Picking and Choosing Digital Content

By Katie Ash — February 08, 2012 6 min read
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As school districts navigate the shift from print to digital curricula, many are mixing and matching curriculum materials—from teacher-created work to open education resources to publisher-provided programs—to achieve the best customized combination for their teachers and students.

Until every child has a device that can readily access digital curricula, however, most districts must rely on proprietary print materials as the primary source of curriculum.

“The real tipping point is when every student has a device,” says Wesley Fryer, a digital-learning consultant and the executive director of StoryChasers Inc., an Edmond, Okla.-based nonprofit that archives and shares local oral histories captured by K-20 learners.

“Until then,” he says, “you can’t scale any kind of digital curriculum across the nation.”

But for schools that are able to provide each student with a computer or mobile device, “we are living in a day where it’s the buffet of digital curriculum,” Fryer adds. “Schools pick and choose what they want. There isn’t anybody out there who is the be-all and end-all [of digital curricula].”

Because of the thousands of curriculum resources on the Internet, the vast array of open education resources (which are created under open licenses, as opposed to copyright, and are shared for free), and the materials created through curriculum publishers, teachers now have much greater flexibility in finding, modifying, and customizing curricula to fit their needs, says Fryer.

That flexibility can increase the number of voices and perspectives that are included in curriculum, but it also puts the onus on the teacher, he says, to select high-quality materials, a task that can be time-consuming.

“It’s a good day for meeting student needs, but it’s a challenging day because there are more decisions for administrators, teachers, and school boards,” says Fryer.

The Open High School of Utah in Salt Lake City is an example of a school that puts the curriculum in the hands of teachers. The 3-year-old virtual high school serves 350 students full time and 50 students part time. Fourteen percent of the student population qualify as “economically disadvantaged.”

All the teachers create their own curricula from open education resources, says DeLaina Tonks, the school’s director.

“Especially in the economy we’re experiencing right now, people can’t afford proprietary materials,” she says. “Open education resources are an answer to that call.”

The school began by hiring instructional designers to choose the curriculum, but found that the materials were not engaging enough for students. Moving that responsibility to the teachers has been more successful, says Tonks.

Each teacher spends a year gathering materials and creating a comprehensive curriculum before teaching students. Teachers often use materials they find online, Tonks says, or they create their own.

So far, the strategy has worked. The Open High School of Utah’s test scores are higher than the state average, and last spring, the school won Utah’s Best of State Award for Curriculum Development.

“It’s doing the job that we need the curriculum to do,” says Tonks.

Mixing and Matching

In the 700-student Van Meter school district in Iowa, teachers use a combination of their own materials, open education resources, and proprietary materials from publishers, says Deron Durflinger, the district’s secondary school principal, who oversees grades 6-12.

Students in those grades are in a 1-to-1 laptop environment, which has allowed them to make the shift from print to digital curricula almost completely, he says.

Teachers have different levels of comfort with digital curricula, he says; some use such materials exclusively, while others keep classroom sets of textbooks handy.

“There’s a continuum. You’ve got some teachers who jump in with both feet and others who really need more assistance,” Durflinger says.

“There are all these online repositories of content that [teachers] can access and use however they need,” he says. “There’s enough information out there that, as an educational system, we should be able to tap into that, and it essentially should be free.”

Content Providers

CK-12 Foundation
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
McGraw-Hill Cos.
Open Educational Resources Commons
Pearson PLC

While mixing and matching content from multiple providers, as they are doing in Van Meter, is something many educators envision, it is not widely happening yet, says John Sipe, the national sales manager and a senior vice president for the Boston-based textbook publisher and curriculum provider Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“We all envision this happening in a digital platform where teachers can pull in content via open-source, district-created, or publisher-provided,” he says, “but it’s going to be a while until we actually see that in a very pragmatic and effective way.”

For now, several roadblocks stand in the way of creating that reality, including how much technology costs, how the content weaves together, and how curricular materials are adopted by states.

“Some states have a very specific way they want districts to procure textbooks and curriculum, and they don’t allow for a whole lot of flexibility,” says Sipe. “We all want the most current, accurate, and relevant curriculum available, but in many cases, we aren’t allowed to change [the materials] until the next time they are adopted.”

To meet the needs of schools that want to create customized lessons and curriculum materials, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt provides custom publishing. In that approach, Sipe says, the school chooses the lessons and the sequence it wants in its own printed or digital book.

“Our job is to provide great content in whatever way school districts want to consume it,” he says. “That’s how we remain relevant today and in the future.”

A high-profile announcement in January by Apple Inc. creates further options for publishers and schools. In a strategic move into the K-12 e-textbook market, Apple is partnering with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson to offer interactive textbooks through its iBooks store.

‘The Future of Digital Curriculum’

Some school systems, such as California’s 44,000-student Riverside Unified district, located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, are pushing for the decoupling of publisher-provided curriculum from its package. That means breaking up textbooks into learning objects that can be mixed and matched with materials from other sources.

As it is, the district uses a wide variety of curriculum providers. They range from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Fuse—an Algebra 1 app for the iPad that delivers the entire curriculum on the tablet—to the nonprofit Palo Alto, Calif.-based curriculum provider CK-12’s FlexBooks, which are open-source, Web-based materials that teachers can mix or modify.

“In terms of the iTunes model, where we could take all those pieces and parts and put them someplace so that we could then pick and choose, we’re there in a rough sense,” says Jay McPhail, the Riverside district’s director of K-12 instructional technology.

“The realization that the world is changing for the publishers is coming home to them because they used to be the sole provider of content, but we’ve got curriculum specialists who can put this together in a better way than they do,” he says.

Keeping the district “device agnostic,” or not tied to any one specific device, is a key part of its philosophy, says McPhail. He cites Riverside’s use of iPads and Android slate tablets, as well as the use of student-owned digital devices.

Fryer, the digital-learning consultant, echoes McPhail’s concerns.

“The old curriculum model was one-size-fits-all. The new model is open, shared, and mobile across multiple devices,” says Fryer. “A single-platform focus may be tempting for curriculum, but ultimately that’s a limiting mind-set.

“The future of digital curriculum,” he says, “is in the cloud, on mobile devices, and in remixable forms.”

But until schools call for a different way of buying and consuming curricula, publishers will maintain the status quo, says Rick Miller, the superintendent of the Riverside Unified schools.

“When school districts begin to demand something different is when this will change overnight,” he says. “The real question is, what does it look like in 10 years? It may not even look like a textbook at all.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Pick and Choose


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