A GEM of a Resource: The Gateway to Educational Materials
by Marilyn Tickner • GEM Project Representative, 
in collaboration with Nancy Barkhouse • Teacher, Atlantic View Elementary • Lawrenceville, Nova Scotia, Canada
MultiMedia Schools • November/December 2001
By now, it is an old saw that had the World Wide Web been designed by librarians instead of physicists, there would be an index and some quality control over what appeared in the collections. Using the miracle of metadata, the Gateway to Educational Materials [GEM—see:http://www.thegateway.org/] is reverse-engineering these capabilities into the Web, at least as far as educational materials are concerned. The GEM Project Coordinator, Nancy Morgan, leads the project team to think in terms of what educators need: easy, fast, and free access to lesson plans, curriculum units, and other educational materials on the Internet. This meeting of the minds (of users and content providers) represents an important evolutionary step in enhancing the effectiveness of the Internet for education.

From Page Views to Page Value
The explosion of educational materials and resources available for educators on the Internet has opened up an exciting era of instructional exploration. However, as Jamie McKenzie, editor of the Web-based "zine" From Now On—The Educational Technology Journal and guest columnist for the Classroom Connect newsletter, reminds us, the concurrent commercialization of the Internet has buried the "infogems" in "infoglut" and made it harder than ever to sort between the two. This inevitable conflict arises from the way search engines operate: The engines look not only at the content of the pages, but also at information about the information itself—called metadata—that is contained in the beginning of each Web page and that is invisible to the user.

Many commercial sites use these metadata tags the way pick-up lines are used in a singles bar, except instead of wanting to get your phone number, the tags just want to get your browser to visit their site. The developers/marketers of these sites get paid by the number of eyeballs that have seen them, however briefly.

By contrast, developers of educational materials want to connect you with useful content. They want a more intimate relationship with you and your classroom. They want to make connections that are appropriate for the subjects you teach, the age of your students, your budget, your purposes, and a host of other considerations that don't enter in to most other e-commerce transactions taking place on the commercial Internet.

GEM's Promise
GEM promises to address the educational explorer's search and retrieval concerns by providing one-stop access to educational resources on the Internet. In fact, GEM is a consortium effort sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. There is no fee to join the GEM Consortium, and the Gateway to Educational Materials service is also free. (See the box, "About GEM.")

The GEM Project already has an outstanding reputation, both nationally and internationally, for excellence in metadata and research, in professional collaboration and training, and in the dissemination of public materials supporting educators. Many GEM Consortium members are involved in consultancy work around the world and have connections with overseas universities and international industries.

Most important, the Gateway provides a bridge between the consumer and producer worlds that is crucial to schools that have embraced a knowledge-building paradigm. Projects developed in the course of study should be worthy of and helpful to further study. GEM provides a way for educators who are helping students create high-quality projects to add these resources to the Gateway, using a tool called GEMCat. (See "From Consumer to Producer: Creating GEM Records with the GEMCat Tool," on page 20.)

About GEM
The Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and is a special project of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology. GEM is part of the Information Institute of Syracuse, which is affiliated with Syracuse University's School of Information Studies.

"The Gateway," "The Gateway to Educational Materials," "the Gateway," and "GEM" are service marks of the U.S. Department of Education and Syracuse University.

GEM vs. Search Engines
You're a fifth-grade teacher, searching for an integrated science lesson on recycling. You try a first attempt on Google [http://www.google.com/]:

  • Simple search with search string +lesson +grade +5 +recycling

  • Hits: 5,898
If you spend 10 minutes on each, that's 983 hours. If you found 10-20 quality resources, that's an additional 10-20 hours, or nearly 1,000 hours!!!

Not very practical, owing to these issues:

  • Lack of searching precision

  • No quality control

  • No control of resource type
So for your second attempt, you go to GEM [http://www.thegateway.org]:
  • Search string: recycling, Grade 5
  • Results: 23 records found. On-target searching!!!

What Difference Do GEM Capabilities Make in Real Life?
As one small example, Nancy Barkhouse—a teacher and major collaborator with me on this article—has a class of 32 students in grade 4, many with a history of low motivation. She started by asking herself how to actively engage this group and decided to maximize her class's 10-year-old computers. She's using a WebQuest designed collaboratively with teachers in the U.S. and Australia while studying online for her Master of Online Education from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. After students complete the WebQuest [http://hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/nbarkhou/farm/index.html], they'll integrate fine arts by having students choreograph movements appropriate for the animals they research. The activity will be based on curriculum outcomes and meaningful assignments, and students will work in collaborative groups using technology and fine arts. Student reports may be done as multimedia presentations or in traditional formats. It is tremendously important, according to Barkhouse, that both the students and the teacher have ready access to quality materials as they build these presentations. If multimedia is chosen, then surely resources found on the Gateway will be incorporated.

Stepping back to look more broadly at the GEM service, consider the benefits it brings to educators in general:

Usual searches are neither efficient nor accurate, resulting in the following:

In part because Web page creators include GEM metadata in pages created on their own servers, GEM Gateway searching results in the following:

GEM and Content Developers
We hope all educational developers will embrace GEM, so teachers can rely on one source rather than needing to try several. Here is some evidence of the benefits we think will accrue to content developers:

When Barkhouse first posted a classroom site in 1995, both she and her students had instant contact from teachers and students around the world. Early search engines produced lots of matches, but current search engines don't find their newer work. Of course, they don't have time or money to register effectively with multiple search engines. They want to share content easily, but teaching full time, developing content, and maintaining links is time-consuming enough without needing to register with several search engines. But if a Web page developer spends 2 minutes with the GEMCat tool, the page content should be easily accessible by all teachers via TheGateway.org. Further, if all developers use the GEM system, it leads to one-stop searching rather than having to search several databases. A common standard makes searching more efficient and reliable for teachers and students. Technology-reluctant teachers are more likely to use a resource when they are consistently successful with it. And it will be easier to duplicate a search. If a bookmark is lost, the computer crashes, bell rings, etc., one can retrace steps easily and relocate the desired site.

A Content Provider's View
When I spoke with Wendy Petti, Webmaster of Math Cats (http://www.mathcats.com), she shared the following comments about her experience in cataloging her resources at GEM:

The GEM cataloging system is really effective; when the GEM staff and the creators of educational materials collaborate to describe and catalog useful educational materials, it is a win-win situation for everyone. The Gateway is a valuable resource to me as a Webmaster and as an educator. It combines the best features of search engines, directories, and online reviews, but it often seems to do a better job than any of those Web resources in helping users to locate exactly what they are looking for.

As an example, my Math Cats site includes an interactive pattern blocks activity. But you have to dig pretty far down to discover it. And yet if you do a search for "pattern blocks" at the Gateway, my activity is one of the first resources to be listed. In contrast, Yahooligans—a Web directory geared for kids—wrote a one-sentence description of my entire site and placed it in "math games." There is not a clue that more than half of my site is devoted to explorations of geometry, even though I have requested an entry in their geometry listings. Google (my favorite search engine) has indexed every page of my site, but I need to compete with every other page of every other site in its listings; when you run a search for "pattern blocks," my page is listed 20th among 400,000.

As another example, one of my favorite activities at Math Cats is the "Polygon Playground." When you run a search for "polygons" at GEM, Polygon Playground is listed first among 55 resources. And yet Polygon Playground does not appear within the first 150 listings for "polygons" at Google, and it does not appear at all among the few listings at Yahooligans.

When using a traditional search engine, it is not easy to tell which sites are appropriate for certain grade levels (which is one of the search criteria at GEM). One clearinghouse that wrote a review of Math Cats did not attempt to list all of the activities on the site, and there is no way to locate specific ones. At the Gateway, I as a Webmaster have discretion over which of my materials are cataloged and how they are described. Of the many search engines, directories, and Web sites of educational listings I have contacted over the past year, GEM is the only one that offered me a chance to collaborate to catalog and describe my resources. The process was efficient and effective.

Where GEM Is and Where It's Headed
To sum up, here are what we at GEM see as the main strengths of The Gateway to Educational Materials:

There is currently available a User Groups GEM Consortium membership, composed of organizations that use and promote GEM. Some current members include the American Association of School Librarians, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Education Association.

In addition, there is also a Collection Holders GEM Consortium membership, composed of organizations that have collections of educational materials that are, or will be, cataloged and entered into The Gateway. Some current collection holder members include EDSITEment, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the Franklin County (Virginia) Public Schools, and Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE).

In the future, we plan to provide even more on-target, efficient searching and browsing, including academic standards and resource type. We invite you, even urge you, to join us.

The Magic of Metadata

GEM metadata “makes it happen.” Similar to a card catalog, the structured information called metadata describes, manages, and organizes library resources. Used in a GEM record, metadata describes, manages, and organizes Internet education resources

It provides on-target, efficient searching and browsing by grade, subject, or keyword: 
GEM elements include: GEM controlled vocabulary:
• Audience
• Duration 
• Essential Resources
• Grade Level
• Pedagogy
• Quality Indicators
• Academic Standards
• Cataloging Agency
• Subject
• Resource Type
• Pedagogy 
• Audience 
• Grade/Education Level 
• Format
And, using GEM tools, it’s easy and efficient to leverage metadata:  
To create GEM metadata: For database collections:
• use GEMCat Cataloging module 
• site profile: redundant data 
• cut and paste 
• controlled vocabularies 

Time: 5-10 minutes 
to create a GEM record

• compare GEM elements with Database fields 

• write script/program/query to output GEM records 

• test output with GEM technical systems 

Time: a few hours to add 
them to the Gateway 


Communications to the author may be addressed to Marilyn Tickner, GEM Project Representative, GEM Project, 621 Skytop Road, Suite 160, Syracuse, NY 13244-5290; phone: 315/443-3640; e-mail: mtickner@ericir.syr.edu. Tickner's collaborator on this article, Nancy Barkhouse, may be reached at Atlantic View Elementary School, 3391 Lawrencetown Rd., Lawrencetown, NS, Canada B2Z 1R5; phone: 902/464-5245; e-mail: nbarkhouse@accesswave.ca.

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