Behind one group of educators' role in the Amazon Inspire relaunch


Kara Pickens — a high school teacher who has helped curate some of the digital content available on Amazon Inspire today — knows firsthand the power behind open educational resources.

Pickens teaches 10th grade English in a small, rural county in southern Indiana, where a single building accommodates every student in the district.

In fact, she is the only sophomore English teacher at West Washington Junior-Senior High School. For a long time, that might have been a major challenge for her and her students. But all of that has changed with the emergence of educational technology and, specifically, open educational resources — as it has for a growing number of educators like Pickens who’ve come to rely on freely-available teaching materials.

“I don’t have teachers to compare curricula with,” Pickens said in an interview with EdScoop, “so open educational resources are huge for really small districts like mine.”

The availability of free and openly licensed digital resources — including curriculum materials like articles, videos, projects and lesson plans — helps compensate for the limitations that often come with teaching in a small, rural district, she said.

For years, Pickens has jumped at the opportunity to integrate new technology in her classes — she was the first teacher in her school to pilot Google Chromebooks, for example — so it seemed natural for her to join Indiana’s digital content curation team three years ago when the Office of eLearning was looking for volunteers.

Today, Pickens is among about 50 educators who make up that team, the “Rockstars of Curation,” as they endearingly refer to themselves — a group of tech-savvy teachers across the state who vet high-quality digital resources for other teachers to use in their classrooms.

Over the last two years, the Rockstars reviewed and approved thousands of pieces of digital content as they waited for the launch — and then re-launch — of Amazon Inspire, an online content repository designed for educators to contribute, store and exchange open educational resources.

When the Rockstars first signed on with Amazon Education — which promised that Inspire would feel and function like the tech giant’s retail site, — they felt they had found “the perfect match,” said Molly Yowell, a digital content coordinator in Indiana’s Office of eLearning and head of the Rockstars of Curation.

They had been looking for a space for their curriculum materials to live, and not only was Amazon offering that space behind the power of its brand, it was offering it for free.

“It just seemed to be a great fit because they had something that solved our problem,” said Yowell, who also teaches English at Danville Community High School, outside Indianapolis.

During the first year of the partnership, everything went according to plan, Yowell told EdScoop.

The Rockstars vetted science, math, social studies and English/language arts materials while they waited for the public debut of Inspire, scheduled to launch ahead of the 2016-2017 academic year. Meanwhile, officials at Amazon Education made themselves available to the Rockstars for eLearning conferences, digital content curation workshops, phone calls and the like.

As summer 2016 approached, Pickens, Yowell and the others Rockstars spent countless hours preparing digital content with expectations that other educators everywhere would soon be able to take advantage of it. Finally, in late June, Amazon Inspire launched.

False start

But the debut came to a halt after only a couple of days. Amazon had received complaints that some of the “open” educational resources on its site were not open at all. It turned out that teachers, unwittingly or otherwise, had uploaded copyrighted materials that did not belong to them.

Amazon suddenly pulled Inspire back into a private, invitation-only beta, leaving many educators disappointed and in limbo, with little indication of when the repository might come back online.

Teachers in small, rural districts like Pickens’ had just enough time to familiarize themselves with and get excited about the learning materials at their fingertips, only to have it slip out of their reach days later.

“We were definitely disappointed that it has been closed this past school year, and that it’s taken so long [to re-launch],” Yowell said, but more than that, she remembers thinking, “We have all this content, we’ve invested so much time and money … We would hate for that content to just sit.”

But there was also the question of what to use in its place. “We were between a rock and a hard place because we needed a free space — we don’t have the funding to pay for [a repository].”

Amazon subsequently asked Indiana to stay on as one of its content collaborators, according to Yowell, and the Rockstars agreed.

For the past year, they continued to collect and curate new educational resources, clinging to Amazon’s promise that Inspire would be back “soon.” In the meantime, they stored the thousands of digital materials in a variety of places, including Google docs and Canvas, a learning management system.

“We haven’t stopped with the work, we never stopped doing the work,” Yowell said.

“Amazon Inspire is a good fit for the digital content work of
our Rockstars of Curation program,” said Candice Dodson, director of eLearning at Indiana’s Department of Education. “We
felt it was worth hanging in there for Inspire’s relaunch to have a quality
place for them to curate and share resources.”

Getting it right

And during that period of retooling, Amazon officials tried to keep their partners in the loop as much as they could, Yowell said. “They’ve been as transparent as they can be.”

The delays were necessary and “make perfect sense,” Yowell added. “We want to get it right, too.”

Amazon officials declined to comment for this story, beyond providing a prepared statement about copyright infringement. However, Amazon Education sent an update to all Inspire account holders on Monday. It is perhaps the company’s first public communication about Inspire in 13 months.

“We know you haven’t heard from us in a while — thanks for your
patience and we apologize for the delay in providing you access to the Amazon
Inspire Beta,” the email says. “Since you signed up for the beta last year, we’ve been visiting
classrooms, listening to educator feedback and making improvements to the
site. … We’re working to build a thriving community of educators on the Amazon Inspire Beta, and are eager to have you as a part of it.”

When Inspire relaunched last week, educators familiar with it found a site that appeared scrubbed of any material that wasn’t free and open. The website — which is still listed in beta and will not offer the controversial “upload” feature for several more weeks — hosts over 500 pieces of digital content from the Rockstars alone (searchable by the tag “INeLearning”), as well as tens of thousands of educational resources from an array of groups, including the National Science Foundation, the Buck Institute for Education and the Maryland State Department of Education.

“The level of excitement and the level of teacher interest seems to really be taking off,” said Robyn Simpson, one of the Rockstars and a world history teacher at Danville Community High School. Inspire will likely get even more traction when summer break ends and teachers start heading back to school in a few weeks, she said.

“I’m definitely recommending it to other teachers as I talk to them,” Pickens said.

Although Amazon made some mistakes in its initial debut of the repository, Simpson and others interviewed for this story don’t think it will have long-term effects on the success of Inspire.

“Amazon is such a big player in the tech world that I think the name recognition will allow people to look past missteps along the way,” Simpson said.