Facing Down the Learning Content Disruption

K-12 Schools and Higher Ed Institutions are Facing Down Serious Disruption in Learning Content—Going from Paper to Digital in All Things
David Kafitz

For nearly 100 years, classroom teaching has centered primarily on the textbook. Every five to seven yeas one of the few major publishers would send out their reps to sign multi-million dollar deals with School Boards or Superintendents of K-12 schools to replace the older “out-date” textbooks. In higher ed the textbook adoption was a little more complicated with all individual professors choosing their own but the model was the same. Truth be told, those textbooks were out-of-date “time capsules” years before they ever arrived into student hands in schools.

Move forward to today and we are now in an age where there are more than 7,000 companies vying for the coveted publisher/school relationship. Each offering digital curriculum software that educates in real-time, updating itself by the minute, even as fast as media stories can break on CNN. Take the example of teacher who usedNEWSELA, a forward-thinking media based reading comprehension site, complete with formative assessment built in. The teacher wanted to develop critical thinking in her students. So she used a relevant Newsela news story, already tailored to the class reading level by the software, about a discrimination case in Central California. The result was the class took action and presented their “findings” directly to the State Government.

But let’s take a step back and look at what’s happening here in this space. It is considered that any type of “content” can be made digital these days, although perhaps not invitingly aesthetic or interactive. The printed word, old photographs and video not created or captured by a digital device, all can be “digitized” with little effort. This is what teachers are doing all over the U.S. right now. A sort of a “roll-your-own-curriculum” bonanza is going on, largely without high-design or features. These various items of content are being shared with colleagues, friends, family, and the world at large on personal webpages, posted at sharing sites and on professional networks. Altogether, the content creation by teachers and teacher groups has gone into mind-staggering heights of generation in the past few years.

In days gone by, and still in many places, teachers organized their lesson plans around the textbook. In the 1960’s there was the first big technology shift—publishers stepped beyond the realm of the textbook and encyclopedia, into filmstrips or movies and workbooks. These and other content pieces became supplemental or augmentative materials around lessons still largely centered on a textbook.

With all of these content materials the teacher/professor was at the front of the classroom, leading a group. And that is how the early technology shift in education first modeled itself, to serve the teacher.

With devices blossoming on campuses and in schools, the teacher/professor fought to maintain his position at the head of the class. And their superiors in the front office supported them unwittingly as “the teacher knows best” and no one wanted to disrupt the power-structure of teacher-centricity. Unwittingly these administrators and teachers, however well-intentioned in their purpose, blocked the truly immense potential that transitioning to digital education brings.

The new digital content and curriculum has been built to serve the student. Some of it is highly interactive, many with gaming features built in to “gate” forward a student once an objective is achieved, all wrapped up in nice management features and more. It puts the student on a personally charted knowledge path. And—here is the pedagogical shift—the teacher is no longer standing in front of the class as the source of knowledge. He or she is mobile, working with each student or groups of students, facilitating. The great redemption of this is that the teacher is now remarkably more efficient in delivering personalized learning to each student.

Of course there is great digital curriculum content and less than great, just like there were great textbooks and not so good ones. Much of the “middle-of-the-road” curriculum that can be found will be something like an eBook with fun pictures to click on. This type of digital curriculum still allows for a more teacher-centric model while adding interest for the student. It’s the road-less-traveled of full digital curriculum.

Now, don’t be deceived–if you are an administrator or teacher involved in making this transition you can still run into resistance from the traditional ones from the “old school.” The resistance will grow less and less as more teachers experience a classroom of enthusiastic students attaining 15-25% increased achievement in formative and summative assessments after implementation of computer based learning. In fact, a teacher in a San Diego middle school recently completed a 2-year study comparing traditional classroom schooling on math vs. use of digital math curriculum for at risk elementary students who had deficits of 2-3 grades. This study, showed remarkable results. The full article is referenced here: 2-Year Study—Exploring the Effectiveness of Using a Computer-Based Math Intervention Program.

It’s not an easy thing for leaders to tell teachers, “We’re going digital now. Throw out your textbooks.” But suffice it to say, gone are the days when a teacher will say, “pull out your textbooks and turn to page…” With lecture capture in higher ed, even repeat-performance lectures are no longer needed and institutions can literally just “rack-mount” up another course using digital lectures and materials.

Gone also are the days when last year’s lesson plan sufficed for this year because the textbooks haven’t been updated.

Soon, everywhere, there will be no textbook at all, as many schools and even states have stopped all purchase to save up for digital devices. In North Carolina, Representative Craig Horn of District 68 was recently quoted by WUNC News saying the state intends to be fully digital in all schools in two years.

Disruption is at hand for the way leaders lead and how teachers organize lessons. Many are lost in how to cope with it all, and making their own content while juggling a dramatically altered schedule where they are supposed to personalize for every student. With so much random motion brought suddenly and shockingly in by the mere addition of thousands of digital devices, new leadership is needed. No good leader leaves all their troops running in different directions.

Indeed, many places have started to take on the question of how to deal with mass curriculum change on a district-wide or State level. Device tactics have unleashed a mad scramble for learning content. Many institutions need a Strategy, not from the view of the devices only, but from the very architecture of learning delivery. That is where a digital curriculum strategy comes in. The special report on digital curriculum strategy model architecture covers this. The Learning Counsel will also be visiting over 30 cities over the next year to discuss with district Superintendents and other IT and Curriculum executives how to the transition is accomplished.

Good transitioning.

Expert and charismatic change-agent helping schools move forward with a well-reasoned strategy for digital content and curriculum, professional development and IT strategy. Former Superintendent, Director of Technology Services, Principal, and Teacher in North Carolina Public Schools.