democracy, the customizable classroom name tags that could improve one second-grader’s day, and the grading rubrics that could give a teacher back an hour of his weekend. The fact is, teachers’ work is already bestowed on the American public whether or not it is polished for sale or uploaded to an OER platform. But whether a teacher decides to share on a micro or a macro level, the choice should be open and judgement free.

* This article originally misspelled David Rickert's last name as Rickets. We regret the error.