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Report: Most Teacher-Created Online English Materials Subpar

As Amazon enters the field with its new Ignite offerings, a recent Fordham Institute study has found significant shortcomings in the currently available teacher-created high school English materials online.

by Kipp Bentley / January 17, 2020
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Outside of the core curriculum, most teachers have a good deal of leeway in how they supplement district-assigned instructional materials. And for some courses, like high school English, there usually aren’t any textbooks to begin with. But now with teachers’ access to online instructional materials and lesson plans just a click away, 55 percent of English Language Arts (ELA) teachers are reported to access curricular materials at least once a week from the Teachers Pay Teachers online marketplace.

But unlike most commercially produced curriculum, there’s no evaluation process for these online materials. To that point, a recent report from the Fordham Institute, “The Supplemental Curriculum Bazaar: Is What’s Online Any Good?,” assessed some of these materials accessed by ELA teachers, and it concluded that 64 percent of them should not be used.

In addition to Teachers Pay Teachers, ReadWriteThink and Share My Lesson (both free services) were included in Fordham’s study as well. And while these sites provide instructional materials for all grade levels and content areas, Fordham chose to examine only high school ELA materials. This is understandable, given the huge number of materials available for all other content areas and grade levels, and the dearth of school-provided resources for ELA, requiring teachers to create or find their own. But it does create a biased “guilty by association” verdict for the other content areas and levels not evaluated.

Teachers report that Google and Pinterest are their most-used methods for finding supplemental materials. Fordham, however, chose to leave these out of their evaluation, stating “Google and Pinterest were eliminated because there was no obvious way to identify the set of available materials for high school ELA nor to sort them by downloads or usage.”

One can rightly debate Fordham’s evaluation methods and metrics, and also contend that school districts should assist their already busy teachers by providing them with more high-quality supplemental instructional materials. But most educators would agree with Fordham’s conclusion that these online teacher-created materials need a consolidated rating system akin to Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie-rating site. And I would extend that recommendation to include all educational technology curricular resources, since most educators struggle to find quality evaluations of ed tech tools.

Seeing the success of the online teacher-created curriculum marketplace, a new player has entered the field. Amazon’s Ignite was introduced in November 2019, and given the company’s already deep reach into many teachers’ pockets, it could well become a dominant force in selling teacher-created materials.

Unlike Amazon Inspire, a free sharing service launched in 2016 for teacher-created open educational resources (that still remains in beta), Ignite aims to make money — both for Amazon and teachers.

Currently, teachers wanting to sell their materials on Ignite must be “invited” after going through an application process. And presumably to avoid the copyright allegations levied against some of Amazon’s Inspire content, the company says it will “review submitted resources to help protect the rights of creators and ensure the best experience for our customers.”

As for Ignite’s profit sharing, teachers will receive a 70 percent royalty for their materials’ sales (or a 30 cent transaction fee for products under $2.99), which, based on the success of some teachers selling their materials through Teachers Pay Teachers, could amount to real money. Amazon also doesn’t require that teachers only sell on their site, providing ambitious content creators access to a wider market.

In addition to the familiar Amazon format, one of Ignite’s out-of-the-gate advantages is that its teacher-created materials show up in an Amazon search. What this means is that teachers looking for instructional materials for their classrooms, as well as parents seeking supplemental materials to help their kids, will get Ignite materials included in their Amazon search results. Additionally, buyers will be able to preview the materials and leave reviews, just as with their other Amazon purchases.

Amazon’s launch of Ignite occurred too late to be included in the Fordham report mentioned earlier. As such, it will be interesting to see how Ignite’s teacher-created materials hold up under close scrutiny by teachers and curriculum specialists. And regardless of the bruises it may have sustained in the Fordham report, Teachers Pay Teachers has been in existence since 2006 and claims that two out of three U.S. teachers have used its resources, giving it the loyal following needed to withstand criticism, and perhaps to hold off the Amazon juggernaut.

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