Special Report

Building the Digital Curriculum

By Erik Fatemi — August 08, 2017 11 min read
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Importance of Training

For years, teachers had little reason to give this question much thought. Most didn’t have any computers in their classrooms, not to mention access to the Internet. ''Technology’’ was something their students did once a week in a lab.

Today, boxes and wires are still an issue for all but the wealthiest schools. But a critical mass has been reached. More than half the nation’s classrooms are connected to the Web, and schools have an average of one instructional computer for every 5.7 students.

Now, there’s no escaping the all-important question of what to put on those computers. Increasingly, educators are recognizing that they need to focus on what kinds of computer-based learning resources, or “digital content,” they should use in their classrooms.

But this overarching question only leads to more questions: How do you judge the quality of software and Web sites? How do you find appropriate materials? When should such resources be used? How much should teachers rely on them? How should they be integrated into the curriculum?

“Now is the time to look at the content,” says Linda G. Roberts, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of technology. The department considers digital content one of four “pillars” of school technology, along with hardware, connectivity, and professional development. “This is exactly the right time to do it-when we’re at the point that we have [computer] technology in about 80 percent of our classrooms.”

There is certainly no lack of digital content available to teachers. Thousands of CD-ROMS and Web sites have been created specifically for educators and students. Many general-purpose software tools, such as spreadsheets and desktop-publishing packages, can also be adapted for the classroom. And the number of archives and reference materials that students can draw from is virtually limitless.

But selecting which content to use for a particular lesson can be a daunting task.

“It’s very hard to find exactly the right piece of software that will work reliably, not lose students’ interests, and ... meet the requirements of the curriculum,” says Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford University.

Deciding how to use the content once it’s selected also presents challenges. Educators have to consider everything from which teaching style is appropriate to how to schedule students’ time, especially when the number of available computers is limited.

“Digital resources are bursting on the scene, but no one is quite sure how to effectively use them,” says Brett Eynon, the deputy director of the American Social History project at the City University of New York, which runs an educational Web site.

Complicating matters is the fact that many teachers lack the time and training they need to make the best use of digital content.

Survey Results

These issues are explored in depth in Technology Counts ‘99, the third of Education Week’s annual reports on education technology. As in past years, the report is underwritten by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken Exchange on Education Technology, an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation.

This year, Education Week worked with Education Market Research, a Rockaway Park, N.Y.-based research company, to conduct the most comprehensive survey to date on teachers’ use of and attitudes about digital content.

The results add some badly needed data to educators’ and policymakers’ understandings of these issues, which until now have been dominated by anecdotes and small-scale observations. They also point to several ways in which schools can improve teachers’ use of digital content, particularly in the area of professional development.

Almost all of the 1,407 teachers who responded to the survey have access to a computer, either at home or at school. Furthermore, almost all use it for some kind of professional activity.

But many are still making only a modest use of digital content in their classrooms. Only slightly more than half-53 percent-use software to enhance instruction in their classrooms, and 61 percent use the Web for this purpose. Nearly four in 10 teachers and their students don’t use classroom computer at all during a typical week.

In part, this is b cause most digital content-with the exception of comprehensive courseware, or “integrated-learning systems"-is designed to be a supplemental resource. Teachers are still relying mainly on textbooks to deliver the core of the curriculum.

But there are other reasons why teachers aren’t using digital content more often. One key factor is the number of computers available to teachers in their classrooms, the survey shows. Sixty-seven percent of teachers in classrooms with six or more instructional computer say they rely on digital content to a “very great” or “moderate” extent, compared with 40 percent of teachers whose classrooms have one or two instructional computers.

This finding makes sense when you consider the logistics of running a classroom, experts say.

“If you have a class of 25 or 30 students, and you want them all to do a particular activity, it’s going to take all week to cycle them onto the machine,” explains Gerry Solomon, who coordinates the software-review process for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “If you have five or six, students can pair up and use them a lot more often.”

A lack of time to prepare or try out software is the next most frequently cited reason why teachers don’t use it for instruction.

“It’s not like a textbook, where you can thumb through it,” says Bridget R. Foster, the director of the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse, which evaluates electronic learning resources. “You have to sit down and load it onto your computer and figure out how to use it before you can even begin to evaluate the content.”

All that effort takes time that many teachers don’t have, she adds.

The cost of software is another major problem for teachers, especially since they often end up footing the bill. One out of every five teachers in the survey who use instructional software say they pay for it themselves.

Christopher Held, a curriculum program specialist in the Washington state education department’s learning technologies division, says the high co t of most curriculum-specific software is one rea on why his door was closed to vendors when he was an elementary school teacher. He preferred software tools that can be used across more than one subject area.

“Teachers don’t need an expensive software program to help them teach something they already know how to teach,” Held says. “And even if you find something that’s good, you’re up against how you’re going to pay for it.”

Importance of Training

A lack of training is the most important obstacle inhibiting the use of digital content, according to many technology experts. Indeed, the survey affirms again and again the importance of professional development.

Teacher who had received technology training in the past year are more likely than teachers who hadn’t to say they feel “better prepared” to integrate technology into their classroom lessons; they also are more likely to u e and rely on digital content for instruction, and to spend more time trying out software and searching for Web sites to use in class.

In all of these instances, training on “integrating technology into the curriculum” was more helpful to teachers than training in “basic technology skills.”

“It’s gratifying to hear this,” says Mary Ann Blankenship, a senior professional associate for the National Education Association. “It’s fine to have basic-skills training, but the kind that makes the most difference is when it’s aligned to the curriculum.”

The best integration training does more than simply show teachers where in a curriculum they can squeeze in some technology, experts say. Instead, it helps them learn how to select digital content based on the needs and learning styles of their students, and infuse it into the curriculum rather than making it an end in itself.

“A teacher might say, ‘I know what disk to put in when we cover this topic.’ That’s something, and I don’t want to pooh-pooh that,” says Douglas H. Clements, an education professor at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. “But you’ve also got to ask, ‘Why am I using this?’ and tap into your image of how students learn. Then, you’ve got to know the whole ball of wax.”

Using technology effectively also requires having a wide repertoire of teaching approaches at your disposal, experts say.

Teachers need to be comfortable using any kind of digital content where it’s appropriate, whether it’s drill-and-practice software or more exploratory, project-based uses of technology, says Cheryl L. Lemke, the executive director of the Milken Exchange on Education Technology.

“You can’t separate the content from the pedagogy,” she says.

Despite the apparent need for curriculum-integration training, the Education Week survey hows that teacher are getting relatively little of it. Only 29 percent of teachers say they had more than five hours of technology training in curriculum integration within the past year.

Interestingly, while the amount of training teachers receive has a big impact on their use of digital content, the number of years they have been teaching makes practically no difference. Teachers who have been in the classroom five years or fewer are no more likely to use digital content than those who have been teaching for more than 20 years.

This finding may come as a disappointment to those who hope that younger teachers will make better use of technology than their older peers simply because they grew up with it.

There is much more to using technology effectively in a classroom than simply being facile with the equipment, experts say.

“There is no compelling reason to believe that new teachers are any better equipped to use technology than veteran teachers,” says Robert M. Resnick, the president and principal researcher of Education Market Research. “You can’t sit back on your hands and say it’s going to take care of itself when the older teachers are flushed out of the system.”

Lemke of the Milken Exchange adds that although younger teachers might be less afraid of technology than their veteran peers, they often lack classroom-management skills and knowledge of their content areas-two factors that could limit their effective use of digital content.

Grading Software

Not surprisingly, most teachers in the survey think highly of the instructional software they currently have available in their own classrooms. Twenty-four percent give it an A for overall quality, and 48 percent give it a B. Teachers are particularly satisfied with the software’s ability to help students master basic skills and foster higher-level thinking skills.

They rate their classroom software much lower, however, for how well it matches with state and district tests; 59 percent give it a C or lower in this area. And when asked about software in general, 36 percent of teachers say overall quality is a “big” or “moderate” problem.

Teachers also express frustration about finding good software to meet their classroom needs. More than half of those who search for it describe the process as “somewhat” or “very” difficult.

The problem is especially acute in the higher grades. Sixty-nine percent of high school teachers say it is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to find instructional software, compared with 43 percent of pre-K-2 teachers.

This is due in part to the simple fact that publishers create more titles for the lower grades, according to Annette Donnelly, a former vice president at Tom Snyder Productions, a software publisher, and now the director of product development for Teacher Street, a new software republishing and distribution company based in Medford, Mass.

“High school is a tough market,” Donnelly says. “K-6 students are very often in the same classroom all day long, while in high school, teacher have their students for less than an hour. It’s harder to work with supplemental materials.”

The pressure to satisfy curriculum requirements, particularly in states with specific academic standards and high-stakes tests, adds to the difficulty of finding appropriate digital content, experts say.

“Some of the software is very engaging, but it may not be connected to the requirements of the curriculum or the tests that students are going to have to take,” says Cuban of Stanford University.

Unfortunately, many teachers don’t know where to turn to find out which digital content is aligned with their curricula. Only 12 percent of teachers in the survey say their state or district provides lists of software titles that match curriculum standards and only 28 percent say their state or district pro~ vides opportunities for previewing software.

Technology Counts ’99 will address these issues more fully in the following three chapters. The first chapter discusses the quality of available digital content and efforts to evaluate it. The second chapter examines teachers’ preparedness to use it, and the third chapter looks at the challenges of integrating digital content into the curriculum.

As in previous reports, Technology Counts ’99 also includes the most recent national and state-by-state data on technology in schools. The report concludes with updates on the technology efforts in all 50 states over the past year.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1999 edition of Education Week


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