In his former school district in California, San Ramon Valley Unified School District, Rahul Bir noticed that the schools seemed inundated by technology.
It pointed back to something he’d noticed before. Schools have picked up all these new tech tools but it’s not always clear how teachers should actually use them. Lightning struck: There didn’t seem to be a place where teachers could share educational resources with each other, which might help them sort through it all.
Bir, who’s now a freshman studying computer science at Diablo Valley College in California, could relate.
“As a student, too, I know how much of a pain it can be because there’s so much content online, and you never know what’s actually beneficial,” Bir says.
So, Bir built a repository that he hopes will help teachers cut through the digital noise.
Called AwesomeSTEAM, it’s a small platform that collects open educational resources from around the web. An evolution of “awesome lists” used by coders to share information about specific programming languages, Bir’s website is a free resource updated by teachers and students, and it’s meant to be a hack for locating quality information without the hassle of sifting through endless search results.
Bir says the site has about 10,000 users. And teachers say they are finding it useful.
For Christopher Faidley, a middle school computer science teacher who once taught advanced technology to Bir, it’s a place to send inquisitive parents.
“I will often get parents asking for resources for their students that are beginning computer science, and it’s got a ton of things, it’s well organized,” Faidley says.
Faidley says that it’s also useful for precocious students. When they want to investigate concepts related to what they’re learning in school further, the site is an easy place to point them.
“I get those types of questions at least three or four times a year,” Faidley says, adding, “So this is certainly something that I’ll be using quite a bit more in the future.”
A New Digital Guide?
It’s perhaps novel for a resource created for teachers to be run, in part, by students. But, Bir says, the notion is that anyone can update the site. Currently, there are more than 20 contributors who have collected more than 600 resources, according to information on the site.
They are organized into five categories — science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics — and further indexed by relevant courses, like AP Physics, or topics, like digital photography. The resources include links to YouTube videos of lectures from MIT professors about airplane aerodynamics; links to free digital tools that teach coding to children; and links to cram sheets designed to support studying for specific Advanced Placement tests.
Some other websites that teachers use to share instructional materials have been criticized for lacking quality control. Bir usually vets the links that people add to the list to make sure that they’re aligned to the section they were added to, he says. He also checks them for breadth, which is important, he says, to keep the site from becoming cluttered with links and impossible to navigate. He further excises links that are selling services.
Bir is working to add a feature that would let users upvote resources they found helpful, he adds.
But all this raises the question: Isn’t that something libraries do?
The project reflects work that libraries have been doing for a long time, says Steven Bell, an associate university librarian at Temple University. When Bell became a librarian, back in the 1970s, these sorts of lists were called “pathfinders,” bibliographies meant to guide research on a particular topic. Nowadays, many college libraries around the country use LibGuides, an information-sharing system that’s used to set up research paths, Bell adds.
AwesomeSTEAM appears to crowdsourcing a version of this, Bell suggests, adding, “I thought that was a really cool grassroots project.”
The notion of having people collectively vet resources to save time — instead of wandering aimlessly on the web — struck Bell as a great idea, especially if it’s curated for authoritative sources, which could help stymie the spread of misinformation that seems endemic to the internet.
Although, Bell says, it’s not fully clear if the people curating the AwesomeSTEAM site are subject matter experts to the extent that people creating libraries lists are.
Location, Location, Location
AwesomeSTEAM has inspired some enthusiasm, with a K-12 teacher in Canada even offering to translate the project into French.
Bir’s site may have attracted so many users because traditional library resources aren’t on the top of people’s minds. According to its creator, AwesomeSTEAM has an advantage over comparative resources at the library in that it’s more intuitive to a digital-native student.
“I know directories exist, like, students have access to libraries. But those are so hard to use,” Bir says, adding, “I’ve never touched one in my life. And I don’t know anyone else who has either.”
In the end, his priority is making resources available when, where and how they’re wanted.
“I would say, the whole mission of this is just to make like these educational resources — high-quality, digital ones — accessible for all kinds of different teachers to use,” Bir says.