I’m just on my way back from the Computing At Schools (CAS) Wales conference. The Welsh minister for education, Leighton Andrews, was there, and talked about his plans for education in Wales. In general, it was good stuff: he clearly knows what computing is, why computing is important, and is willing to put his money where his mouth is — committing funds to digital learning and computing. Good news. But if there was any eye-rolling, it was at the idea of a new repository for sharing teaching materials, named Hwb (Welsh, I presume!). Yet another repository, came the sigh.
Repositories generally arise from the following observation. Teachers need material for their classes: lesson plans, schemes of work and so on. Without any other means, teachers would all make all their own lesson plans to teach the same topic. This is clearly wasteful, and a lot of this duplicated effort could be cut out if we could get teachers to share their lesson plans. What we need is a repository to allow teachers to share their materials! But how can you practically effect this sharing of material? I’m not an expert, but I do have experience of designing and building a repository for Greenfoot (called the Greenroom), so here are some thoughts on repositories.
It’s Not About The Repository
What makes a lot of repositories fail is a focus on the repository. All the teachers need is a place to put files, the thinking goes. There is an implicit “build it and they will come” mentality. The problem isn’t the lack of a place to put things! We’ve had FTP sites for 20+ years. The repository should not be the focus. A repository is just a way for people to share materials — focus on what will get the people sharing.
Give and Take
Getting teachers to take good materials from a repository is generally easy. Sure, the teachers will often tweak the material a bit, and there are issues to do with judging quality, and locating the best resources, but in general: if you offer a teacher a free, well-stocked repository of good teaching material, they’ll take you up on the offer. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to get materials in to the repository.
The most straightforward option for filling a repository is to pay someone. You pay some people, preferably good teachers, to write materials for the repository, and maybe employ someone to keep the materials up-to-date. The issue then is: who pays? Governments don’t have a lot of money right now. Exam boards are a possibility in the UK (or the AP scheme in the USA?), or now CAS. Despite this being the simplest option, I haven’t seen it done very often. Simon Peyton Jones was mooting this idea of CAS paying people for materials earlier today at the CAS Wales conference.
What do you do instead, if you don’t have money? Creating materials requires expertise and, above all else, time — but teachers generally do not have a surplus of time. (And it really is best if teachers create the material. They are best positioned to know what is needed, what works with kids and what doesn’t.) What would make a teacher upload their materials to a repository?
The teachers are generally creating their material anyway — so surely they will just upload their material to share, recognising that it is in the common good? Some may, but experience suggests that the common good is not enough by itself. That is not to say that teachers are selfish, but when you have a busy life, overwhelming job, two kids and so on, goodwill is not enough by itself to keep motivating people to upload materials.
Recognition and Feedback
One thing that does help to motivate people is recognition. This should not be derided or dismissed. People like to share a resource and be able to say “I made that”. And what they then would love is for people to use the resource and say, “That’s Joe Bloggs’ resource. I think it’s great.” There is little more powerful in motivating people than compliments and recognition from their peers.
One of the drawbacks of the very early web was that you had no idea who was reading your webpages. You’d put a webpage up somewhere, and it was like casting a message afloat in a bottle. Was anyone reading it? Did they like it? Very quickly, people added features like hit counters (remember them?) and then comments, so that people could interact and have a dialogue between creators and users. This feature dialogue is very important to continued successful sharing. People don’t share materials with repositories, they share material with people.
One of the problems with getting people to publish content, especially with teachers, is the issue of timidity. We encourage teachers to share their materials, and are often met with the response “Well, my material isn’t good enough to share.” We’ve heard this over and over again, and it gets frustrating. All this good material exists out there, and teachers hold back from sharing it because they (wrongly) judge that no-one would be interested or impressed.
We knew this at the start of the Greenroom and tried to design against it. We encouraging sharing from the outset. We told teachers that sharing anything was better than sharing nothing. We adopted a wiki-style model for resources, allowing anyone to edit resources. Upload a starting point, we said, and others can edit and polish it — you don’t have to have the finished article. I don’t think this argument succeeded, and in fact we got bitten by this timidity twice: teachers were hesitant to edit anyone else’s material because they didn’t want to be seen to be criticising each other’s resources or daring to believe that they could improve someone else’s efforts (of course they can!). It’s a culture problem, and I’m not sure how to fix it. I wonder if we need teachers to approach teaching materials more like programmers approach open-source software: there to be hacked into shape by knowledgeable and willing ad-hoc teams.
My key message is that a repository is just a tool to support the desire of a community to share resources. No community, no (successful) repository. Supporting interaction within the community is essential because people need to get compliments, feedback and recognition on their efforts in order to want to contribute more. Design for the people: repositories should be part of a social-software system, either a cohesive whole (e.g. the Greenroom), or by integrating with existing popular technologies (e.g. twitter, which is popular with UK computing teachers) — just a place to put file is not enough.