MET:Curriculum Collaboration through Atlas Rubicon
This page was originally authored by Stephanie Brook in February 2013.
Atlas is a curriculum mapping software that allows for an educational institution’s curriculum to be shared, analyzed and refined by a team of educators through an online platform. It allows for multiple users to view, edit, analyze and contribute to the different units of study, and to share resources through the online software. Developed in 1989 by Rubicon, Atlas has grown in popularity and is now used by approximately 20,000 schools in more than 120 countries worldwide.
According to the SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (2009), "Curriculum mapping was developed after World War II as traditional scope and sequence charts and promoted later by [Dr. Heidi Hayes] Jacobs (ASCD, 1997) as an effective tool that engaged teachers and staff in a collaborative effort to increase managerial control."(p.131) The Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration (2006) defines curriculum mapping as "a process developed... to discern the actual as opposed to the desired curricula being employed in schools."(p.2) This method has been developed by countless schools and school boards, as well as software developers, as a way to more thoroughly examine what we are teaching, analyze it, and find ways to improve it.
Atlas curriculum mapping software is an online resource and is highly collaborative in nature, allowing teams of educators to build on their shared understandings of a unit of study as the years go by. New resources can be added, and old ones taken away. Curriculum mapping is often used in schools where teachers are being asked to collaboratively build a curriculum to "support the achievement of each student through an articulated, seamless curriculum"(Truesdale, Thompson & Lucas, 2004, p.10). Atlas achieves this goal, and allows curriculum to truly become a living, working record of the teaching and learning that is taking place in a school.
Features of Atlas
- Collaborative - Atlas curriculum mapping software builds a shared understanding of a school's curriculum, by bringing together a community of educators with a shared goal: to document the teaching and learning that is taking place in their school. On their website, Atlas states that the overall goal for their software is "to facilitate the sharing of ideas and instructional best practices." The online software is based on six big ideas, all of which contribute to collaboration among educators: knowledge transfer, integration, transparency, accountability, collaboration and perspective. The initial task of inputting information can be daunting for some, and those who find it easy will often share the burden with their colleagues to help facilitate this process. Once the data is on the system, Atlas easily allows teachers to see what is going on in different classrooms and subject areas. It also allows for teachers to share resources with each other. For example, if a teacher is looking at a colleague's unit on children's rights, and they have taught a similar unit before, they can upload resources that they have, or add links to useful websites, videos, etc. They can share their knowledge with others in a simple, efficient way. The collaborative nature of Atlas makes it simple to understand a whole school's curriculum without having to pore over countless documents.
- Customizable - Atlas' team designs each school's mapping software to meet the curriculum needs of that school. They work with the school to create a platform for curriculum mapping that reflects the program being offered by the school, including curricular outcomes, standards, benchmarks, etc. It looks at all aspects of the curriculum including the intended curriculum, the taught curriculum, the hidden curriculum and the assessed curriculum. Atlas' staff work alongside the school to offer training, assistance, and customization of the school's mapping platform so that it becomes a working document for the school. The other highly customizable aspect of this software is its multilingual feature. Atlas reports that they have schools using their software in "Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, Hawaiian, Navajo, Arabic and many other languages", without the need to download additional software.
- Functional - this curriculum mapping software was designed with a variety of different functions in mind. Atlas is described by the designers as "a customizable, web-based application designed to electronically encompass the process of curriculum mapping which facilitates collaboration among teachers across subjects, grades and schools." Aside form being customizable, its functions extend outside the staff and administration of the school. There is a separate parent site, where parents can access information about the curriculum in real time. Reports can be easily printed and/or presented to external community members to support curriculum goals and objectives, or requests for funding from external governing bodies. Atlas gives its users the ability to design units, lesson plans, link to resources, link to other units within the school, or show the overall calender of a school year's design map.  In addition to these functions, Atlas also provides a highly knowledgeable staff to work alongside their schools and guide them through the process of mapping their curriculum.
- Analytical - Once all current units of work have been uploaded to Atlas, and teachers have mapped out their yearly calendar of units, analysis can begin to take place. Teachers and administrators can look at key concepts being studied, to see where there are gaps and/or overlaps in the curriculum. Searches can be made for key terms, which will show all the relevant units that have this key term in it, to allow teachers to see if students have been exposed to something in the past. Charts and graphs can be produced for use in parent and board discussions. The overall goal of the analytical tools of Atlas is to resolve the issue of schools that are "drowning in data while starving for information". Atlas' analytical features allows for a school to make gains in the amount of information they have about the real curriculum at their school, and transform this information into useful data. This data can then be used as the driving force behind curriculum reform in a school.
- Accessible - One of the most useful features of Atlas is its ability to store everything in one place, as well as access it from anywhere. This includes overarching year plans, unit plans, individual lesson plans, resources, links, videos, references, etc. Everything can be stored on the online system, with easy access from anywhere that there is an internet connection.
Links to Academic Research
Curriculum mapping is a highly collaborative process, involving all teachers in a school, or even a greater community of schools. In their report on the curriculum mapping process completed with a community of 19 schools, Truesdale et al.(2004) notes that:
- "Curriculum mapping has been a useful tool to bring about a synergy of professional expertise focused on instructional improvement... It has provided the tools to build a cohesive learning community with teachers as the chief architects and builders. Over several years, maps have become the hub for highlighting continual changes and refinements needed in the instructional program. Mapping has provided a process for collegial dialogue as it focuses on alignment of content, skills, assessments, and activities... with its ultimate goal of improving student achievement."(p.23)
Atlas bases its idea of curriculum mapping on research from several key educators. Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, author of Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12 (ASCD, 1997) and Getting Results with Curriculum Mapping (ASCD, 2004), laid the foundation for the idea of curriculum mapping, and for the idea behind the software. In her research on curriculum mapping, Jacobs (1997) argues that "our students need us to know their experiences over the course of time. They need us to know what’s really going on in their daily classes as they move among teachers and subjects. With that information, possibilities emerge." (ASCD, p.3) Atlas was designed "to encompass the acclaimed curriculum mapping methodology developed by Dr. Jacobs" and her Seven Phases of Curriculum Mapping are given life through Atlas.
When we look at the latin roots for the word, we see that it means "to run" or "to proceed" in a forward direction. Atlas takes this definition, and relates it to the Understanding by Design(UbD) work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (ASCD, 2005) when considering the layout for the software, and the input of information essential to unit planning. The emphasis of UbD is its backward design, beginning with the end result in mind. Planning, therefore, begins with the final desired understanding that teachers hope students will learn, and lessons are designed towards a final task that students will complete to demonstrate that they have understood what the teacher set forth to promote an understanding of. The unit plan design of Atlas is based on this design, asking for teachers to think about three stages of unit planning: desired results, assessment evidence and learning plan. Jacobs (2010) notes that "they are asking us to stop, reflect, and make intelligent choices, and to engage in "backward design" by beginning with the end in mind. They are asking us to be deliberate and forward-thinking as well." (p.18) The team at Atlas go on to make reference to Steven Covey and 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'  when thinking about backward design: "To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you're going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction."
Another key academic work that Atlas focuses its design around is that of Dr. Howard Gardner and his theory of 'Multiple Intelligences'. Atlas is designed to track multiple intelligences as they occur across a schools' units of work. "The technology incorporated within Atlas facilitates tracking Multiple Intelligences and aligning proper assessments to measure the desired product, as described in Gardner's books outlining the theory."
Collaboration and curriculum development work together in many schools undergoing the curriculum mapping process. In order for this to happen, researchers argue that the curriculum review process must be done in a collegial way, with all staff being involved in the decision-making process. "The creation of productive and supportive collegial relationships among teachers has long been seen as a prerequisite for effective school-based curriculum development" (Hargreaves, p.1480) Where staff are involved, and the need for curriculum mapping is recognized and highlighted as a necessary step, teachers are more inclined to play an active role in the process. Hargreaves (2000) puts forth that schools must demonstrate a "willingness to give to schools and their teachers, substantial responsibility for development as well as implementation, for curriculum as well as instruction." (p.1501)
Benefits of Atlas
The benefits of using Atlas for curriculum mapping include:
- access by teachers and administrators to the whole school's curriculum map
- allows teachers to understand students' prior knowledge when planning units of study
- allows curriculum designers to see what is taught, as it is occurring in the classroom
- allows for both horizontal and vertical alignment of the curriculum
- allows for ease of teaching, with all resources being stored in a central location, accessible by all teachers
- allows for a shared understanding of what and how students are being taught
- allows teachers and/or administrators to make suitable, immediate changes to the curriculum in real time
- allows for analysis of student achievement results based on the taught and written curriculum
- provides parents (through the separate parents' site) with an over-arching picture of what their children are being taught, and how they can support them at home
Many teachers and administrators have had positive experiences with Atlas software and the team at Rubicon, and have shared their experiences on the Rubicon Podcast Channel. Teachers and Administrators can request a Test Drive of the product by contacting Atlas, which allows for complete access to a sample school's curriculum, as well as resources, and information. There is also a NING page, where considerable dialogue can be read about curriculum mapping, and Atlas software in particular. The NING is set up through the Independent Schools Educator's Network, where teachers offer insights into their experiences with the software, both positive and negative.
Limitations and criticisms
As with all software, Atlas has come under criticism from some users. Most of the criticism falls into the following categories:
- Labour intensive to input all data required - this input of data is a one time process, and once it is there, the only information that needs to be input is that which changes (i.e. revised lesson plans, new resources, new assessment tasks, etc.). Some schools get around this hurdle by hiring supply teachers to allow for time to input this data. Some even hire external consultants to input the information for the teacher, especially when teachers are not as comfortable using technology. Once the information is on the system, the software is very user-friendly and teachers can learn to use it quite easily.
- Reporting is not possible - many teachers and administrators lament that, although Atlas is able to generate reporting data in terms of curriculum content, and instructional goals, it does not generate report cards using the content and/or skills that are input into units of work. This is something that the Atlas team are working on for future versions of their software.
- Implementation costs are high - as with any software that is supported by a team of experts, offers professional development and training, and designs a customized platform for the curriculum mapping process, there is a cost involved. The cost is based on the size of the school (i.e. number of students and staff), and the amount of work that is needed to customize the software for the program being offered by the school. There are many other options available to schools for curriculum mapping online, and there is competition to Atlas. Even with this in mind, Atlas seems to receive the most chatter online in educational forums, and it receives a stamp of approval from one of the leading academics in this field. Dr. Jacob's is quoted on the Atlas website to say, "You guys just get it!".
- Information in this section is the author's opinion, having used the software and been given test drive access to the software for the purpose of this review.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curriculum curriculum
- Curriculum mapper
- MapSter Curriculum Mapping Tool
- Rubicon Atlas Curriculum Mapping
- Web Based Curriculum Mapping Open Source Software System
- Rubicon Podcast Channel
- Curriculum mapping. (2009). In The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioral sciences. (p. 131). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412972024.n641
- Curriculum mapping. (2006). In Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. (pp. 261-262). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412939584.n155
- Hargreaves, A. (2000). Contrived Collegiality: The Micropolitics of Teacher Collaboration. The Sociology of Education: Major Themes in Education Series (pp. 1480-1505). New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Jacobs, H. H. (1997). Mapping the big picture: integrating curriculum & assessment, K-12. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Jacobs, H. H. (2010). Curriculum 21 essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Truesdale, Valerie; Claire Thompson and Michael Lucas (2004). "Use of Curriculum Mapping to Build a Learning Community". In Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Getting results with curriculum mapping. Alexandria, Va.:: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2009.
- Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.