New School: Two Apps That Let Teachers Remix Lessons Like DJs

OpenCurriculum and Activate Instruction offer free platforms for teachers to share digital “playlists.”

New School: Two Apps That Let Teachers Remix Lessons Like DJs
image: flickr user Tennessee Wanderer

Teaching is changing for the better. Instead of one teacher delivering one lesson for one hour to one room full of students, the ideal is now for teachers to enable each student to discover the right mix of lessons that works for him or her anytime, anywhere.


Two new free Web platforms, OpenCurriculum and Activate Instruction aim to put teachers in charge of the digital evolution of classrooms and shape the future of education.

In tandem with the growth of laptops and tablets in classrooms, Web platforms like these are enabling teachers to work more like DJs, selecting and creating experiences with an infinite pile of bytes at their disposal. At least some of the time, the classroom of the future may resemble a silent disco, with each student plugged in and grooving on a playlist partly of their own devising.

Sharing Nicely

Most teachers have file folders and flash drives full of material that they use to generate lessons year after year. To convey their topic and engage their students, teachers employ activities, projects, discussion questions, texts, audio, and video, but they don’t always have easy ways to share their ideas or find new ones. Enter OpenCurriculum.

Designed to work as a GitHub for educational content, OpenCurriculum is a place where teachers can upload their stuff from anywhere and create, edit, and share open material in the browser.
Just as Github enables “forking” and easy version control of a single program, OpenCurriculum lets teachers do the same thing with lesson plans.


Varun Arora, founder of OpenCurriculum, is originally from Qatar and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon. He has an acute awareness of the international hunger for free learning content that’s also locally relevant. “One of the biggest hindrances to adoption of open educational resources is that teachers don’t know where it fits in the local curriculum,” he says. OpenCurriculum is reaching out to at least 100 organizations and local education communities in Pittsburgh, South Africa, and Nepal, to enable circles of sharing.

One-to-One Learning

In contrast to OpenCurriculum’s indie nonprofit origins, Activate Instruction is a project of Summit Schools, one of Bill Gates’s favorite charter school networks, with Illuminate, a for-profit company that tracks and handles student data. The free resources on their platform are all designed to meet the needs of new state standardized tests, and on the back end they feed into student data systems so that when a student completes a quiz using the platform, it can be tracked for the student’s final grade and matched with other information. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the big-data-fication of schools is raising persistent privacy concerns). But the major difference with OpenCurriculum is that Activate allows teachers to create individualized playlists combining texts, videos, exercises, and games–one for each student in the class.

“The great thing about it is that it makes it very, very easy to personalize and individualize things for students,” says Kevin Bock, a chemistry teacher at Everest, one of the Summit schools in California, which has been testing the platform for the past year.

Bock’s students spend up to one or two class days a week working independently on their playlists, and the students use them for homework as well. Parents can look over kids’ shoulders on the site and instantly see how they’re doing. Students themselves have suggested new resources for others to use. Bock says it puts students in control of where they are in a given subject and what they need to do next. Ideally, no one gets bored; no one gets lost.


“With Activate, we allow students who really know themselves to chose from different resources that use different learning modes, based on interest and readiness.”

Technology like this isn’t aimed at standardizing or automating education. It’s about enabling the inherent creativity of teachers and students alike.

[Image: Flickr user Transmediale]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.