Evaluating Digital Curriculum & Impacts

Ideas
How to Speed Beyond Strategy and Into Tactics
By: 
LeiLani Cauthen, CEO & Publisher

Discernment between curriculum materials has always been the job of educators. Today it is important to discern whether digital learning objects are granular or systematized. Where are they on a scale of curated free document-type lesson plans and home-built learning objects via build-curriculum-yourself customization software (authorware) versus professionally coded courseware? Does either one have all the elements of rigor? Here we will delve deeper into how to think about digital resources and how leaders and teachers alike can create a method to evaluate all their options.

The Digital Scene

The power and depth of digital curriculum and its ability to reach and engage students continues to evolve. There are tens of millions of digital learning objects including massive numbers of items that are in the free and open education resources sites. There have always been seemingly tens of thousands of books and options, but now in the digital arena, the number of companies seems to have massively expanded. Now the trend is to build in virtual reality languages.

The hunting around for digital learning objects, and the inspection process, is a nationwide undertaking being played out in every school and by every teacher across the land. There is hope in the construction of Knowstory.com, where a personal inventory against requirements, standards, lesson-time-used, and more, and the sharing of those inventories with others who might want to copy parts of it to use in their own teaching or learning, can help bring order to the great sifting and refining of all these digital things.

Educational leaders want to differentiate various digital learning objects. They also want to have some stability and workability in their digital resources. A new problem of digital continuity of operation is at hand as files and lesson plan storage is not the same as handing a substitute or new teacher a textbook that has already been in use. The complexity of operation for digital stewardship is an important new consideration of leaders.

Digital Object Sophistication

What is essential for educators to think with is the degree to which an object is digitally fashioned. How digitally sophisticated is it? As content started to go digital, the initial learning objects were static bits of knowledge. Examples of such content include links to sites and excerpts from books, loose videos out on Youtube, and unsophisticated databases of text-based information. As network speed and capacity improved, these objects evolved to be more sophisticated, such as full courseware with embedded video and virtual reality.

Many of the free Open Educational Resources (OER) came out of greater academic works that were “atomized” into little bits that could be mixed and matched up with lessons as needed. Think about ripping up a whole textbook into chapters and the chapters into the individual concepts inside each one and you get a picture of how many objects live now on the open Internet. Initially, a lot of the work of curating these “chunks” of knowledge into a meaningful scope and sequence for learning occurred manually by educators for consumption by students. They must be meta-tagged and filed and the path-to-finding-them well traveled. Even after all that work is done they may still be disassociated from larger contexts of learning, like how textbooks were planned works with defined scope and sequence.

Chunks & Lesson Planning vs. Courseware

Compared to courseware organized into a sequential progression of chapter-type elements with quizzes at the end, all the various chunks of video and text are non-sequential little bits of knowledge that require the work of contextualizing from teachers to make them into something meaningful. That curation and sequencing is called digital lesson planning, and while the objects themselves may be copyrighted or open-licensed, in many instances the lesson plan framework around them is automatically the intellectual copyright of the School or District, and not the teacher’s. Although this is rarely known by most teachers.

There are still arguments that could be had about whether the act of creating a framework around other licensed works is itself a “work” to be copyrighted or simply a compilation effort, like collecting movies of a genre together in a reference library and critiquing and comparing them one against another in a blog about the whole genre. The ideological difference between this sort of library-plus-blog and a lesson plan framework is minor, and the Learning Counsel predicts the future copyright issues around what text or framing was uniquely created versus simply curated will be numerous, because the mixing-and-matching is a growing new area of art for digital teaching.

Related Video: View the Winter 2016 Learning Counsel Market Briefing.

Since many times teachers never used the entire textbook for a subject in the past, the chunking idea is great in some respects. It allows a certain freedom, but it is more work than buying the equivalent of a textbook, or the new digital textbook that has been re-modernized into the “full courseware” idea.

Courseware has programming aspects that deliver the most appropriate type of object in sequence for learning, the same things teachers do that is critical for good digital lessons, and adding the work of truly individualizing that object so that it’s the right one for that specific student user. Courseware is simply log-in-and-go-through-the-lessons, pre-built and structured in some instances to offer “levels” much like games do, so that faster or slower students follow routes unique to them, or are looped back into multiple avenues of remedial learning.

Choose with a Consumer Attitude

The ability to distinguish if a digital learning object is “flat” (for example, a text document that does not do anything—the lowest level of object) from an entire program of courses that are animated and contain internal logic, requires a different mindset. In fact, the consideration would need to be more than an academic attitude – it would require a consumer attitude and a designer view about the user interface and user experience. Such an attitude would guarantee a higher level of user appreciation and therefore have a heavy impact on learning. But beware! Just because it’s glamorous does not mean it teaches. Early software was more glitz than substance.

Consumers are drawn to appeals promised by software that are usually very simple. A game like Candy Crush allows a player to do exactly that, crush digital candy. It is also only doing that. Courseware is changing this over-simplification of appeal with a consumer appeal to accomplishment, which is an implied appeal in game Apps but usually not emphasized, because it is only a game, so getting a high score is not an actual achievement level in life like finishing a course or graduating. The more sophisticated courseware is a game-world of options and sometimes allows teachers to assign or “lever” learners into certain routes.

Whether an object is just one concept or a collection of concepts incorporated into courseware is an issue for educators to come to grips with by actually looking inside and experiencing all the routes of courseware. The same is not as true for direct learning courseware consumers who have typically had experiences with e-commerce and gaming worlds online, which have already raised their level of expectation for learning objects. They expect the software to navigate them. Educators typically do not expect this, but the K12 market is now smaller than the open consumer market for learning. Therefore, we see publishers creating awesome digital courseware and massive collections of digital objects that have suggested meta-tags for student reading levels and more with the navigation consumers expect. When schools use courseware, it is an adjustment for the teacher who must learn two things:

  1. How to use it. The full breadth of the courseware and how it is structuring learning, where it allows the teacher to interject and what sorts of analytics it provides, and,
  2. How to supplement it. How the use of the courseware will replace old pedagogy and allow the teacher to use it as core while the teacher now flips the learning and focuses on supplemental activities, projects, and some lecturing. This is one of the real revolutions in digital. However, it is no different than the days of textbooks. Textbooks had to be considered for how to use and how to supplement, but in the early days of digital publishing, the learning objects were the dead opposite – supplemental and not core. Teachers already know how to do this well.

What’s also interesting about courseware is that the consumer/learner can see it fit itself to them as they use it. This is the same way that our intelligent assistants like Suri or Cortana on our phones work. It is also the true definition of “personalization” in the software world. For consumers and high numbers of screen-learning students (in-class activity or out of a school), curriculum software products need to be highly systematized, and courses that contain preset programs that can be personalized will be expected. An everyone-is-the-same experience and a whole lot of odd navigational quirks that cause large amounts of user questions will fail, as some publishers experienced in their early forays into online sales and customer support.

Again, when learning objects are only discrete concepts, they present more work for teachers to curate and frame. However, and this is one of the more interesting things to consider, when students themselves curate, discrete learning objects that are not systematized represent a rebirth of discovery as part of the learning process. Allowing them to do that is the tricky part if the school’s system is built to only allow teacher discovery, manipulation, and assignment of learning objects, and the student is still a passive receiver-only of the pre-determined set of objects.

Optimum Digital

Teachers tend to do better with optimally aggregated digital learning objects, full courseware, for at least 60% of their materials. These should be used for a maximum of 40% of lesson time used in screen learning with the rest being active discussion, lab, and other activities, projects, and the like. Full courseware or collections that function autonomously give teachers back more of their much-needed classroom time to individualize learning and give their attention to students. The promise of the emerging industry of digital courseware, both for-profit and free, can return teachers to greater time spent on student interaction and the “human side” to balance the screen learning.

Evaluating Digital Learning Objects

Evaluating any digital learning object is complex because, like textbooks, it can’t be done based on just its title or marketing claims. It must be done with each of the concepts inside the software, and sometimes there are a large number in any one learning object. Unfortunately, being a “software guru” and knowing what you are looking at in terms of how well something is designed for interface and rigor, is not something that any research or ratings firm other than the Learning Counsel has a handle on.

Merriam-Webster’s defines the noun “concept” as the “idea of what something is or how it works.” When that definition is used for evaluation, the digital learning object is either a single concept or can be partitioned into multiple concepts. Evaluators are then analyzing objects in the same way that developing software is done – by each concept being coded individually.

To do this you must look at and validate each part of the digital learning object by experiencing it.

To get the full evaluation matrix and see how to evaluate digital curriculum, download the Special Report. This new Digital Curriculum Evaluation Matrix is the start of how to look with a bit more sophistication in mind using our eyes and ears and sense of learning engagement—at digital learning objects.

LeiLani is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is the author of the newly released book, The Consumerization of Learning.

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