Free online materials could save schools billions

Free online materials could save schools billions

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

Teachers can go to the Free-Reading website to watch short videos of teachers and students taking part in actual lessons.Wireless Generation handout

Teachers can go to the Free-Reading website to watch short videos of teachers and students taking part in actual lessons.

March, Dixon Deutsch and his students have been quietly experimenting
with a little website that could one day rock the foundation of how
schools do business.

A K-2 teacher at Achievement First Bushwick Elementary Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., Deutsch, 28, has been using, a reading instruction program that allows him to download, copy and share lessons with colleagues.

can visit the website and comment on what works and what doesn’t. He
can modify lessons to suit his students’ needs and post the
modifications online: Think of a cross between a first-grade reading
workbook and Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia written and
edited by users.

If Deutsch wants to see a
lesson taught by someone who already has mastered it, he clicks on a
YouTube video linked to the site and sees a short demo. "I find it’s
more teacher-friendly than a textbook," he says.

Oh, and it’s free.

for years have tapped open-source materials, with instructors designing
and giving away material such as lecture notes and exams. The
Massachusetts Institute of Technology boasts that virtually its entire
catalog is available through " open courseware."

But the idea has been slow to make a mark in the less technologically savvy K-12 world.

That may soon change. Websites such as
offer free materials tied to high school textbooks, and several
college-level open-source projects are trickling down to K-12 schools.

California-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is funding K-12
open-source projects worldwide, including English-language training for
native Chinese- and Spanish-speakers.

perhaps the most significant development is at the most elementary
level. Last fall, a Florida textbook adoption committee approved
Free-Reading, a remediation program for primary-school children that’s
believed to be the first free, open-source reading program for K-12
public schools. It’s awaiting approval by Eric Smith, the state’s
incoming education commissioner, who could approve it by mid-December.

is one of the top five textbook markets in the USA, so its move could
lead to the development of other free materials that might someday
challenge the dominance of a handful of big educational publishers.

is an important and perhaps powerful initiative," says Adam Newman of
Eduventures, an education research and consulting firm in Boston.
"Those adoption lists are sort of hallowed ground, so to be approved
for one of those is a breakthrough."

Could Free-Reading offer a glimpse of the future, when big, bulky — and expensive — textbooks go the way of the film strip?

Newman thinks so. "This is a shot across the bow for a lot of people," he says.

spent $4.4 billion for textbooks in the 2006-07 school year, according
to Eduventures. While that’s only about 1% of total expenditures, the
prospect of free, state-approved materials could profoundly influence
how schools spend money — and what publishers offer, Newman says.

suddenly you don’t have to spend $100 million every four years on
textbooks, it’s not found money, but certainly it’s money that could be
applied to other kinds of educational endeavors."

three dozen teachers nationwide are piloting Free-Reading, and company
officials say their teacher website has had 11,000 visitors since Oct.

Designed by a New York-based educational
start-up, Wireless Generation, the reading program for kindergartners
and first-graders allows teachers to post their own lessons, comments
and modifications in what the company says is a "wiki" application. The
site even looks like Wikipedia.

Generation CEO Larry Berger, 39, says he hopes to make money from
teacher training and technical support. "We probably will get involved
in offering those services," he says.

should know. Four years ago, he turned another free item, the DIBELS
reading test, into a moneymaker by developing software that allows
teachers to score the test on a handheld computer.

won’t say how much money the software has made — his company is
privately held — but says it is used in virtually every large urban
district and is "quite successful." He hopes "an industry will spring
up around Free-Reading."

But for that to
happen, he says, the materials have to be high-quality and useful,
driving users and their colleagues to the site in a sort of "Google

Darion Griffin, associate director
of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, says
that Free-Reading’s advisory panel is impressive and that the material
is promising and easy to understand. "It looks like it was pretty
solid," Griffin says.

Deutsch, the Brooklyn
teacher, says he has referred dozens of colleagues so far. "If there’s
curriculum that’s free and high-quality, why not use it?" he says.


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