Amazon recently announced an upcoming service providing free educational resources to teachers, but another online portal delivering mountains of lesson materials will likely do very little—in itself—to improve teachers' instruction. In launching Amazon Inspire, the online retailing giant follows competitors Apple, Google and others into the education tech space, but so far there is little evidence that such online products have done much to help teachers meet the critical goal of developing high-quality curricula that are clearly and explicitly aligned with state and district content standards and assessments.
For many teachers, the promise of having a large repository of searchable instructional materials may be alluring, given that most do spend a lot of time looking for classroom lesson materials. In a recent RAND Corporation study, my colleagues and I found that almost all mathematics and English language arts teachers select or develop their own instructional materials for classroom lessons, and almost half reported spending four hours a week or more doing so. According to the study, almost 90 percent of elementary teachers and half of secondary teachers seek out instructional materials from online sources, including both targeted sites like TeachersPayTeachers.com and more general interest ones such as Pinterest.
Indeed, teachers can and should have the freedom to select and develop at least some of their own instructional resources. They know their students better than anyone and should be able to exercise their professional expertise to make decisions about their instruction. But whether sites like Amazon Inspire will actually save teachers time and help them find high-quality resources is up for debate. “Crowdsourcing” instructional materials may just as easily point teachers to resources that other teachers like because they are easy to use, cute, or fun for students.
Perhaps even more importantly, teachers work in a chaotic environment, where their educational standards, assessments, required textbooks, and professional development may give them very different messages about what to teach and how to teach it. To improve their instruction, and help students learn better, teachers need high-quality instructional materials that are organized into coherent units and lessons that are sequenced and include what they need to scaffold—or meet the needs of both struggling students and more advanced students—over time and through a logical progression of skills. They also need to understand how those materials align with state and district standards and assessment requirements.
State and local officials can play a key role in helping teachers make sense of the chaos of online lesson materials that are available for teachers. They could rigorously evaluate materials from a number of online sources and use what is available to build coherent curricula for teachers that align with state standards and assessments. Clearly, that kind of work takes expertise and time. But in a world of big data and conflicting messages about instruction, policymakers and educators should be seeking ways for educational technology to add coherence to teachers' worlds, instead of just more information.
Julia Kaufman is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
A version of this commentary appeared in Education Week on July 19, 2016, under the title “Open-Access Ed Tech Should Be Aligned to State Standards.”
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.