It is nothing short of tragic, in this era of instant global communication, that I am sweating over the same lesson plan that a teacher in Cincinnati developed a year ago. A group of public school teachers in Atlanta and Boston invested money, time, and talent into resolving that tragedy while I have only whined about it. So I respect their solution a great deal even if, on a fundamental level, it is not the solution I am looking for, the solution I think will catch fire and change teaching.
How It Works
At some point, in some spitballing session between these developers, someone said the words "a Facebook for teachers." The label is earned. Even in its private beta, BetterLesson has capably adapted social networking features for a teaching audience — news feeds, friends, and groups have been repackaged as activity feeds, colleagues, and networks, for instance — while also layering a functional content management system over the top of it.
After registering, you create a class — "6th Grade Science." Then you create a unit within that class — "Human Body." Then you create a lesson within that unit — "Skeletal System – Joints." From there you fill in an objective, select a state standard, estimate total time on task, and lay out a lesson plan in a text entry field. You can upload files and assign them to the lesson or you can leave those files in an "unassigned" pile. You can also add other users' files to your own curriculum in a nifty two-step process. This appears to be BetterLesson's only nod at a wiki-style collaborative lesson planning environment, if that is important to you.
You can search files by keyword, age-level, file format, and instructional type.
When you click on a result, BetterLesson shows you every lesson plan using that file, which is really nice. At the time of writing there isn't a sorting mechanism for searches — not alphabetically or by date or by any kind of reputation ranking. The first ten results for a search of "proportions" broke into:
60% — a PDF of a lesson plan.
20% — a standards rubric containing the word "proportion."
10% — a page from a textbook's student workbook.
10% — indeterminate.
Obviously it's worth restating BetterLesson's beta status here. I imagine these results will improve and diversify with more users.
Here are the challenges facing any lesson sharing site, at least as I see them:
- Ugly, dysfunctional user interface. Teachers are no different from other web users in their demand for an Internet experience that works well and looks great. BetterLesson, in spite of my other reservations, is without parallel here. It is the prettiest, most functional lesson sharing site on the Internet. It hurdles the bar and then some.
- Teacher reticence. Teachers are notoriously strapped for time, notoriously autonomous, and fail, notoriously, to collaborate with each other unless the opportunity is either a) coerced or b) extremely enticing. Unfortunately, there isn't a precedent for this kind of lesson sharing site. None. Not in the same way that MySpace preceded Facebook or that Blogger preceded WordPress or that Twitter preceded Plurk. BetterLesson can't point to a proven predecessor and say "we do this, only better." This is an enormous challenge but there are advantages to inventing the market. (See: iPod.)
- Quality control. Teachers will warm to the idea of downloading lesson material online only if the sharing site returns consistently useful search results. Twitter's attrition rate (the proportion of people who sign up and then abandon it within the first month) is reportedly 60%. A content management system for teachers that can't consistently deliver quality content will suffer the same fate. This is complicated even further by widespread disagreement over what constitutes a "quality" lesson plan. (see: math wars, implications of.)
- Particularly reluctant demographics. There are lots of educators who create engaging, challenging lesson content daily who also, on top of issues of time, autonomy, and aversion to collaboration, lack confidence with technology. Enticing those educators to register, download, and upload is no small task.
After reviewing BetterLesson's response to those challenges, I predict it will see incredible user registration in its first six months. At least one person in your school will have used it to search for lesson materials and at least one person in every department at your school will have heard of it. The site looks that good. The site sounds that promising. Usage will be heaviest among new teachers who, I suspect, are less ideological, less attached to any particular definition of effective instruction, who will take whatever worksheet will let them get to sleep before midnight. But the attrition rate will be high. It's possible that BetterLesson has already anticipated a scenario where a small group of uploaders share content with a much larger group of downloaders, not unlike the blogger/commenter ratio we find in the blogosphere. I suspect, though, that BetterLesson would like to see a larger fraction of teachers sharing content online.
So here are two reasons why I think that won't happen.
First, BetterLesson isn't fun. Lesson planning isn't always fun (though I'll argue for a strong correlation between "lessons that are fun for teachers to plan" and "lessons that are fun for students to learn") but a well-trafficked site for lesson sharing, because such a site is without precedent, must be fun. It must connect, in as few clicks as possible, to whatever teachers find fun and satisfying about planning lessons for students.
You know what I'm talking about, right? I'm talking about explosive fun where you discover a fascinating route through challenging material, a route you somehow missed even though this is your sixteenth time through the book, and now you're researching ice-carving techniques online (or whatever) and developing extensions and you're learning at the same time that you're lesson-planning and you have to share that route and you know you're onto something when, like, five teachers comment on your blog post before midnight and you know for a fact that one of them lives in the opposing hemisphere and it's five a.m. there.
Do you know what I'm talking about?
BetterLesson has a certain grim efficiency about itself. It knows that it is necessary and useful but it knows nothing of fun. It knows not the fun of discovery or the fun of creation.
Create class. Create unit. Create lesson. Add file. Add standard. Add objective. Add pacing guide. All of these are important but none of them has much to do with what will coax the larger corps of good teachers to sacrifice free time to come online and learn a new platform. Those teachers will come online for profoundly interesting hooks to material they already know how to teach, for multimedia resources other teachers have created, for the opportunity to contribute their own insight to those materials, for a profoundly fun experience. They won't come online to find out which three example problems I used to teach linear inequalities or how many minutes I allotted for worksheet practice.
The second reason BetterLesson will find little traction with teachers not already disposed to sharing their material online is that BetterLesson ties form tightly to content. I care more about what you did than how you did it. I care that you had students study fractions by making an orchestra out of glasses filled with water. I care significantly less about a) how you paced that lesson, b) its exact content standard alignment, or c) how long your period was. I even hold your lesson objective in a loose grip. The same idea can work across different units, across different content areas.
I'll wager that 90% of teachers with three or more years of experience can adapt a good idea to their particular context, expanding or contracting it for time, pacing it to their bell schedules, adapting warmup exercises that are appropriate for their students' prior knowledge or personal experience. At a certain level of experience, that information was no longer valuable to me. The water orchestra is valuable to me.
But BetterLesson has tied all of that lesson form tightly to the lesson content. Not only is that information not fun (see above) but that information forces teachers to a) reverse engineer someone else's lesson plan, stripping away the pacing guide, standard, and objective, b) locate the interesting idea (the water glass orchestra) and then c) re-engineer it for their own contexts. I can't predict exactly how many teachers will invest that time for uncertain returns but I'm guessing: not many.
Simon Job recently combined amateur photography and Google satellite imagery to motivate the perimeter of curved shapes, which was really fun. It's obvious he enjoyed the process.
Kate Nowak enthused in the comments:
Great use of photo + google maps! It can be hard to find circle applications. Thanks for sharing. I think throwing it on the screen as an unfamiliar problem is a good instinct.
Contrast Kate's enthusiasm with Sheng Ho's review of BetterLesson:
It is unclear how and why the lessons work or whether they are any good. Takes quite a bit of effort to go through the files to reverse engineer the lesson or make one up for yourself.
Or Derek Follett, referring to lesson sharing services in general:
I feel like I have to do way too much digging into a lesson plan before I get the essence of it then (if it is any good) adapt it to my own lesson. What I would rather see instead is “idea sharing.”
In our follow-up phone conversation, Alex Grodd outlined one of BetterLesson's foundational design rules, "No red apples, no school buses, no chalk, no rulers, no demeaning clip art." He said his team compensated for the corny status quo with a utilitarian aesthetic which I am concerned has pushed to the sidelines what makes time spent planning lessons so fulfilling. This is a mistake. I want BetterLesson to succeed. Someone has to succeed in this space. But BetterLesson has traded a fun experience and interesting content for an efficient service and controlled form. I hope the BetterLesson team can find the intersection of those two services. If they can't, I will still follow their progress with a great ideal of interest, though I don't think it will surprise me.