Federal ‘Learning Registry’ Courts Publishers, Content Providers

Managing Editor

Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

Websites are destinations, but the Learning Registry is meant to offer something different.

Its backers describe it as a online highway, or a network of roads designed to bring educators to the content they want.

More specifically, the tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education is an open communication or information network for delivering academic resources to educators and the public, set up to allow sharing of information among peers, sorted to meet individual teachers’ and students’ needs.

Department officials, who launched the registry two years ago, say they have invested about $1 million in it so far. The agency has been refining the registry since its launch, and it says the coding for it was finished earlier this year.

Whether the registry evolves into a prized tool for educators and others across the K-12 community, or one that fades into online obscurity, remains to be seen.

Department of Education officials are trying to lift participation among educators and organizations who they need to feed academic materials into the registry. On the receiving end, they want to ramp up participation among educators and other experts who can distinguish good resources from weak ones for their colleagues.

“In the past, everybody said, let’s make these big content libraries…let’s create this one portal, this one location, and that’s where they searched for their content,” said Richard Culatta, the director of the department’s office of educational technology, in an interview.

When the question was asked of “how do we make it easier” for educators, he added, the response too often was, “Oh, I know, let’s create another portal!”

For educators, the problem usually is not finding classroom materials, it’s that “there are 700, and you need one,” Culatta said. “Seven-hundred doesn’t help you. What’s the best one for the kids I’m teaching, at the time I’m teaching, at the level I’m teaching?”

The registry was built to receive all content, including those provided by commercial providers, so some of the material it houses may not be free, said Steve Midgley, a senior adviser at the department who has worked on the system. But he estimates that the vast majority of the content is free, and some of the sites tapping into it are tailored to present audiences with no-cost resources.

Refined Search

Online visitors looking for a single home website for the Learning Registry won’t find one. It’s instead accessed through any of the individual home pages that arrange to tap into it. Those include free.ed.gov, the Illinois Shared Learning Environment, and www.learnbig.com.

One of the big goals of the registry is to allow educators to avoid going through the cumbersome, site-by-site search for resources, and allow them instead to tap into a library of materals—which have been rated by peers and other trusted sources—that can be accessed through the websites already familiar to them.

Anyone—government agencies, nonprofits, or commercial publishers—can contribute resources to the registry, the department says. That means no one controls what resources it contains.

The managers of individual websites that tap into the registry—who could include state departments of education or information-sharing networks of educators—determine what information they will present to their audiences, whether they’re high school biology teachers, middle school math curriculum specialists, elementary school principals, or others.

Existing websites can use the registry by establishing application-programming interfaces, a common strategy for pulling data from one site to another, Culatta said.

While the Department of Education is overseeing the registry, the U.S. Department of Defense also supported its development, and other federal agencies contributed, too. In addition to the Education Department’s investment in the site, a private entity, Amazon Web Services, hosts it, and has spent $20,000 on it, the department estimates.

About 500 unique publishers have contributed so far, including the National Science Digital Library, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian, among many others.

How would a classroom teacher benefit from the registry?

Culatta, in a recent presentation on the system (you can watch a clip of it below) cited the example of a 5th grade science teacher leading a class with a lot of English-language learners. Rather than going online and searching in dribs and drabs, the teacher would connect the registry from a site he or she uses now, and get access to a pool of materials that colleagues around the country, working with the same kinds of students, are vetting and sharing.

Department officials also see larger-scale payoffs.

Individual states are collecting resources they believe are aligned to the common core. Suppose each of the 50 states cobbles together 100 of those aligned materials, Culatta said—then shares them through the registry. Teachers in states taking part in the system could then access a menu of 5,000 aligned resources from their keyboards.

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“It’s not searching the Internet. This is searching a national, or an international data store,” said Jeanne Kitchens, the associate director of the center for workforce development at Southern Illinois University, in Springfield, Ill. She is working to develop the Illinois Shared Learning Environment, and has thus made use of the registry. The idea is to streamline educators’ research, she said, and avoid sending them into a cycle of “looking, looking, looking” for the right classroom tool.

Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association, which represents software and digital-content providers, said his organization is supportive of the registry and has tried to make its members aware of it.

But he questioned the system’s long-term viability, and predicted that its success would hinge partly on educators’ and others’ ability to make sense of it and promote it among colleagues and peers—which are not sure things.

“Is it going to be sustained, supported, and implemented?” Schneiderman said. “The jury’s still out.”

(The software association has acknowledged the growing presence of open-education resources in the K-12 market, and has said commercial publishers can co-exist with them. But it has also argued that creating open materials and bringing them to classrooms can carry significant, and often hidden costs, and it has questioned how easily those resources can be updated and tailored to meet changing K-12 needs.)

Midgley, the Education Department’s senior adviser, cited several factors that he believes will give the registry a lasting presence. One is technological: The registry does not rely on a central server, but rather functions in a way that’s more comparable to an e-mail network than a single website, a model that should encourage growth within the community of users, he argued.

In addition, the interest in the registry outside the federal government, and the sharing among some users of it, including states, suggest that there’s a K-12 network keen on keeping it vibrant, he said.

Eventually, the Department of Education hopes to become just “one of many supporters” of the system, Midgley said. He said the department has gradually decreased funding of the registry, rather than cutting it off, as a way to encourage the outside community of online users to take greater ownership of it.

“Maintenance is a big concern for us,” Midgley said in an e-mail. “We definitely don’t want this to be a ‘forever federal’ initiative.”

In the meantime, federal officials want more publishers, whether they’re nonprofit or commercial, supplying the registry with material. Doing so would pay off for those organizations, Culatta says, no matter what their interest, in that their resources become “much more discoverable.”

Developers of educational products will also benefit from the registry, Culatta argues. For developers of apps and other tools, finding educational content can be a “huge lift,” he said; the registry can help provide them with some of that material.

Fit for Content?

Schneiderman, of the software association, agrees that some developers could benefit from mining resources in the registry.

But he also sees potential roadblocks to commercial education companies taking part. Some may be wary of giving away content they’ve spent money developing. In other cases, the resources created by commercial providers are packaged in comprehensive ways that makes it difficult to present them as “finite pieces of content” through the registry, he said.

“The nature of how they package and distribute resources is different,” said Schneiderman, of some digital content and software companies. He drew an analogy to how music today is created and then delivered to consumers. In some cases, the registry ,”works better for songs,” he said. “Most commercial publishers are publishing albums, or CDs.”

As it now stands, the registry may face a “chicken-and-egg” challenge in trying to lure commercial providers to contribute to it, Schneiderman added. Some of those providers may want to be convinced that the registry will reach a large, engaged audience, before they agree to supply the system with material.

But assuming the flow of content is strong, the registry’s value to K-12 educators will to some extent turn on the willingness of educators and experts on various academic subjects to help their peers make sort through its materials—and offer recommendations on what’s valuable, and what’s not, Culatta said.

“What I’d really like to see is more expert curation happening,” Culatta said. The process of winnowing and organizing those tools, he said, creates an environment “where [the best] resources rise to the top.”

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