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Special Report
Classroom Technology

Companies Face Rising Demand for Bite-Size Chunks of Curricula

By Michele Molnar — June 10, 2015 5 min read
A district using modular digital content could search for a lesson on amphibians, and find an array of options—from a Magic School Bus video in the media player, to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt content on the panels under Lesson Snapshot.
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Educators want more choices in the digital curricula they use in their classrooms, and they want that content accessible in bite-sized chunks more than ever before.

That leaves digital-content providers with a dilemma. Often, they’ve invested in creating an all-inclusive product with a scope and sequence specifically designed for a certain subject and grade level. But now districts are asking to access only parts of those all-inclusive online packages so they can mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.

The emerging trend is often compared with the music industry, “where you used to have to buy an album to get a song, but don’t anymore. Or the cable industry, where certain channels are being ‘unbundled’ and can be bought as a package,” said David A. Irwin, the managing partner of the K-12 education practice at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based information-technology research and advisory company.

The advent of “modular” delivery options for educational content has major implications for the digital-publishing industry and for school districts themselves.

“We want every piece of their content to be individual learning objects,” said Jeanne K. Imbriale, the director of enterprise applications for the 110,000-student Baltimore County, Md., district. That approach is essential to provide personalized learning, she said, but “a lot of companies don’t want to parse out the materials in that way.”

Ultimately, any resistance to this demand will be a “deal-breaker,” Ms. Imbriale said, because “we’re moving toward writing this into our contract language.”

Breaking Apart Content

Baltimore County is hardly the only district with the expectation that it will be able to pull “objects” like a lesson, video, interactive, or 3D image from any vendor whenever they want, rather than having to log in to a company’s platform and accessing it only within that company’s online “universe.” School systems in Houston and Orange County, Fla., have been moving in that direction over the past two years.

Some publishers, however, are reluctant to break apart their content, said George O. Perreault, who recently retired as the director of instructional technology for the Orange County district. “They’ve put a lot of money into the scope and sequence,” he said.

Still, Mr. Perreault knew he had leverage because the Orlando-based system is the 10th largest in the country with 194,000 students. “We represent more than a couple of dollars in terms of buying curriculum,” he said.

The growing adoption of interoperability standards—essentially, technical specifications for developing, sharing, and opening digital content in a consistent format—allows districts to request modular content delivery.

Companies can give access to their purchased digital content via these standards developed by IMS Global Learning Consortium, a Lake Mary, Fla., membership nonprofit. A learning-object repository acts as the intermediary, uploading and managing the files from digital-content providers and making them available to districts that have bought the products.

Providers tag each learning object with metadata and search criteria, so it can be identified for what type of resource it is, the grade level it serves, and the academic standard associated with it.

In practice, the system streamlines access to relevant resources. To teach a lesson on an isosceles triangle, for instance, a teacher can simply search for that term, and receive multiple responses in one online ecosystem, rather than having to search 10 different digital-content providers’ platforms, keeping the tabs open for them, then switching among them to compare.

‘Big Investment’

Accommodating the change to modular content “is a big investment for vendors,” said Timothy R. Beekman, the president and co-founder of SAFARI Montage, a West Conshohocken, Pa.-based digital-learning platform and learning-object repository. But he said many companies are recognizing that schools want more flexibility.

For instance, Pearson, the global education company based in London and New York City, has made some of the content in its MathXL platform and MyMathLab available through an interoperable standard that allows Orange County to access it outside of Pearson’s universe, said Mr. Perreault.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made a strategic decision two years ago to move in this direction. “We want to be sure our content can be consumed on multiple platforms and in multiple ways,” said Mary J. Cullinane, chief content officer of the Boston-based company.

Establishing a consistent schema of tagging each learning object is a prerequisite for modular delivery. “The last HMH cartridge took eight hours to download and had 145,000 different objects in it,” said Mr. Beekman of SAFARI Montage. Now, districts that have contracts with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for that content can find and access just one of those objects at a time.

For publishers, this new avenue of making content available is not without its issues—among them, what happens to intellectual property when a teacher starts using licensed content out of context in a digital environment? New York City-based Scholastic is monitoring the licensing and legal requirements around the instructional materials it tags for modular delivery. Scholastic maintains that its materials are “best utilized when curated with knowledgeable precision,” said Janelle E. Cherrington, a vice president and the publisher of Scholastic Classroom & Community Group, in a statement.

Companies often want to protect the way educators can access the educational resources they’ve developed. But “it’s a losing war to think that way,” said Mr. Beekman. “If they don’t go this way, I think they’re going to lose sales.”

Effectiveness Questions

For digital-content providers being asked to prove the efficacy of the products they sell to districts, disaggregation of digital content from the sequence in which a publisher tested it represents a new twist.

Implementation and the fidelity of that process are among the “hardest challenges” in the industry, Ms. Cullinane said. Evidence of effectiveness is very difficult to provide when pieces of digital content are taken out of the context in which they were evaluated. Companies can tell educators how the evaluation was done, but in the end, educators make the ultimate decision about what products to use and how to use them. “We want to honor that,” she said.

In Baltimore County, the emphasis is on personalization, Ms. Imbriale said.

That push using digital resources is just beginning, said Mr. Irwin of Gartner. “There’s no way that can be delivered through a single content provider.”

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