BetterLesson Week

At whatever point BetterLesson goes public, it will be the only game in town for teachers sharing lesson content with other teachers. BetterLesson answers an essential question, “how do we get teachers to connect and share their work?” with more force, clearer vision, and better funding than any other solution preceding it. I take a declarative tone here only because I’ve spent much of the last two years investigating and discarding those other solutions.

Over the last two weeks, I have beta-tested BetterLesson, debated its merits with Kate Nowak on Twitter, interviewed its CEO/founder Alex Grodd, and composed my own review, which *spoiler* is very, very mixed. Like I said: the BetterLesson team has pursued a clear vision with great force. I take two exceptions to that vision – one philosophical and one pragmatic.

This week is dedicated only secondarily to BetterLesson. I’ll post the transcript of my interview with Alex followed by my review of BetterLesson itself. Primarily, though, we’re talking about how teachers share and I am grateful for anything you can contribute to that conversation.

I told Alex that my commenters typically deliver savage, measured feedback, punching my ideas in the jaw more often than praising them. The BetterLesson team is nothing if not eager for feedback so Alex has offered BetterLesson beta accounts to the first fifty readers to register for an account listing “dy/dan” where it asks you to describe how you heard about BetterLesson. Get on it. Let’s talk about it.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Biggest problem is I do ~50% of my planning in Smart Notebook and they’re not allowing upload of that file type yet. I’ve already complained; they say they’re working on it.

    I’ll sit and fill out boxes with lesson plan details when I can use it and only it for organizing and storing. It feels like an all-in or nothing solution. Not a place to dabble. But, yeah, best game in town.

  2. I appreciate the mis-analysis of the bent of your comments. :) You may pay more attention and place more value on your critical commentators, but fact is, if you went through with your quant hat on, you know the burden of them would be on the supportive/grateful/fawning scale. Come on. Admit it.

  3. I’m in now, and I’ve put up one lesson. It looks like it could be pretty good. I’ve sent them a bunch of suggestions.

  4. Turns out there were already 50 requests mentioning “dy/dan”, but I managed to get an invite anyway (yay!).

    So Dan, are we leaving our comments on BetterLesson here?

  5. If you look at the bottom of the screen while you’re in BetterLesson, you’ll see Feedback. That will send a message to them, and they write back to you pretty quickly. I sent in a bunch of suggestions.

    However, I do want to ask here if anyone else has had their browser freeze up? It’s happened to me 3 times in the past day or so, and I first assumed it was some problem with Firefox. Now I’m wondering if the BL site can cause problems. I’m on a mac.

  6. @Jackie, I suppose I’m less interested in technical details like “I received an error uploading files in Firefox 3.5 on Mac OS X 10.4” than pedagogical assessments like “I would use this more often if [x] ”

    Those details interest me a lot. Feel free to CC BetterLesson, of course, but Alex seems pretty capable of monitoring trackbacks and online chatter so far.

  7. Some quick observations:

    1) The site seems file-centered and not lesson-centered. I clicked on “Statistics” and I get Sue VanHattum’s snapshot of a webpage from Marilyn vos Savant. It’s the classic Monty Hall Problem. Takes a little browsing around to get to the lesson under which it’s filed: “counterintuitive probabilities”. I did it by going to her profile and looking at the folder/units and then the lesson. I see this whenever I search, I get files instead of lessons. There’s also no easy link from the file page to the lesson page under which it’s filed. This can probably be fixed.

    2) BetterLesson is not a collaboration site. Maybe it’s not meant to be. I don’t see tools for collaboration aside from comments. There are no forums for discussion.

    3) Relevant lessons are hard to find (at least for now). When I browsed under high school/college Algebra, I find lessons on combinatorics by someone who teaches at a middle school. Clicking on “High School” to refine results did not help. It seems the site relies on users to file the lessons accurately. When I click on Calculus/Pre-Calc I get content on Programming and a technical paper RFC(Request for Comment). Signal-to-Noise ratio seems low for now. Maybe when the site gets more lessons uploaded and the users or some mod/admin applies the proper tags/topic to files things will get better.

    4) Content ranges from activity, worksheet, journal or magazine articles, textbook to full lessons. 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. Some files don’t require this kind of effort. It looks like your “day1 slidedeck” is trying to remind students that they are intelligent and can make educated guesses from patterns while introducing content. This is not evident from the lesson write up nor do we get clues from search page. It takes time to go through the files to figure out why the lesson works or why you’d want to use it. Maybe there’s no easy solution to this.

    5) The site seems to do a good job of being a file locker and organizer. If you want to share files with a colleague or see what materials a colleague uses in their lessons, the site does a good job if users upload and organize their files. As a place to discover new lessons it doesn’t quite do the job yet. It takes significant effort.

  8. Good feedback (for me, anyway, if not for the BL team also).

    1. There’s also no easy link from the file page to the lesson page under which it’s filed. This can probably be fixed.

    If you click on a file you uploaded, you can see a container for “lesson plans which use this file” (or something like that). That would be nice to see for other files. That would be essential, actually, to see for other files.

    2. BetterLesson is not a collaboration site. Maybe it’s not meant to be. I don’t see tools for collaboration aside from comments. There are no forums for discussion.

    You can also assign someone else’s file to your lesson, which is the site’s only nod to a wikified approach to lesson creation, unless I have missed something.

    3. Relevant lessons are hard to find (at least for now).

    The search results are extremely disappointing. Obviously, more users will bring more (and hopefully better) lessons and content. The BL team is wrestling currently with the issue of quality, how to define it, how to rank it, how to promote it. This is an extremely difficult task and an extremely contentious issue.

    4. Takes quite a bit of effort to go through the files to reverse engineer the lesson or make one up for yourself.

    Certainly do not look to my locker for best BetterLesson practice. I was playing with the upload system, testing for Keynote compatibility, etc. But your remark about reverse engineering is absolutely on point. I use that exact term in my review. I am very curious how much time a given teacher is willing to spend reverse engineering a given lesson. Does it change with the lesson? Does it change if the downloading teacher and the uploading teacher are colleagues?

    5. It takes significant effort.

    Alex Jacoby, in an earlier thread, listed low friction UI as a priority for this kind of site. BetterLesson has done better UI work than any other player in this market, but it still needs to resolve a certain pedagogical friction. The search engine, for instance, is easy to use but hard to control for good results.

  9. Single documents do not make a lesson plan.

    Often to give the full impression of my lesson I would need 2 different documents, Smartboard slides, multimedia links, and annotations on all of the above so others can understand what I’m up to. While it’s possible to smoosh things together in a coherent package, it’s not really practical; the last time I did so on one my complicated lessons it took about 2 hours to get a 20 minute lesson to make sense.

    What I’d be looking for (and what would give me a reason to use BetterLesson over all the other sites) is a way to upload my media bits separately and then have an on-site method for linking them together and annotating them that would be quick and easy enough I wouldn’t feel put out.

    This has the added advantage that the usual teacher tendancy of grabbing a particular bit here and there could be practiced by cross linking. Let’s say you like an opener (but only the opener) of a particular lesson, then you could link it up to how you plan to follow it and make your own lesson package.

    That’s more or less how I work anyway. For my lesson today involving angles I smooshed together on one side of the worksheet of my own design with something that was from a 4th grade (!) curriculum, and the students made a lapbook thing for the vocabulary which I got off a homeschooling website.

    (You know those high school / middle school / etc. categories? Only vague suggestions from my experience when it comes to what’s useful.)

  10. Well, shoot. Now that I posted that I find the lessons.

    Which indicates, at least, they are way too hard to find, but you can sort of ignore what I just said.