Special Report

Digital Content and the Curriculum

By David J. Hoff — September 23, 1999 17 min read

When Virginia approved new state achievement tests in the fall of 1997, districts had to change their curricula in a hurry. The tests were based on state standards that are among the most detailed in the nation, and schools had just eight months to prepare their students to take them.

Here in Spotsylvania County, a rural but developing community south of Washington, one of the most perplexing questions was what to do about the district’s software collection. No one knew which pieces were aligned with the revised curriculum, and the state wasn’t offering any help in sorting them out.

Almost two years later, teachers and curriculum experts are still scrambling to review which of the district’s software they should use to teach the new standards, which they should ditch altogether, and which new titles they have to buy.

“It’s been frustrating,” says Edlow G. Barker, the assistant superintendent for instruction for the 18,000-student district. “And it’s been expensive.”

Barker’s headache are common for curriculum directors as states start to spell out exactly what students should learn and when-and then hold the threat of test scores over their heads.

Some states, such as California and Ohio, publish software reviews and even lesson plans to guide curriculum directors and teachers as they decide how to align digital content with curricula.

But, too often, school officials find those material to be inadequate or don’t even know they exist.

Impact of Standards

The need for better link between digital content and curricula is driven by the convergence of two major trends in education: State officials are increasingly prescribing what should be taught in the classroom, through academic standards and high-stakes tests; at the same time, they’re encouraging greater use of technology.

“The standards are having a forceful impact,” says Denis P. Doyle, a consultant who helps districts write standards and a former researcher for conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute. “My impression from the schools I’m working with is that they’re going to meet the standards, and they’re changing things to do so.”

This environment has kept curriculum directors and teachers focused on a bottom line as they decide how to integrate technology in their instruction: If the digital content doesn’t help achieve specific curriculum goals, many teachers don’t want it.

“What I hear from teachers is that, unless we can show them a direct correlation to the standards that they live and die with every day, it may be the best content in the world, but there’s just no way they have time to use it,” says Mary Ann Blankenship, a senior professional associate for the National Education Association.

The problem is that many teachers don’t know where to go to select software titles and Web sites to fit their curriculum needs.

In some cases, it’s because the information doesn’t exist. A particular CD-ROM or Web site might be helpful in teaching a state’s history standards, for example, but teachers don’t know it because no one has documented the correlations. In other cases, someone may have identified the links between a state’s curriculum and a piece of digital content, but teachers aren’t aware of it.

“The information is out there,” says John C. Brim, the section chief for educational resources evaluation at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “The issue is whether classroom teachers have the time to organize the information and do something with it. They can’t just go out and plow through all the information out there and pull it in fast enough for them to use it their classroom.”

School district personnel don’t have the time either, adds Carl “Jay” Bansbach, a media specialist for the Anne Arundel County, Md., public schools. “How do we sift through all this?” he asks. “There’s so much out there. What do we do?”

These concerns may help explain why so many of the 1,407 teachers who responded to an Education Week survey are at a loss about resources that could help them choose digital content.

Just 12 percent of the respondents say their state or district provides lists of software titles that match curriculum standards. The percentages were only slightly higher when teachers were asked if their states or districts provide lists of approved or recommended titles (18 percent) or opportunities for previewing software titles (28 percent).

By far the largest proportion of teachers-61 percent-say they don’t know if their state or district provides any of these services.

Ironically, that figure was even higher in California-a state that helps fund an extensive Web site called the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse contracts with teachers to evaluate digital content and publishes lists of software and online materials that match the state’s standards. Yet, 53 of the 76 California teachers who responded to the Education Week survey question, or 70 percent, say they aren’t aware that their state offers such resources.

While the state-level numbers have a wider margin of error because of their small sample size, they show just how difficult it can be to reach teachers. In its own research, the California clearinghouse discovered that it was teachers’ third most popular source for information on digital content, behind colleagues and friends, according to John A. Vaille, the project’s former executive director.

But even those sources apparently aren’t good enough for most teachers. Elsewhere in the Education Week survey, more than half of those teachers who search for software say it is “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to find products that fill their curriculum needs. Searching the Internet for appropriate Web sites isn’t much easier, teachers report.

More Than One Purpose

Teaching to a state’s standards is not the only reason teachers use technology, however.

Only 14 percent of those teachers who use Web sites for instruction say one of their two primary reasons is to “help students master the skills and knowledge they need,” according to the Education Week survey. Some 47 percent, meanwhile, say it’s to “give students a valuable research/reference tool"; another 34 percent say they are most interested in providing “some variety or a break from normal classroom activities.”

As for teachers who use software designed for instruction, a much higher percentage--62 percent--say their one primary reason is to “help students master the skills and knowledge they need.” But nearly one-third say it’s because the software is “interesting and motivating for students.”

Of course, many teachers also rely on productivity tools, such as spreadsheets and word-processing programs, and reference products, such as encyclopedias on CD-ROM. Of the 53 percent of teachers who use software for instruction, 80 percent use productivity tools and 66 percent use reference products, compared with 87 percent who use software specifically developed for instruction.

Though productivity tools and reference products are not necessarily designed with standards in mind, some teachers are indeed using them to teach state-mandated curricula.

In an 8th grade math class here at Battlefield Middle School, teacher Jodi Moore assigns her prealgebra students a series of complex problems that include addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The students must solve the problems on paper, then program a spreadsheet to inform someone else who attempts the problems if that person has arrived at the correct answers.

The lesson teaches the students how to program the spreadsheet, Moore says, and it also reinforces the order of operation for complex problems-something required by the state’s Standards of Learning.

Matter of Time

Any experienced teacher can examine a piece of software and decide whether it fit his or her needs, says Vaille, who is now the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education.

“The biggest challenge for classroom teachers is time,” he says. “How are they going to go about reviewing” all the software available to them?

Asked what problems they face in expanding the use of software in classrooms, 49 percent of software-using teachers in the Education Week survey say the “amount of preparation time necessary” is a “big” or “moderate” problem. This response ranks third, behind expense and amount of class time necessary.

Of the 39 percent of teachers who say they do not use the Web in instruction, more than one-third cite a lack of time to prepare or try out sites as a reason. That obstacle ranks second, behind the lack of classroom computers connected to the Web.

To find appropriate digital content, school officials have learned they can’t always trust a sales pitch or a blurb in a catalog. They need to review a product thoroughly to see how it works, how they might use it in classroom instruction, and how it matches the curriculum they are trying to teach.

“It’s hard when you’re looking at a catalog,” says Carol J. Williamson, the science coordinator for the Olathe Public Schools in suburban Kansas City, Kan. “I need to try it myself.”

Fay L. Carter, a 2nd grade teacher at Battlefield Elementary School in Spotsylvania County, says she finds plenty of resources on the Web, but she has to spend her weekends and evenings looking for them.

Recently, she was designing a unit on manufacturing, a topic required by Virginia’s state standards. She began researching chocolate factories--a guaranteed subject of interest for her 8-year-olds. Her first search on the Internet landed more than 70 Web sites, but many led her into dead ends.

“It does take a lot of time,” she says.

How much teachers use digital content is also determined by whether they receive training in how to integrate it into the curriculum.

According to the Education Week survey, 48 percent of those teachers who received 11 or more hours of such training in the previous year say they rely on software and the Internet to a “very great” or “moderate” extent. That’s nearly twice the rate of teachers who received no integration training.

And 65 percent of those who had the training say they are “much better prepared” than they were a year ago to integrate technology into their classroom lessons. Only 13 percent who had no training say so.

The survey also suggests that teachers are not getting the training they need. More than 70 percent of the 1,407 respondents say they had received five or fewer hours of instruction on how to integrate technology into the curriculum over the previous 12 months.

“Staff development is the most critical investment to be made,” says Maureen DiMarco, the vice president for educational and governmental affairs for Riverside Publishing, a division of textbook giant Houghton Mifflin. “It’s not happening as systematically or as aggressively as anyone would like it to be.”

Making the Connections

Well aware that their software and online materials won’t get used if teachers can’t see their value, commercial publishers and other creators of digital content are increasingly spelling out how their products are aligned with state standards.

“Publishers have to prove how the software meets teachers’ needs,” says Marilyn Western, a 1st and 2nd grade teacher in the Mount Pleasant public schools in Michigan. “Publishers are following the lead of teachers, as opposed to the teachers following the lead of the publishers.”

Jostens Learning Corp” for example, whose Tomorrow’s Promise series of CD-ROMS can be used to teach entire subject-area curricula, has written a 146-page catalog that describes which of its products will help schools accomplish each item in New York’s language-arts standards from K-8.

Publishers of stand-alone software titles that are designed to supplement, rather than cover, a curriculum are also starting to explain their products’ relevance to standards.

“Everywhere we go, our salespeople hear that we need to matrix our products with the standard so they can make the tie-in,” says David A. Dockterman, the editor-in-chief for Tom Snyder Productions, a Watertown, Mass.-based educational software publisher.

Even nonprofit groups that offer curricular materials are feeling the pressure to link their products with standards.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which operate the historic home of George Washington, is discussing ways to revamp its online educational materials about the nation’s first president. While Washington is a key figure in every state’s history curriculum, the nonprofit is concerned that its Web site won’t be used to its fullest because it’ not correlated directly to each state’s standards.

“I feel like I’m in a little bit of a quandary,” says Michael Quinn, the deputy director of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. “I would like to provide specific links to state’s standards.

Meanwhile, an alliance of six prominent education groups-the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Council of the Great City Schools, National Geographic, and the National Council on Economic Education-has created an online portal that leads teachers to digital content aligned with national curriculum standards in various subject areas.

The effort, known as the MarcoPolo Partnership, is funded by the MCI WorldCom Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the telecommunications company.

The private sector is coming up with other creative ways to respond to teachers’ needs.

Knowledge Adventure, a Torrance, Calif., software company, sells a package called ClassWorks Gold that compile exercises from 150 software titles, published by almost 20 different companies. A K-8 teacher can enter a particular academic standard, such as whole number concepts, and ClassWorks Gold will recommend a series of appropriate drill-and-practice exercises, followed by a real-life problem.

“It’s something that school districts are all asking for,” says Julie Gates, the public relations manager for ClassWorks Gold. “We hear that everywhere, everyday. It’s definitely what schools want.”

The package is also correlated to major standardized tests, including the Iowa Tests of Basic Skill and the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition, and it can be customized to meet a district’s specific needs.

For the Houston school district, Knowledge Adventure tailored the database so it analyzes students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skill--the state’s testing system-and creates a series of exercises that will help address their weaknesses.

“They felt that [the off-the-shelf product] wasn’t specific enough for them,” Gates says. “They wanted something targeted to their test and the [Texas standards].”

MediaSeek Technologies, meanwhile, offers a product called Curriculum Orchestrator, a database with a customized search engine that helps educator identify which instructional materials will help them teach their curricula. The database includes more than 500 software titles and 4,000 Web sites, as well as books and videos.

A 4th grade math teacher in Michigan can use Curriculum Orchestrator to search for digital content that will help her students learn fractions as called for in the state standards. The search yields 66 resources, one of which is Math Blaster, sold by Knowledge Adventure. It even suggests four sections of the popular drill program that deal directly with fractions.

The product also includes the text of voluntary national standards for mathematics, science, and social studies, and links to standards from 13 states, including Florida, New York, and Texas.

State Evaluations

A handful of states do their own evaluations of how their standards match up with digital content, rather than relying on the private sector.

The California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse, for example, reviews hundreds of software titles and selected subscription-based Web sites each year and explains how well the material in them teaches what’s in the state standards.

“In California, there wasn’t a place teachers could go to find out whether [digital content] is good or not,” says Bob Gausman, the director of technology learning resources for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which operates the clearinghouse.

He adds that some teachers are wary of relying on sales materials from software companies. “Industry is going to have a biased viewpoint,” Gausman says.

Michigan is designing a similar Web site using its standards as the basis for evaluation, says Western, the Mount Pleasant teacher, who left her classroom during the 1998-99 school year to advise the Michigan Department of Education on technology issues.

Other states guarantee they’ll have at least some digital content that matches their standards by creating the content themselves.

The Ohio SchoolNet Commission--a state agency comprised of top official from the education, budget, and public television departments-funded projects that produced detailed technology-based curricula in math and writing. Both are tied directly to the state standards.

“Our role is to produce tools to help them meet those academic standards,” says Jenny Moormeier, the professional development administrator for Ohio School Net.

“We have never been in the software-review business,” says Gordon F. Creasy, a technology specialist for the Virginia Department of Education.

''The state department in North Carolina is not really big enough anymore to do all of that,” says Brim, who is in charge of evaluating educational resources for the North Carolina department. ‘There’s probably considerable interest in it now. We’re in the situation of having a small staff.”

‘It’s Like Magic’

The pressure to match digital content with the curriculum is especially acute in Virginia, where the state’s Standards of Learning mandate precisely what students should know at specific grades. Each spring, the state administers a series of tests to measure how well students are mastering the material. In 1998--the first year of testing--only 3 percent of schools passed the exams; school that don’t pass them by 2007 will lose their accreditation.

Virginia participates in a Website run by the Southern Regional Education Board that offer general reviews of technology materials, but the reviews don’t explain how well the content articulates what’s in Virginia’s standards.

Some districts, such as the Fairfax County, Va., public schools, are satisfied with relatively little direction from the state.

The 154 OOO-student district, located in an affluent suburb of Washington, has a permanent committee to review software and create a list of approved software titles its schools must follow when making purchases.

The district is intent on making its own decisions about technology, including what kind of curricula to write, and doesn’t want the state to do anything more than provide recommendations, according to Francine L. Gallagher, the technology coordinator for the district’s 133 elementary schools.

“We have the resources,” she says. “I know a lot of the smaller school districts do not.”

Spotsylvania, for example, could use some help from the state in reviewing digital content, says Barker, the district assistant superintendent.

“These school systems are at a real disadvantage,” he says. “There should be resource screened and previewed by the state as well.”

In the meantime, the job is left up to people like Laura J. Brown, a science teacher at Battlefield Middle School.

Brown found the right software for her 6th grade science class by happenstance. In 1999, she was on a committee charged with deciding what software to buy for her school. For background, she rummaged through some CD-ROM the school library already owned and came across one called Science Sleuths, an educational game old by Videodiscovery that encourages students to apply scientific skills and knowledge in determining whether a mysterious rock found on a beach is dangerous to swimmers.

Brown ended up using it as the basis for a six-week unit on measurement--the first skill required by the state’s 6th grade science standards. The CDROM also helped her students learn how to estimate size-part of the state’s math standards--and understand the concepts of circumference, radius, and diameter.

At the end of the six-week unit, she assigned groups to solve the mystery of the rock’s safety by applying the skills they’d learned.

“It set the foundation for the year,” the young teacher recalls. “Students can see how these [standards] relate to real life.”

Brown acknowledges that she wouldn’t have been able to use Science Sleuth in her class if she hadn’t spent a lot of her free time at home experimenting with it first.

“I spent hours playing with it,” she says.

But she plans to continue her searches because computers--when used well--engage students like nothing else in a teacher’s toolkit, she says.

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