Special Report
Social Studies

Adaptive Digital Curricula Lagging in Science, Social Studies

By Michelle R. Davis — January 11, 2016 6 min read
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Educators have much to choose from when they’re looking for adaptive digital curricula to personalize learning for math or English/language arts. But those who want high-quality, adaptive offerings for science and social studies have a limited menu of options. Those educators are increasingly searching for curricula that will allow them to personalize the learning experience for students and collect highly relevant data without having to build it from scratch themselves.

“There are some programs and software out there, but in general, nobody is addressing science and social studies,” said Kwame Carr, the area executive director of schools for the 25,500-student Douglas County school system in Georgia. Educators “are at a loss now. They’re scrambling.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a plethora of digital resources available in those subjects. Vast online repositories allow social studies teachers to find everything from interactive maps to history games, and science teachers might incorporate digital laboratory experiments into lessons. Digital textbooks provide another level of tools.

But the type of adaptive curricula that uses sophisticated algorithms allowing students to leap ahead, or review concepts they struggle with, and that provide teachers with in-depth data, is rare outside of reading and math, said Justin de Leon, a product manager for Education Elements, a San Carlos, Calif.-based company working with districts on personalized-learning projects.

“There are a lot of modular content objects out there, but they’re not adaptive and prepackaged,” he said. “They don’t get at the cumbersome nature of curating them. It’s certainly not making it easy for teachers.”

Testing Fuels Priorities

The Common Core State Standards in math and English/language arts and the testing associated with those standards, as well as the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on them, have spurred vendors to create a steady flow of products in math and English/language arts and provided school districts with money to spend to personalize learning.

“If we’re testing on it, then people are looking for it,” said Lurinda Ward, the director of learning services for the 10,000-student, K-8 Yuma School District One in Arizona. “Testing places more emphasis on those subjects.”

Even aside from testing, the calibration of educational standards across a large number of states also makes it significantly easier, and more cost-effective, for education companies to design products that will appeal to a wide range of schools, said Scott Ellis, the chief executive officer of The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit that seeks to expand blended learning in schools. The organization did an informal study several years ago of the state of the market for educational products for science and social studies, Ellis said. “There’s the promise of a bigger, more standardized market, which improves economics for companies,” he said.

As more states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, or make moves to craft social studies standards around the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework, known as C3 and issued by the National Council for Social Studies, more companies may feel there is a wider audience for products in those areas.

But some educators caution that there are inherent differences in teaching science and social studies that don’t lend themselves to prepackaged, adaptive curricula. In social studies, there isn’t always an agreed-on progression—akin to math concepts that build on each other—and much of the early-elementary-grade curricula often focus on local issues such as a student’s family and community or state history, said Jaraun Dennis, the chief technology officer for the 2,800-student Uinta County School District 1 in Evanston, Wyo. “Is a software company going to develop something for every community? I don’t think so,” he said.

Science instruction is moving toward more open-ended questions, exploration, and hands-on learning, which may not mesh with an online curriculum, even one that is adaptive, said Al Byers, the associate executive director of services for the National Science Teachers Association.

“It’s true that these adaptive systems are not out there in science,” he said. But science instruction should be “practice-based. There’s a strong need to talk and to do hands-on science where deeper and more flexible learning occurs.”

In fact, said Marty Creel, the chief academic officer for Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education, which produces digital “Techbooks” in science and social studies, “in science, when you’re trying to develop a student’s sense of wonder, an adaptive model can be prohibitive to that. It can be counter-intuitive in developing good thinkers in science and social studies.”

‘Labor Intensive’

But without the same resources as other subjects and with an increased emphasis on personalizing learning, some science and social studies educators find themselves at a disadvantage.

Teachers “have to piecemeal it,” Ward said. “It’s a lot more labor-intensive.”

Teachers are using individual digital resources they find online and fitting them into their own lessons, but that can make it difficult to tailor learning to each student, she said. Some products go part way, allowing teachers to adjust reading levels, for example, on articles that pertain to social studies or science content, or to provide options for text, graphics, or video, she said.

In subjects outside math and English/language arts, teachers often have to “cobble this together themselves,” said Alice Reilly, the social studies coordinator for the 167,000-student Fairfax County, Va., schools. That is why, Reilly said, professional development must play a significant role, so teachers can share the lessons they’ve created, as well as learn to use the existing digital resources.

Kala Compton, a middle school instructional coach for the Yuma district, said she advocates for teacher paid time off from regular teaching duties to collaborate and share their lessons. But this reliance on individual teachers to be repositories of lessons and data can be a problem in a district that has significant teacher turnover, she said. Teachers leave and take their resources with them. With digital curricula, teachers don’t have to worry as much about losing institutional knowledge, she said.

“That’s a lot of work upfront that would not be sustained if some of the teachers left and we’d have to start with new people,” she said.

The same issue can be a problem for students. In districts with a transitory student population, those that are using an adaptive digital curriculum in math, for example, can switch schools within districts and pick up right where they left off, Ward said.

“Your content is saved for you personally. You can withdraw on Friday from one school and move to another school within our district and pick up on Monday with the same program,” she said. “It’s pretty seamless, … unless it’s social studies or science.”

But some think a shift is on the horizon.

Adaptive-learning company IXL, which began with math in 2007, then English/language arts in 2013, launched both elementary-grade social studies and science products in November.

Jeremy Murphy, a senior product analyst for science content at IXL, said science and social studies are tricky when it comes to creating adaptive curricula. That kind of learning “quickly gets complex and messy,” he said.

But company officials said school and district customers were clamoring for new subjects.

Even though developing adaptive-learning systems for science and social studies was “a challenge for our team,” Murphy said, “it’s really going to surprise the market in terms of what you can do.”

With standards for both science and social studies spreading, the marketplace is likely to catch up, said Ellis of the Learning Accelerator. “We think market forces are working, and vendors are trying to solve this problem. It’s happening and it’s coming.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Adaptive Tools Lag in Science, Social Studies

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