Digital Curation: A Tool for 21st Century Learning

My first teaching job was in a high school science department that had a shared office where each of the teachers had a desk with one or two file cabinets. In those days, most lesson plans were still on paper, although there was a computer in the room with a floppy disk drive and a modest connection to the recently-invented world wide web. When I began working in that office, the department chair encouraged me to freely peruse and borrow lessons and resources from any of the other teachers, and then pointed out an empty file cabinet that I should use to begin my own collection of lessons that I would be willing to share.

I quickly learned which teachers could usually be trusted to have a well-organized drawer of carefully vetted lesson ideas, and which teachers simply stored 35 copies of every worksheet that came with their adopted textbook. The cabinets packed full of paper worksheets weren’t where I usually would find the best lesson plans, assessments, and project ideas, and herein lies the distinction between curating vs. collecting. Curators try to share a relatively small number of the best resources, whereas collectors tend to stash everything they can get their hands on. In his video, Pant (2013) gave the example of the sommelier as a curator of fine wine, which I think is an excellent analogy. Twenty years ago, I never would have consulted a sommelier except maybe to help pick the wine to be served at my wedding reception–but now, with a smartphone in my pocket, why wouldn’t I want to peek at a trusted wine review web site when I’m deciding which bottle of wine to pick up at the grocery store?

Simply put, technology has made quality curation available to everyone, including teachers. Educators now have access to literally millions of their colleagues’ virtual file cabinets on the Internet. These resources aren’t all paper worksheets, either; a URL can point to almost any type of media, from movies to blog posts to interactive learning environments. CourseWorld, for example, is a curated set of 16,000 educational videos that have been selected and indexed by a staff of over 50 experts in the humanities and arts (Nelson, 2013). What makes this site powerful is that the videos are organized in a well-designed topical hierarchy that allows a teacher to quickly drill down, with just a few mouse clicks, to a small set of vetted videos on a specific topic.

As we have discussed earlier in this course, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy emphasizes the variation of representation in teaching, so that students with varying abilities and learning styles will be able to succeed (CAST, 2011). A well-curated resource list should allow teachers to quickly access a variety of learning resources, preferably in a variety of formats, so that different types of learners can be supported. Curation itself can be an excellent authentic assessment task for students, because they would use higher-level thinking skills as they evaluate which resources they should collect into a portfolio. This is not just a cute way to structure a hands-on lesson; curation is quickly becoming a 21st century job skill, as more and more career fields depend on web-based resources for communication, training, design, and collaboration. Curation even has the power to open whole new types of learning for students. Sheninger (2013) described how high-school students used MIT OpenCourseWare to learn about video-game programming. This learning resource contained a carefully curated set of coding lessons, which the students were able to freely access as they were trying to figure out how to code their video games. Perhaps this is the most exciting possibility for digital curation: that people are free to use curated resources to quickly and efficiently teach themselves whatever they want to learn about virtually any subject.

Of course, digital curation does open up ethical and legal issues. Some of the best educational content on the Internet has been produced by people who have invested significant amounts of money and/or time. We teachers have liberal fair-use rights under copyright law, but we don’t get to steal expensive resources for free. A teacher who violates terms of use restrictions, even with the best of intentions, can expose himself (and the school district) to significant financial and legal liability. Even more importantly, we teachers have a responsibility to keep our students safe online. Many online learning resources are intended for older children or adults, and don’t feature the privacy protections and/or content filters that should be in place for younger children. Here is where curation is especially important: teachers should be able to quickly filter out web sites and web-based learning tools that aren’t appropriate to students at their grade level. In fact, this may be a part of the teaching role that won’t change by the end of the 21st century. No matter how much knowledge becomes available on the world wide web, and no matter how well that information is curated and organized for students, we will still need human teachers to guide students safely along their learning journey.


CAST. (2011). UDL at a glance [Video file]. Retrieved from

Nelson, S. (2013, September 24). CourseWorld curates repository of free arts and humanities media [Web log comment]. Retrieved from THE Journal web site:

Pant, A. (2013, October 7). Art of curation in education – course and instructor introduction [Video file]. Retrieved from

Sheninger, E. (2013, March 22). OCW supports independent study for N.J. high school students (via MIT News) [Web log comment]. Retrieved from


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