Why open curriculum wikis won’t work

Magical thinkingWe’ve all heard calls for various kinds of open curriculum wikis. Districts, states and foundations are designing portals, wikis and other online databases so that educators can upload their lesson plans and activities, learning modules, or other bits and pieces of what they do in their classrooms. The idea is that as more educators upload content, the collection becomes a free, shareable curriculum.

Sounds good, right? The problem is that this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of curriculum.

Curriculum is a statement of opinion – it reflects the author’s beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning. Curriculum is pedagogy in action, the day-to-day plan for how to teach a subject, based on what we think students should learn and how we believe students learn best.

Curriculum is not just a collection of content. It is more than disconnected lesson plans attached to a list of standards. It reflects a person’s or group’s belief about what order to approach topics and what kinds of activities work best for most students. The pacing, depth, and order are all based on these beliefs, which can differ widely between authors. Curriculum authors have to think long and hard about their philosophy regarding the subject area and presentation of the material. Directions for the teacher reflect a belief of how much scripting a teacher needs to deliver the lesson as envisioned. They have to create consistent assessment plans that support and complement the lessons and activities. The pieces — lesson plans, activities, and assessment– hang on this superstructure. Without the structure of a consistent philosophy, these pieces are useless.

Unfortunately, beliefs and philosophy don’t make good subjects for open wikis, at least not the cast-of-thousands Wikipedia kind of success we all imagine. That’s why the calls for open curriculum wikis, free portals, and lesson plan collections that depend on large numbers of independent educators producing bits of curriculum are doomed to failure.

Without a guiding hand and point of view, anything added to a curriculum wiki will have no anchor in a common belief about the nature of teaching and learning. Even hiring editors doesn’t solve the problem. Sure, editors might be able to clean up things like grammar or level of detail. But how will editors collaboratively decide whether to favor student-centered teaching or direct instruction? It will be useless to a teacher who finds that one lesson calls for student collaboration on a long-term project and the next is a 30 minute lecture with downloadable worksheets for students to silently complete.

I’m all for breaking down the monopoly that textbook publishers have on schools worldwide. I’m completely in favor of people using the collaborative power of wikis to build reference and teaching materials that reflect their views about learning and teaching. I have nothing but praise for people who decide to freely share the results of their hard work in public, like the MIT Open Courseware.

But hoping random lesson plans can knit themselves into a coherent curriculum is just magical thinking. At best, teachers may find a few nuggets they can adapt for their own classrooms. At worst, these pipe dreams soak up time, energy and money.


23 Replies to “Why open curriculum wikis won’t work”

  1. This is so important to understand. I agree that, at best, educators can see what others are doing and grab an idea or two. Otherwise we are creating resources where teachers can take cookie cutter lessons and apply them without consideration of individual student needs. While I agree that this wouldn’t come through in a large scale collaborative wiki with many authors, would it on a smaller scale wiki with a few authors collaborating? What if individual teachers maintained their curriculum or small teams of teachers in a department or grade level of the same school or district collaborated on one? Is this more “doable”?

  2. Since you placed it in bold, I suppose there’s little reason for me to emphasize it again, but still, the important point here is Curriculum is a statement of opinion. That’s a point that should be emphasized over and over again, and yet I can’t help but feel that the populist call for wiki-based curricula stems from an assumption that more is always better, as well as from a failure to understand what curriculum is, and perhaps even from a basic misunderstanding about the basic purposes of education.

    By defining curriculum as a statement of opinion you’re telling teachers that, for better or for worse, they have been entrusted with the role of inculcating to a future generation the cultural understandings and assumptions of their community. To my dismay, most teachers are hardly aware of this role, and instead think their job is disseminating packaged information to their pupils, or simply occupying their time in school. For purposes such as these, a “wiki-curriculum”, consisting of lesson plans and activities, can be very useful. It’s like being in a supermarket, with aisle upon aisle of enticingly packaged goods. Of course it’s far from clear that being able to choose from 25 types of toothpaste is really choice, or that the goods being offered fit our real needs.

  3. Brian,
    I think it’s always a good thing when people get together and plan lessons, discuss intent, approach, and build a collective memory of what’s working, etc. Some districts (more outside of the US) build group lesson planning into teacher’s days and spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to create and refine their lessons. A wiki is a smart way to keep track of that kind of effort.

    In my head, there is a big difference between a wiki being the product of thoughtful work of an individual or group vs. a wiki being a collection of random stuff.

  4. I basically agree, but the key here is that writing curricula is not like writing an encyclopedia, it is like writing software. The model is not Wikipedia, but the Linux kernel, or Apache, or Ruby on Rails (just to name three). Successful open source software has a point of view and is generally brought up to the point of basic functionality by one person or a very small group. Once it is complete enough to be useful, more people get involved. Even then they are typically ruled by a “BDFL” or “Benign Dictator For Life,” some even after they eventually spawn more formal governance structures.

  5. Jay, you’ve made a good point (which Tom also has emphasized) that thoughtful work by a person or small group can be cohesive and very valuable.

    Tom, as much as I agree with you, there are few people who have experienced software development, even fewer who have been a part of a successful software development team, and fraction of those who’ve done it open source. It’s unfortunately one of those good examples that gets you nowhere with most people.

  6. Hello, Sylvia,

    A couple quick thoughts here —

    There is an enormous gap that you are not addressing between wiki curriculum and delivery in the classroom — you allude to it in your closing when you say: “But hoping random lesson plans can knit themselves into a coherent curriculum is just magical thinking. At best, teachers may find a few nuggets they can adapt for their own classrooms.”

    The problem you point out is a very real one — to restate it, and to shift the context a little bit, current wiki curriculum efforts are effectively content silos — the content in them can be linked to, can be read for free, can (in some cases) be used for free, but it cannot easily be *moved* and *edited*; ie, recontextualized, or “knit…into a coherent curriculum” —

    And this is where Tom’s open source analogy can be repackaged into something that EVERY teacher has done: modified content from a textbook to make it fit their specific classroom context. Heck, when I was teaching I would modify some lessons on a class by class basis, depending on the strengths of the various classes. While most teachers won’t be able to follow you down the road of kernel hacking, they will all be able to follow you down the road of “I built this lesson by using the text for context, an external article for details, and connected the dots via activity/lecture/discussion.”

    So, in looking at the dots you lay out: wiki textbook –> classroom interaction, I propose adding an additional stopping point: wiki textbook –> recontextualization as needed –> classroom interaction

    The reason why open texts are better have as much to do with content as they do with cost. By providing options that leave the consumer with the choice to edit and redistribute (something you cannot do with traditional textbooks), you are ensuring that all the work educators within a school do when they recontextualize content (aka planning) doesn’t get tossed, and can then be reused. By using a wiki-like model that allows multiple people to contribute content, multiple people to edit content, and then allows individuals to select pieces from the whole to “knit” their curriculum, you are supporting teachers to work more efficiently as they do work they already do. If this content is licensed under an open license, it means that more people can benefit from that effort.

    I blogged about this a while back in a post titled OER’s:Publishing is the Easy Part — I’d link to the post, but I don’t want to get caught in the spam-eating beast.

    So, the problem here isn’t in wiki-style curriculum repositories. The problem is twofold: first, most existing repositories are content silos; second, the workflow of teachers isn’t considered in how open content is published. Neither of these issues are inherent in open content or wiki-style curriculum tools.

  7. I agree that ‘Curriculum is not just a collection of content’ and you make some good points about why this is so. But I don’t agree that collections of curriculum resources are bound to fail – they could prove valuable to those prepared to evaluate the resources and build them thoughtfully into their curriculum.

    When used by those who expect a ready-made recipe, they will produce disappointing results – but that’s likely to happen anyway.

    Really, it’s a familiar situation I think – it’s how the technology is used that is important. It won’t make poor planning and learning design any better, but where the planning and design is already good a ‘curriculum wiki’ could be valuable in providing access to a much wider range of resources and teaching ideas.

  8. Paul,
    I think you are being overly generous in your use of the word curriculum. But yes, certainly the use of the wiki is not the problem here.

    You’ve brought up a whole other aspect of the issue here. So, yes, I’d say that even if it was easy to edit and move things out of a content silo (great term!) it wouldn’t be worth it. Making random content easily accessible isn’t very useful. And accessibility and re-usability is at least a whole other post, as you point out.

  9. Hello, Sylvia,

    Random content easily accessible — fully agreed.

    However, schools and teachers produce a large amount of good quality, focused content — and more importantly, this content reflects an approach toward learning, and an attitude toward learning (ie, it was prepared in a specific context) that has been tried in a classroom setting.

    So, if multiple schools/teachers exposed lessons/curriculum, and these lessons were collected in a central location, and then made easily portable, it’s a different ballgame. Distributed authorship flowing into a central, wiki-style repository, into personalized republishing is a different model than what we have now, as it permits teachers to plan and publish in the milieu of their choosing, as opposed to the content silo someone else has set up. It also allows for recontextualization, allowing teachers to adapt ideas and lessons for their specific needs.

    Will this work for every teacher? Of course not. Will this be very helpful to others? Absolutely. But I’m not seeing where a blanket dismissal is either helpful, or grounded in reality — at least not the reality I see, where people ask on a very regular basis for precisely this type of open content.

    The accessibility and reusability, btw, is very possible, now. The reason more open content repositories are still content silos has more to do with their pursuit of a business model than any valid technical reason. However, we would be very silly to allow their poor planning and execution to sour what is, at core, an excellent way forward.

  10. Bill,
    I’m pretty sure I was very clear that my post and follow up comments were not a blanket dismissal of all things wiki.

    I *think* we are saying very similar things, and I agree with your last point. However, I think that it’s important to say out loud that many of the current models being pointed to as revolutionary are not revolutionary nor are they valuable. You have to be able to make the distinctions to make the case.

  11. Hello, Sylvia,

    RE: “not a blanket dismissal” — thank you for the clarification, While I wasn’t sure, when you said, “I’d say that even if it was easy to edit and move things out of a content silo (great term!) it wouldn’t be worth it.” it felt like you were veering into that territory — which would have surprised me, based on what I have read in your blog. The fact that I was responding pre-coffee probably didn’t help either.

    RE: “I think that it’s important to say out loud that many of the current models being pointed to as revolutionary are not revolutionary nor are they valuable.”

    Absolutely. I wish I had a nickel for every time I saw a content silo appropriate the term “open” because they have launched a site where anyone can join.

    Great post, and thanks for the conversation.



  12. Go to a local bookstore or teacher supply shop and you will be assaulted by a zillion different low-cost “easy-to-use” books full of clever creative classroom curriculum concepts. Faculty rooms and teacher bookshelves are filled with this crap too. (Glad I could get another C into the sentence)

    It is clear that there is no shortage of curriculum or classroom tips and tricks. How will online versions of same change the nature of teaching and learning?

  13. Unfortunately, the teachers interested in using online tools like wikis and other portals to develop and share rich curriculum materials are greatly outnumbered by teachers looking for blackline masters that can magically lead students to achieve curriculum expectations.

    Developing materials on a common ‘performance’ framework (like the WebQuest format) tied to cross-curricular expectations is one way to provide educators with examplars of how they might engage 21st century learners.

    Some I’ve helped write are here: http://www.LDCSB.on.ca/schools/cfe/rpt/menu.HTML

    Another benefit: Rather than a portal, those in-the-know can scour the entire web using an apt tag/keyword like ‘RPT’ or ‘WebQuest’.

  14. Hello,

    Our 1,700 student, K-12 district has actually moved into a collaborative curriculum development model that has been very successful so far, and uses MediaWiki.

    Although it is a work in progress, we have around 10,000 pages of teacher and student created, standards-based content, supporting materials that have been uploaded, and disussion pages created. Resources are referenced to teach the standards, and these come from a range of approaches, and appeal to a wide variety of teaching and learning styles.

    The site is open to all, not just district employees and students, and has several thousand users from inside and outside the district. It operates as our OFFICIAL curriculum. Here. For us.

    The parallels between Open Source and Open Content Curriculum have been a linchpin of this effort, and Eric Raymond is frequently cited 😉

    I’ve enjoyed this post and the comment thread, but I believe and have seen that collaborative curriuculum development using wiki tools CAN and DOES work.

    I also disagree on the idea that this idea is based on an essential misunderstanding of curriculum. Curriculum is not a product, but a process. Refinement of what is needed to be know, and how to learn it is a dynamic process.

    Intentional organizations define these things, and don’t buy them. But they don’t in reality start with a blank slate. They copy, rip and burn them….no matter if they are using print or digital techniques to do so.

    A curriculum is not a collection of resources. That truly IS a misunderstanding. But living, user-created and -maintained standards allow an organization to continually refine the resources which support that curriculum, and fit the needs of that organization’s users as designers.

    What is missing from Sylvia’s argument, I think, is the definition of who the curriculum is for….what schoold or learners does it serve? is it supposed to be a universal curriculum? For ALL? Then she is right. A wiki-based universal curriculum would not become THE Curriculum any more than one build of Linux would likely become THE Linux Build.



  15. Hi John,
    I think your opening description of the work that your teachers are doing is telling – and differentiates it from the “content silos” that I was talking about. Your teachers are doing “collaborative curriculum development,” and just happen to be using a wiki to keep track of their work.

    I tried to make that distinction in my post, and keep it a readable length, but maybe that wasn’t clear enough!

    By using the word “open” in the title and body of the post, I wasn’t referring to the common ability of all wikis to be openly edited, but to the idea that some wikis are there without any guiding hand, and become what Bill cleverly labeled “content silos” – wish I’d thought of that term!

  16. Hello, Sylvia,

    I wish I could take credit for “content silo” — I don’t know who coined the term, but it was someone far brighter than me. I first heard it when working on issues around online identity, and I find it useful as a way of looking at how companies approach their users/members.

    AOL? Content Silo.
    Facebook? Content Silo.
    Ning? Content Silo.
    Hippocampus? Content Silo.

    @John — I love the work that you are doing in your district. Amazing stuff. I particularly like your description of curriculum as process, and how that incorporates the notion of intentional community.



  17. By using the word “open” in the title and body of the post, I wasn’t referring to the common ability of all wikis to be openly edited, but to the idea that some wikis are there without any guiding hand, and become what Bill cleverly labeled “content silos”…


    Appreciate your comments, and Sylvia, I think Open is what you mean in both senses 😉

    Open Source and Open Content have many parallels. The concept of Open applies to both in our case. I realize the significance of the Silos in your original post, and in Bill’s follow ups. I think that the silos have a purpose, and curriculum is not those things – as I think you’d agree.

    But, curriculum can reference, connect and leverage an eclectic mix of resources, and some of it will certainly be pointing to specific objects or documents in those unorganized silos. YouTube is a classic silo example. The curriculum is what ties those things together, The curriculum is the guiding force. Our teachers mine YouTube for what they need to help convey ideas and concepts in that curriculum.

    However, the openness of the code – ability to view and change the code – in software – also applies to our idea of an “Open Content Curriculum”. The intentionality is also user defined by those in the organization, or our “users”.

    Seven years ago, our curriculum “developers” , to use Eric Raymond’s terminology in the Cathedral and the Bazaar, were the textbook manufacturers, software and materials developers that most districts use. Now our developers are our users 😉

    This approach would not be suitable for all districts, of course. When I do presentations about our collaborative curriculum projec I like to pull in here “Conway’s Law”. He was a programmer who can be very roughly paraphrased as having said:

    “Organizations tend to create things that resemble their internal communications structures – Melvin Conway – 1968”

    BSSD is a really open organization when compared to most school districts. We still use resources from textbook companies and software developers, but we define the common threads that link the curriuclum together through our standards.

    This allows teachers the professional freedom to use an ecclectic mix of resources from wherever they need to – including YouTube, Rice’s Connexions project, and so on – in order to help students learn. And students are encouraged to CONTRIBUTE, not just consume those resources in demonstrating mastery.

    So, I hope this helps you understand that in our case the idea of “Open” applies to both the editable nature of the curriculum, and the user-guided definition of intent and direction.



  18. Sylvia,

    I was fascinated to read your post about open content, and Bill’s (of FunnyMonkey) response, as well.

    Without question there are processes available to bring together content and make it available for use, re-use etc. You point out, if I read you correctly, that the missing element is context: what to do with all this “stuff”? Is it right for me? Where’s the substance/meaning?

    And this is where the conversation gets really interesting: what about the role of the teacher in providing what Bill terms “recontextualization”? That’s the nut I’ve been working on cracking for some time now, along with marrying the interests of content contributors (from the commercial to the individual), professors in a classroom setting, and, of course, students.

    Anyway, no doubt there’s change coming but if you ask me it won’t happen properly until 1) context is added to the aggregation process and 2) the interests of content creators, professors and students are all aligned. The second point is critical because we have to consider the importance of getting contextualized & customized best-of-breed content to students in order to advance learning objectives.

    I think I’ve basically just re-stated your post but it got me all fired up since I’ve dedicated a great deal of time to the subject…

    All the best,


  19. I can dig it man. I think you could argue that the open ended curriculum could serve as a guiding light. A sort of “virtual beacon” if you will. Don’t use wiki as a cited source, but as a starting point.
    I personally am down with the nuggets, “fresh nugs”, if you will.

  20. This is such an interesting conversation, and in the development of Curriki, we consider these issues all the time. Curriki is a K-12 web site with a repository of open source learning resources ranging from curricular material and whole courses to lesson plans and student facing applications. We not only have the repository of resources (both community generated and contributed by publishers and organizations), but also tools for contributing content. We accept contributions (or modifications) via our wiki and we also allow people to post files in other formats. We also have group tools for teachers to work together collaboratively, as well as a review system to vet content for accuracy, completeness, and pedagogy (various approaches).

    One of the issues we often face is trying to understand who our different audiences are (we think we have several) and what those audiences different purposes are (sharing content, working together collaboratively, finding whole courses or units, modifying and creating collections to suit their needs) and then what kinds of tools to give to each type of user.

    I think what’s relevant in terms of the questions raised here is that different people can use the wiki, or use group tools, or use open source resources, to do different things. We found that our group tools and wiki resources have been popular (and are starting to be more popular) with school districts who are seeking a way to both collaborate on curriculum development and also memorialize what they do to share it with other educators in their schools and districts (and also, we hope, educators around the world). Working in a group, users can also set their own controls for how they work together, how they review materials, work flow, etc. The model also works when a single teacher uses the content and the tools to create a collection of resources from the repository. While a collection is not strictly a curriculum, it can be used to help guide one, as it can contain objectives, teacher and student-facing resources, standards, and assessments.

    Another point I want to make is that there doesn’t have to be one, single, overarching curriculum on any one topic and that’s what makes the use of wiki collaboration so compelling. At Curriki we’ve created a content roadmap that outlines a complete K-12 curriculum in the core subject areas. We are trying to get people to contribute open source content to cover each of the areas outlined on our roadmap. But what we really hope is that we get multiple contributions for each topic so that people searching for resources don’t have to use one and only one curriculum on a topic, but can pick and choose among different approaches and different resources that suit their student’s needs and their teaching styles. Using the wiki, they can take the best-of and mix, remix, and match and that’s where the real power comes in!


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