The Web is awash with viable, cost-free educational material, but no one has quite figured out a way to centralize that information in a way that benefits teachers around the world.
Building a Web site, or portal, to offer high-value educational resources in the world's most widely used languages – for free – is both feasible and necessary, said Paul Cohen, who heads the University of Arizona's computer science department.
Cohen said dozens of education portals exist, but none has much market share, suggesting that the perfect site does not yet exist.
"For example, you go to the Natural History Museum. When you walk in, you have arrows that point chemistry is over there, biology is over there," he said. "But there is nothing like that on the Internet. There is no kiosk."
Members of his research team want to build that kiosk and have since begun developing the "International Internet Classroom."
In doing so, one of the team's first projects will rely on artificial intelligence and user-generated data to cull pertinent educational resources into "unit packages."
"We're asking, ‘What is it like to be a teacher in the age of information?' The concept is that we need an easier way to get information and not get lost in the Internet," said Jane Strohm, an education informatics researcher with the UA's computer science department working on Cohen's team.
Other team members are: Tasneem Kaochar and Marco Antonio Valenzuela Escarcega, both computer science graduate students; Rostislav Sudakov, an undergraduate researcher studying computer science; Suzanne Westbrook, associate head of the computer science department; and Carole Beal, cognitive science professor.
One of the major shifts in K-12 education is for differentiated instruction and decreased reliance on teacher lectures and worksheets, Strohm said.
"With the Internet a teacher can easily gather several different resources, such as lecture slides, interactive exercises, videos, audio material, experiments, homework assignments, among other things to meet the diverse needs of her students," she added.
To support this shift, the team intends to release its "Unit Package Editor" in February, working with a small test group of educators.
Unit packages are collections of educational resources, including lectures, in-class exercises, homework assignments and activities, video, and so on. Teachers are expected to both build and share unit packages, Cohen noted.
"Just about every single educational idea is out there," said Cohen, whose expertise is in artificial intelligence and education informatics. "We want to make it easy to develop and to share that information."
Creating an international Internet classroom could lead to a "virtual map of knowledge," Kaochar said.
Kaochar noted that one promising example of such an effort is eTwinning, a collection of online projects to aid teachers and librarians in Europe. The service connects educators in countries that are members of the European Union, allowing them and their students to work on collaborative projects in the virtual world.
The UA team is emphasizing improved access to high quality teaching materials to a broader swath of the global education community. One of the biggest beneficiaries may be the United States, which is falling behind global competitors.
"There is lots of information indicating that other countries are exceeding the United States, and people are starting to talk about ways that we should be collaborating with other countries," she said.
"The biggest threats to our peace, security and environment is the lack of education," Cohen said, noting that knowledge sharing across the globe has the potential to remedy such problems.
To inform the design of the UA service, Kaochar is leading a survey of educators throughout the United States to learn how they use Web-based resources, and what they need to make their classroom instruction easier and better.
Since the launch, nearly 630 teachers – those at public and private institutions, tutors and those who home-school youth – have completed the survey, offering valuable information about what type of resources are most needed and most valued, Kaochar said. The team will analyze the responses with plans to pursue publication.
More than 80 percent of the respondents use Google, Yahoo and other popular search engines, to locate educational resources.
"They are using the mainstream, general purpose search engines we all use for all sorts of purposes," Kaochar said.
"This indicates that that no Web site or portal has yet taken the mantle for the one-stop-shop for educational resources."
Kaochar also noted that about 63 percent of respondents said they use Wikipedia.com and nearly 60 percent also use Discovery Education and YouTube.com. A smaller percentage, about 34 percent, use TeacherTube.com.
"More and more educators are turning to other venues for teaching instead of the traditional textbook-style teaching," Kaochar said, noting that the survey indicates that the top three resources respondents use are reference resources, videos and interactive activities.
"This shows that teachers want to move away from only textbook-based learning because frankly, today's generation of students are exposed to so much more visual and interactive stimuli that it is no surprise that they prefer to learn from more hands-on, visually exciting and interactive resources," she added.
This does not mean that textbooks are no longer important but rather that they are one of several different types of resources used today for learning and teaching. And educators are using these resources frequently, Kaochar added.
For instance, survey results show that more than 75 percent of the survey respondents use online resources on a daily or weekly basis.
"All this information put together indicates to us there is a need for a one-stop-shop for educational resources where teachers – and students – can go to find reliable resources quickly," Kaochar said.
"We are designing our portal such that it will be very simple and intuitive to navigate," she said. "We are moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to education. If we can get this system up and running, the potential will be amazing."