Fred Mednick is a reminder that, in the end, philanthropy isn’t about money but about the transforming power of ideas to make the world a better place.
Mednick, a former teacher and high school principal in Washington State, is the founder of Teachers Without Borders, an international organization whose mission is to eliminate educational inequities, particularly in developing nations, by training teachers and sharing information with them.
What brought Mednick to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation wasn’t pursuit of a grant but the content of its Web pages, where he could learn more about sharing educational materials online.
He says a paper there written by Hewlett Foundation Education Program Officer Cathy Casserly and Education Program Director Mike Smith about Open Educational Resources, as this online sharing is known, revolutionized his thinking about his own work. And now that thinking may, in turn, help the Foundation’s work.
Mednick had been trying for some time to find a tool that would let teachers do it all: share educational materials, form communities, and collaborate on projects. Despite software that had tackled parts of the problem, Mednick said he had started to think he was alone in his vision until he saw the Casserly-Smith paper.
“What blew my mind about the document was that [the authors] were trying to catalog and make sense of all of it,”‘ said Mednick, 52. “The Foundation was seeding all kinds of noble efforts to use open source platforms to close the education divide. I don’t know of anyone else who is trying to make sense of it. “
“I read the thing, and read it again,'” he said. “I started flinging the document around: I made Excel spread sheets about it. I annotated it. I manipulated it. I obsessed.”
Today, with the help of a grant from the Cisco Foundation, with which he was working at the time, Mednick is working with five software writers to put the finishing touches on software for the Teachers Without Borders Web site that he says will integrate everything he envisioned.
For her part, Casserly describes Mednick as “one of the most well-read and thoughtful people on the use of open educational resources I have met.'”
Because Mednick plans to share his software with others, Casserly thinks it will advance not only the work of Teachers Without Borders but the larger movement of educators promoting the use of shared educational materials online.
“He’s already gone ahead and is creating what we’ve been thinking about,'” Casserly said. “It’s a tool that integrates all kinds of content and puts it in a platform that can be used and added to by teachers.”
What distinguishes open educational resources from other online educational content is that it combines legal innovations that address copyright and intellectual property laws with Internet-based software that lets users annotate, reorganize and republish educational materials to suit their own needs. All for free.
Casserly said that unlike other open educational resources sites, which to date typically have shared smaller bodies of knowledge, Mednick’s site accommodates a variety of different software platforms to integrate big things, like video courseware, library archives or the content of entire books.
“What I love about it is its ability to integrate all of the projects that we’ve seeded and more into one platform and produce content that is high in value and offers quick feedback to users,” she said.
Mednick adds that it also meets four other criteria he set: the site is driven by the users rather than those who administer it; it puts a premium on creating a community of users; it doesn’t require lots of computing power; and it doesn’t require technical know-how for teachers to use it.
“I’m not a tech guy, but I know what people in the education world will use,'” Mednick said. “Well, I’ve become a nerd, but first I’m a teacher.”
Casserly said the Mednick story highlights a less remarked upon facet of the Foundation.
“One of the highest values we bring to this effort is connecting people and helping them share their ideas,'” she said. “We have a birds-eye view of things that’s invaluable. A lot of times, people can’t see that. They’re worried about their own projects.”
“It’s about networking and building the field,'” she said. “If we’re a strategic foundation, that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do.”