May 19, 2012

Sharing Modeling Resources

A web-based hub for uploading and distributing Modeling curriculum materials is on the horizon. The potential significance of such a resource is huge, and a healthy conversation at this early stage can help ensure that it becomes both dynamic and user-friendly. 

In preparing materials for my own Modeling-based Physics First course, I've been looking through materials posted on a password protected portion of ASU's Modeling site. In particular, I've been spending a lot of time with two remarkable collections of materials developed and prepared by small groups of teachers in St. Louis (Debbie and Rex Rice, and Gabe de la Paz) and Pittsburgh (Shady Side Academy faculty, including Kathy Malone - recent recipient of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship). Both collections have firm roots in the Modeling materials originally developed at ASU. However, in addition to revising these canonical materials, both collections also offer entirely original activities and even some major restructuring of the order of the conventional Modeling curriculum. In spending more time with these collections, I've been getting more experience with what I need in order to make efficient use of work done by another teacher, and it's been quite illuminating.

There are quite a few similarities between these two sets of materials. Both collections provide a large text file containing "Teacher Notes" for each unit in the curriculum. (The materials for one such unit are shown in the picture to the right.) These notes generally begin with suggestions on the Scope and Sequence and Instructional Goals of the unit as a whole, then go on to provide details about implementing the activities or worksheets contained within the unit package. Both collections include handouts or worksheets composed in Microsoft Word, and usually include one document file for each physical handout. (For example, a handout made to accompany a lab activity and a homework assignment directly related to that activity are usually included as separate files, sometimes in separate folders/directories.) The documents in both collections are formatted quite precisely, and I experienced frustrating formatting errors when opening some of these documents on my own computer. Most importantly, both collections reflect the great passion and expertise of the teachers who created them, as well as an enormous investment of time.

One key factor in the success of Modeling Instruction, I believe, is that it has been almost entirely teacher-driven. Workshops are run by teachers and interest in the method has spread largely through word-of-mouth. Curriculum resources are developed and shared by teachers as well, though this practice is somewhat cumbersome at the moment. However, like the ASU Modeling site, the online home of the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) is already hosting sets of materials developed by high school teachers, such as the extensive work of Dr. Matt Greenwolfe. This site is going to be updated any day now to include a Modeling Curriculum Repository, in what will hopefully be a big step toward an online hub for Modeling-related resource sharing for teachers by teachers. Like any big crowd-sourcing project, there are some logistical hurdles, but I'll share here some of my thoughts and reactions to how this might be accomplished. 

• Efficient subdivisions of documents can help clarify which materials are relevant to a given topic or activity. Both of the collections I've mentioned were made to be downloaded as a package. As a result, the "Teacher Notes" pertinent to each package are rather lengthy documents. The notes that are specifically related to one worksheet or activity can occasionally be difficult to locate, and isolating one activity from the unit as a whole can be slightly tricky. This makes sense given the overarching goal of Modeling Instruction - Modeling is a unified approach, not a collection of activities to be blended piecemeal into a traditional curriculum. But as more and more teachers convert to Modeling, I believe the need to isolate individual activities will become greater. I think there's a lot to be gained in breaking down these large unit-based collections of files into smaller chunks. Individual files in the unit can contain a few closely related handouts (a couple of related worksheets with teacher notes, for example, or perhaps a lab handout and with both pre-lab and post-lab supplements). I've posted an example of collection of resources I've prepared for an investigation into friction here. 

• Maintaining a hierarchy of organization on the web (rather than within a single .zip file for a unit) can provide both flexibility and manageability to the resource collection. AMTA President Mark Schober has told me that, in his opinion, the ideal resource-sharing mechanism would include access to both individual materials and recommended collections of materials comprising an entire unit. These collections would be curated by an individual or group for use with specific student populations, like playlists of songs curated by notable taste-makers or music communities. The choice of what to include in these playlists evolves over time, and the files contained within the playlists evolve in parallel. The inertia of large collections of curriculum materials can make them slow to change according to teachers' evolving needs and wisdom, and a system based on individual files is bound to be more nimble. 

• If teachers have access to multiple versions of similar materials, user ratings and recommendations can identify versions that are unique, valuable, and appropriate for use with different student populations. This is a model already in place in many communities, including our own community of science educators. For example, exemplary resources designed for use with PhET applets can be nominated for a Gold Star, which identifies "high quality inquiry-based activities that follow the PhET design guidelines and that teachers find useful." The challenge of such a system is to find a balance between maintaining democracy in contributions from individual teachers and keeping the collection of recommended materials concise and manageable for teachers using the site. 

• SBCD - Standards-Based Curriculum Development. Fellow physics blogger Kelly O'Shea just published a fantastic post about bundling established stablished standards for her course to facilitate communication with students about what will be covered on tests. This got me thinking that curriculum materials hosted on the AMTA site might be organized according to standards as well. That is, a worksheet on motion maps could be tagged (in a database and on the document itself) as relevant to one or more standards, such as O'Shea's CVPM1 - I can draw and interpret diagrams to represent the motion of an object moving with a constant velocity. Perhaps the entire Modeling curriculum could be broken down into agreed-upon standards, varying from "I can design an investigation into the relationship between acceleration and mass for a constant force" to "I can solve problems involving the separation of two slits and the distance between bright fringes in an interference pattern from a laser." Specific standards could likely be consistent between courses of widely varying ages and student populations - a more sophisticated course would simply include a wider variety of standards and different supporting materials. For example, the CVPM1 standard above would be a part of a Physics First course and a university course, but the materials used to support this standard might look quite different for such different courses. 

• To avoid formatting errors, documents can be distributed in robust, universally readable file formats. In producing my own curriculum materials, I've taken to saving a version of everything in PDF format, to ensure that I'll always be able to open a specific version to print it out for use in class. Both Greenwolfe and O'Shea have chosen to distribute their materials as PDFs as well. A disadvantage of this method, of course, is that the PDF format cannot be edited, but a text file or word processing document can be included as well to make updates more flexible. Alternatively, a universally available word processing application like GoogleDocs could be used to avoid such formatting inconsistencies. Andrew Stillman, an administrator of the online professional development site YouPD, has advocated such an approach.

Creative Commons is key. Most Modeling documents I've come across have included at the bottom of the page a copyright tag like "© Modeling Workshop Project 2006," indicating that the work in the document stems directly from the original work done at ASU. Sometimes individual authors are identified and sometimes they aren't but this tag ensures that the owner of the intellectual property contained within the document is crystal clear. AMTA Executive Officer Dr. Colleen Megowen has told me that it is a priority for the AMTA to prevent the materials from being used for commercial purposes at any time in the future, but according to this page the copyright isn't explicitly protected against commercial use. It seems to me that without a watertight license, the entity that officially owns a given piece of work (whether it's the AMTA or an individual teacher who has designed their own materials) could at some point choose to restrict access to it, or aim to make a profit off its distribution. There's nothing wrong with teachers making money off of work they've done, but the alternative of an open source Modeling Curriculum Repository seems even more attractive. By attending a workshop, a teacher would be introduced to a wealth of free resources and a community of like-minded peers, both of which would aid them in their transition to Modeling Instruction. In order to protect this dream, a Creative Commons license can be used by any original author of material to prevent the work from being used commercially. Looking through descriptions of the various CC licenses paints some striking pictures of what the Modeling curriculum at large might look like!

Now that I've stepped off my soapbox, let me clarify that this is not intended to be a set of recommendations for how to structure the AMTA site or the files contained within it. Rather, this is just an early collection of personal thoughts on a topic that I find quite exciting. As the work of assembling both the site and the materials goes forward, I hope that this conversation evolves. What are YOUR thoughts?

5 Responses so far

  1. larryandrit says:

    As I read your blog, Joe, I reflected on how modeling has evolved from its humble beginnings over 20 years ago. After the first phase of national workshops (95-97) we argued over whether to provide materials to teachers; once we decided to do so, the next question was: post them in pdf (keep them in original form) or in Word (let teachers modify)? I'm very glad that we decided on a format that empowered teachers to use their creativity to tailor the materials to meet their needs. That helped to send the message that these were just samples one could use rather than "the way you were supposed to do things" - like a text.

    Keep in mind that the Teacher notes in the mechanics curriculum were originally spare as they were intended to simply serve as a reminder to teachers who attended workshops lasting 4-5 weeks. As we came to realize that the majority of consumers of the 2nd semester physics or the chemistry materials would not have the benefit of a dedicated workshop, we made a serious effort to flesh out these Tnotes to help teachers grasp the underlying structure.

    I agree that the fact that MI is teacher driven is one of the features that makes it unique - unfortunately, the fact that it is not published by one of the commercial houses makes us somewhat like an indie rock band than an artist on a national record label. While that flexibility is what helps keep MI vibrant, it also makes those who are locked in a 20th century model of distributing curriculum uncomfortable with it.
    Got to run now - more later.

  2. ldukerich says:

    Sorry, old account name on last post.
    Joe's "recommendations" are certainly worth further examination. While I agree with much of what he says, implementation is likely to be labor intensive. Unfortunately, most teachers have their hands full with their day jobs. If AMTA's 100Kin10 grant proposal is funded, I believe one part of the project is to assemble groups of experienced modelers in the summer to refine existing materials and set up working spaces where people can post materials for consideration by the larger modeling community. Joe is right when he states "The challenge of such a system is to find a balance between maintaining democracy in contributions from individual teachers and keeping the collection of recommended materials concise and manageable for teachers using the site." I don't have an answer, but the question needs to be addressed.

    With respect to Joe's comments about "maintaining a hierarchy of organization on the web", on the new AMTA site, due to be launched very soon, we decided to first make accessing the materials a simple operation (hence, all the mechanics or E&M or chem I materials are in one zipped file) before we provided a way to examine and access smaller portions. As one of the people assembling files for downloading, I can tell you that this method of packaging does, indeed, make it more difficult to make smaller changes.

    I hope that when the AMTA site is operating, modelers will be able to continue this and related discussions on the various forums on the site.

  3. JK says:

    Thanks for your reply, Larry. I'm a fan of your work, and very much looking forward to looking through the unit packages hosted on the new site!

    Your comparison to "indie" vs. "major label" musicians is interesting, and I think the comparison can be drawn out further. Independent music has thrived due to a strong sense of community, and a blurring of the lines between artist and audience. Individuals and groups invest their time, talent, and creativity in the community and the most valued contributions rise to the surface. As a result, these days the most popular indie artists are out-selling many major label stars.

    The Modeling community, it seems to me, is already benefiting from a similar structure. Through training workshops, local professional development communities, as well as listservs and blogs, teachers share expertise openly. Tech-savvy modelers already have access to Kelly O'Shea's take on building the Unbalance Force Particle Model, or Frank Noschese's model deployment activities within the video game Angry Birds. The ultimate goal of the Modeling Curriculum Repository might be to put these sorts of resources under one roof, though it'll inevitably take quite some time to get there! In the meantime, perhaps, one goal is to foster a strong community by building on the success of workshops outside the walls of the workshops themselves.

  4. Gwolfe says:

    Matt Greenwolfe here.
    I think a cloud source repository like you describe is not just a nice idea, but essential if modeling materials are to continue to be developed and tested by active teachers in their classrooms. While summer meetings of groups of teachers to develop new material are excellent and should be done as often as its possible to fund them, it isn't always possible, can exclude contributions from those who can't attend, and will probably never provide enough people and time to create and test all the materials we need to have a comprehensive curriculum in science and math.

    Similar ideas were floated a few years ago as part of the Modeling Wiki Project, but it was determined that wikis weren't practical for busy teachers to learn and use. That project was a collaboration with AAPT, and Bruce Mason in particular has maintained an interest in helping us develop some other system for achieving the same goals.

    I've looked briefly at the open-source cloud file repository Alfresco. Its got many of the features you describe built in, such as receiving documents in word or open office format, version tracking, forums to comment and rate documents, etc. But we would need to write a front end for it that would present the information and organize contributed materials. Starting with something like this would be easier than trying to develop our own application from the ground up.

  5. JK says:

    Hey Matt, just seeing your comment here (a couple years AFTER you left it). Blogger thought you were spam, unfortunately.

    Still, it doesn't seem like all that much has been done on this front - two years later. I agree that it's an essential project, albeit massive.

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