I interviewed Alex Grodd, founder and CEO of BetterLesson, via e-mail and then in a follow-up by phone. I think my objections to BetterLesson's current trajectory are fairly transparent through these questions, though I'll make them explicit in my forthcoming site review. Objections aside, this was an extremely fascinating discussion with someone who has invested far more into the issue of teachers sharing with teachers (online) than anyone else I have met or read.
Dan Meyer: Think back to an effective lesson you taught as a classroom teacher, one which you would now upload to BetterLesson. What made it effective and what steps has BetterLesson taken to make that effectiveness obvious from its search listings, from the lesson pages themselves?
Alex Grodd: Most recently, I taught 6th grade English at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. Let me start by describing an effective 6th grade English lesson:
It would likely start with a silent grammar-based ‘do-now’ activity that was full of inside jokes about the students. It would then transition into interactive direct instruction, delivered via a Smart Board, that incorporated samples of previous student work, reality television clips, and PG-13 hip hop. This would be followed by a bizarre writing prompt and an even more bizarre model essay and then small group brainstorming and pre-writing sessions. The last 20 minutes would be consumed by the beautiful buzz of engaged writing and collaboration while I tutored students at the front of the room.
It’s difficult to say what makes a lesson like this "effective" — it could certainly be classified as student-centered, highly engaging, culturally relevant, and academically rigorous. It used diverse media and technology; it differentiated instruction, and appealed to different learning modalities. It also reflected my unique relationships with my students and my own personal character quirks.
One of the most important and difficult things we will do at BetterLesson will be to measure, identify, and promote “effective” content and effective teachers. In order to do this, we are currently iterating (and will likely continue to iterate in perpetuity) around the following questions:
What rubric should we use to rate “effective” content? Do we use some of the categories mentioned above (engagement, student-centricity, etc.)? How do we make these categories measurable? Should effectiveness be tied to student achievement data? What data should we use?
Given the diverse nature of the educators on our site, these aren’t easy questions around which to achieve consensus. But we are in the process of working with teachers across the country to begin to achieve some general consensus about what makes content “effective”. We have just begun promoting “Recommended Units” which are identified by an instructional advisory board as having strong pedagogical merit. And we promote popular content throughout the site using “Most Viewed” and “Most Downloaded” metrics to crowd-source “effectiveness.” Throughout our alpha process we experimented with different user-generated ratings systems (Thumbs up/down, 5 star systems, etc.) but haven’t yet found the right one for educators. As with everything in a beta process, we are aggressively seeking user feedback and this feedback will drive our decision-making process.
DM: As a classroom teacher, did you enjoy the lesson planning process? If so, how have you designed the lesson planning process within BetterLesson to reflect that fun?
AG: I enjoyed the creative/artistic elements infused in the process — in particular, I enjoyed designing writing prompts and creating strange/entertaining model essays for my students — but overall, I felt the time and energy that I was spending on the process each night was making it increasingly difficult to effectively execute all of my other teaching responsibilities. For me, the greatest joy was not in the planning but in the execution of a highly effective lesson. These joys were unique and I currently miss them.
When designing the way lessons are created and organized on BetterLesson, our first goal was to create a platform where teachers could share their full curriculum the way that they actually teach it (as opposed to the decontextualized files and 'lesson plans' that you find on most sites). Our second goal was to create a core organizational framework (Course > Units > Lessons > Files and Materials) that was relatively universal across different pedagogical perspectives. We wanted to create a platform where teachers could use our mostly neutral canvass to exchange diverse pedagogical points of view. Again, we’re just getting started and this approach will continue to be driven by user feedback.
DM: One of my most effective classroom lessons was a video series called Graphing Stories, which was downloaded from my blog more often than any other lesson material I have posted since. I take this as evidence of some demand for multimedia teaching resources. Which file formats does BetterLesson support and what plans to do you have for expansion?
AG: Currently we support the most common file formats — Microsoft Office documents and images. Our multimedia support for movies and sound is nearly complete. Our goal, however, is to support the upload of all file formats (Smart Board files etc.), although a preview/online reading may not be available for some time.
DM: I have built a significant percentage of my curriculum around copyrighted material — TV shows, cartoons, movies, in particular. I am not a copyright lawyer but my understanding is that I can post an excerpt of a TV show to my blog, build lesson material around it, and fall within the boundaries of fair use. YouTube, understandably, isn't interested in that kind of legal parsing. Is BetterLesson? How would BetterLesson respond to a DMCA takedown notice on a teacher's lesson plan?
AG: As discussed above, we acutely recognize the importance of providing students with a highly engaging, multi-media/sensory instructional experience. As a result, we are committed to defending fair use. We will deal with any issues on an individual basis.
DM: From BetterLesson's about page: "Lesson creators should have their intellectual property protected and receive real recognition for their original works." What do you have in mind for that "real recognition"? Is it monetary? The only reputation ranking I can find on a lesson page is "number of views."
AG: Every successful social network/file sharing site has some viral metric that bestows recognition on a user (On YouTube, it’s views; On Facebook/MySpace/LinkedIn, it’s friends/connections; On Twitter, it’s followers; on Tumblr, it’s Tumblarity—an algorithm that incorporates many of these metrics). These metrics become a powerful source of status within the community, and users are often able to translate this status into modest (and sometimes immodest) celebrity, professional opportunity, and money. We are attempting to harness the power of these metrics to identify and reward innovative teachers and lesson artists. Right now, we display views and downloads prominently in our interface but we will continue to iterate on what metric(s) make most sense to provide teachers with some of the long-overdue recognition they deserve. In addition to these quantitative metrics, we also incorporate qualitative recognition via colleague comments and instructional coach feedback.
DM: As long as we're talking about money: does BetterLesson have a business model or plans for monetization?
AG: BetterLesson is exploring a "Freemium" business model that will allow us to charge for premium tools and services while keeping the core platform (currently released) free for teachers and schools. In the short term, our focus is on continuing to improve our platform and build our community.
DM: Here's Alexander Russo speaking for Scholastic: "Only the most motivated and Internet-savvy teachers go online looking for lessons. It still takes time for teachers to search for lessons, much less rate and share feedback about them." From the BetterLesson blog, you've seen a lot of enthusiasm from novice teachers still in teacher preparation programs. How will BetterLesson appeal to a demographic of good teachers who less inclined toward social networking?
AG: This is a great question. I think there are three things that we can do on our end:
- Continue to aggressively reach out to teachers that are not as inclined to using social networking websites, solicit their feedback, and incorporate their feedback into the interface.
- Continue to strive to make our interface as intuitive and user-friendly as possible.
- Continue to aggregate great content and great teachers on BetterLesson. I think that all teachers, regardless of Internet savvy, would be excited to quickly and easily find great lessons and connect with innovative teachers in their respective fields. If we can create this user experience, I think that we will provide a compelling incentive for them to make the leap into the wild world of social (or professional) networking.
DM: How will you know that BetterLesson has become successful? Has the BetterLesson team set goals for user registration, total uploads, total downloads, or for some other measure of success?
AG: Our goal is to continue to build the community and continue to increase the depth and breadth of high-quality instructional content. We are focused on continuing to improve our user experience and grow the number of committed users — those who return to the site frequently and stay for a while once they’re on it.