A digital transformation of K-12 education

03/30/2013  |  DOUG HATCH

The recognized need to improve educational outcomes in America’s K-12 education system has spawned a number of initiatives, including a push for adoption of common curriculum standards, but also a push away from printed textbooks toward digital curriculum. This article offers an overview of recent and pending developments in digital curriculum solutions for teachers and students.

The Movement to Digital Curriculum Delivery

The K-12 education system is now well into its third decade for using computers and related educational technologies. In the past decade, use of laptops and interactive whiteboards in classrooms by teachers has become common place, although by no means universally employed. Computer labs in each school are the norm but “one-to-one”computer programs to equip every student with a computer are currently rare. While technology integration in K-12 schools has not been consistent or comprehensive, what has occurred has cost a great deal of money. Policymakers look at downward trending international rankings in math, science, and English and rightly question whether the investments in technology are worthwhile.

Performance measurements can be hard to assess, as there are an array of factors: curriculum standards, teacher competence, socioeconomic conditions, barriers to English literacy, and so on. The Common Core standards initiative and improved investments in professional development for teachers are key recent responses to disappointment in educational outcomes. Digital curriculum is connected to both of those initiatives and will be an important part of improving educational outcomes. Getting tangible educational benefits from technology investments has been largely due to a reluctance to adopt a digital curriculum delivery model because of equity concerns over student access to computers. Digital curriculum use was thus constrained by the number and availability of computers the schools themselves could furnish. The result was a school system still using a printed textbook model, and a partial digital learning model, largely confined to supplementary purposes.

The equity barrier to digital curriculum delivery has not yet disappeared but it is falling fast. The major reason for this is the significant decline in laptop prices and the success of lower cost mobile computer tablets. With school pricing for laptops now under $300 each and for tablets under $200, one-to-one programs and “bring-your-own device” programs are being implemented at an accelerating pace. A business case can now be developed for school districts that they can save money by substituting a digital curriculum delivery model for a printed textbook model. Interest by large districts and many state departments of education in assembling digital content libraries and online learning services for students has soared in the past 18 months.

Additionally, where digital content formats can be administered in both online Learning Management Systems (LMS) as well as in classrooms, one can then enable a 24/7 home and school digital curriculum delivery model. An LMS enables stored test data and so it enables teachers to track student performance. The LMS also usually facilitates teacher-student communication via e-mail, blogs or social media. With such an integrated digital curriculum delivery model, teachers have the flexibility and opportunity to customize learning paths for students to fit their individual learning needs. Teachers may also have the choice whether to “flip-the-classroom” by moving primary instruction from the classroom to the student’s computer. For content areas where such flipping is appropriate, classroom time can be used to augment and enrich the primary instruction and thereby make better use of a teacher’s expertise.

How is Digital Curriculum Formatted and Used?

The formats and uses of digital curriculum are evolving. A basic division can be made between teacher-created materials and publisher-created materials.

Teacher-Created Digital Content

For many years, teachers have been creating their own lesson presentations, very often utilizing Powerpoint to create a sequence of slides. Text is authored within Powerpoint and digital images can be added where appropriate to support the presentation. Clipart and other generic static images are widely available for free on the internet or in large collections at low cost. Recently however, educational authorities have been endeavouring to assemble large collections of digital objects specifically to facilitate teacher creation of digital instruction. These collections extend beyond simple clipart collections and can include videos, animations, worksheets, tables, templates and other instructional resources.

Teachers can also author lesson presentations and quizzes using the authoring tools provided in software that enables interactive whiteboards. Additionally, most LMS providers have online authoring tools for teachers to use to create lessons and tests. All of these authoring environments have been created to accept a wide range of commonly available file formats, including Adobe pdfs, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Word, eps images, png images, and animated gifs. However, some file formats, notably Flash, are not supported by most tablets (i.e. iPads and Android tablets) which are trending to be the device of choice for online learning. Consequently, animation files for mobile devices need to be developed in Html5 or as an animated gif. That type of development work is typically beyond the expertise of most teachers.

There will always be a level of interest by many teachers in developing their own lesson presentations and there are many available authoring tools to facilitate such work. The availability of a repository of standards-aligned digital objects saves time in searching for relevant and effective images and other digital resources. However there are some limits to the role of teacher-created materials to an optimized digital curriculum delivery model, amongst them:

Instructional design expertise: instructional design of authored instructional materials for wide distribution is a high level skill; additionally, there is a body of learning research on the presentation of instruction in an e-learning environment and consequently the instructional design elements for digital curriculum is particularly specialized; teachers generally do not have these high level skills.

Graphic design expertise: apart from the instructional design issues associated with the display of digital learning materials, the use of layouts, spacing, image sizing, image location, highlighting text, choice of fonts, and other graphical design elements will usually be better addressed by a professional graphic designer than by a typical teacher.

Quality assurance and collection vetting: publishers go through extensive procedures of quality assurance to catch errors pre-publication; their materials are typically evaluated by educational authorities for content alignment, presentation values and learning values; few educational systems have the resources or inclination to vet the digital creations of individual teachers; sharing authored digital content is therefore limited if the content is not developed by a reputable publisher

Subject matter expertise: for technical subjects like math and science, in some cases the teachers themselves do not have a broad or deep enough subject matter expertise and they would benefit from having a professionally developed digital curriculum supplied to them.

Publisher-Created Digital Curriculum

Publishers offer digital curriculum resources in four possible ways:

Assessments: most standard performance assessments are administered online, although some assessments are still administered manually with paper and pencil. These assessments may be entrance exams specific to a student or, for system-wide appraisal of achievement that is not student-specific. The results for these kinds of assessments are generally not used in conjunction with learning materials supplied to address a learning deficiency identified by the test results.

Textbooks: textbooks have been available in digital formats, or as eBooks for several years. Textbook publishers have supplied pdf versions of the textbooks, typically for teacher use, as a supplement to a printed textbook purchase. Recently, some digital textbook files have been enhanced in various ways such as audio support or highlighting specific words to display a definition or other explanation. Digital textbooks however, are primarily reference materials with low-level interaction and typically with no associated assessments to track user understanding.

Standards aligned digital resources: publishers are supplying, sometimes for free, and sometimes by subscription, digital learning objects aligned to curriculum standards for teacher use. The objects are meta tagged with keywords so they can be searched and identified when contained in a large repository of learning objects. These objects range from single images to videos, animated sequences, full lesson presentations, and question set data banks. The less complex objects are intended for use by teachers in creating their own presentations. The more complex, integrated lesson presentations do not require teacher authoring but may serve as a primary lesson presentation. These integrated lessons could be in various formats but if they are also to be used in an online LMS for student use, then the file format must be Sharable Content Object Resource Model (SCORM) compatible. SCORM is a set of standards and specifications developed by the U.S. military for the management of e learning content. While there are other protocols for use of digital content online, SCORM is the protocol most widely used in US education.

What Lies Ahead?

In the next five years, printed textbooks will largely disappear from K-12 education. They will be replaced by a robust digital curriculum that will be a mix of experiential (activity-oriented) elements and formal instruction with assessment. Educators will employ “blended learning” models, mixing learning time between in-school and online. To maintain flexible choices in administration of how instruction is delivered, there will need to be a comprehensive collection of digital curriculum content. Publisher-created digital content is needed to ensure a critical mass of vetted, high quality resources and assessable content plus a repository of standards-aligned digital learning objects for teacher use. This publisher provided digital curriculum will be augmented by content libraries for teachers to use for development of their own classroom presentations. As matters progress, procedures will evolve for identifying and ensuring use of the most effective instructional strategies.

My hope, and expectation, is that this transformation in curriculum delivery in K-12 education will liberate teachers to apply their teaching skills more effectively with students who need their intervention and support. The transformation will also liberate students to take more ownership and control of their own learning. Both will lead to better educational outcomes for students individually and for the system as a whole.

Doug Hatch is president of Core Learning. For more information, visit www.core-learning.com.
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