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Ten Steps to Choosing Digital Curricula for Blended Learning

January 16, 2014


Blended learning is the foremost trend in education – in fact, the 2011-2012 investment in IT for kindergarten through Grade 12 public education to support it was an estimated $9.7 billion, according to the Center for Digital Education. As the number of U.S. elementary students rises – projected at 35.8 million by 2015, leveraging technology to meet the need for personalized learning and rigorous new standards makes sense.

Blended learning as a means, not an end

While millions of elementary through high school students are participating in blended learning, it is a method, not a goal. As with any educational approach or initiative, a blended learning model should enhance student understanding, critical thinking, and independent problem solving capabilities outlined in the Common Core and other standards documents. At its core, blended learning is a strategy; it is a means to an end, as are scheduling, professional development, and hardware such as iPads®

Focusing on quality learning for all

Classroom learning and online learning should be held to the same rigorous standards. Significant time and energy are spent ensuring all classrooms have highly qualified teachers, who also have the ongoing support and professional learning opportunities they need to support great student learning. Yet often, the quality standards may be a bit lower when it comes to digital learning. Now that there are a plethora of software programs and apps available, educators must critically evaluate the quality of digital resources. iNACOL, The International Association for K-12 Online Learning, has a set of standards for quality online programs.

Begin by asking questions

Just like print curricula that educators develop or purchase, online learning curricula should be evaluated in light of its alignment with relevant Common Core and other standards. Where do you begin to select high-quality materials? Ask 10 questions:

1. What is the focus?

This is a simple answer: Always the student and learning. Not the technology. Research supports the concept of student-centered approaches to learning, and it make sense that student-centric approaches to teaching are essential, particularly at a time of rigorous new state standards like the Common Core.

2. What are the learner characteristics and needs?

You need to consider age, grade level, proficiency needs, and when and where the student will need to have access. Students who need additional support and may not have technology access at home can benefit from afterschool programs leveraging digital media and curricula

3. What are the main planning criteria?

Establish learning goals and assessments first, and then choose digital resources. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe explain “the backward design process.” In its simplest form, it is: a) identify desired results; b) determine acceptable evidence, and c) plan learning experiences.

4. How much unique differentiation and personalization is needed?

Each student will need customized supports at different times and in different ways. Carol Ann Tomlinson & Marcia B. Imbeau in Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom state, “Differences profoundly impact how students learn and the nature of scaffolding they will need at various points in the learning process.” Ideally, students are having personal ‘light bulb’ moments that are facilitated by teachers, peers, and/or software. Selecting digital resources that adapt to the individual learner and provide detailed data can empower highly differentiated learning.

5. What is the strategic role of the teacher?

Given the abundance of digital resources, teachers must consider what experiences occur in their classrooms that can’t be replicated digitally for students. Teachers must increasingly assume the roles of facilitator and coach, because the role of instructor is easily replicated with online videos and step-by-step tutorials that students can access anytime and anywhere. Michael Fullan and Katelyn Donnelly in Alive in the Swamp: Assessing Digital Innovations in Education, suggest that creating an environment with the ‘teacher as activator’ is most effective. In their terms, the teacher as activator engages students in reciprocal teaching, where student and teachers are both ‘teachers’ learning from each other. This requires regular, tailored feedback with open teacher–student verbal interaction. Both the learner and learning guide make their thinking processes explicit. Goals are challenging and ambitious, while still being achievable. Best-in-class digital curricula that differentiate and make effective use of time can be a powerful support for this kind of intensely personalized learning environment.

6. How often are progress and proficiency assessed by the software?

Look for continuous monitoring and assessment. Many digital programs have the capability to provide real-time monitoring of student progress and proficiency, and can adapt to students’ correct answers and unique mistakes. Technology should empower assessment that is continuous, so that proficiency measures are more valid and reliable. Alive in the Swamp recommends that, “The assessment platform should be adaptive and integrated … ideally; the system is completely adaptive, interactive and integrated seamlessly into the innovation. It must be rigorous and accurate and be integral to learner engagement … in some of the best cases; the student is unaware of being assessed.”

7. What actionable data reports are needed?

Data-driven decisions create a more efficient, differentiated classroom, so the digital programs, teachers and principals need to provide access to useful, easy-to-understand reports showing student progress and proficiency. These reports and data can be used, along with other local and state assessment data, to make informed educational decisions about individual students, or they can be merged with a school’s existing data warehouse to automate and improve analysis.

8. What hardware, infrastructure, and professional development are needed?

The answer on this question depends on how you will blend. Focus technology purchases and infrastructure plans around the learning software, rather than buying devices and then trying to figure out which programs will work on them. Once curricular resources have been selected, educator development and quality training should be planned and a schedule developed for implementation.

9. How do you evaluate effectiveness?

Look for evidence of efficacy before you adopt and purchase; third-party research is valuable, as is research conducted internally by school districts. Also evaluate whether the digital resources are aligned to researched principles of learning and education literature. Pay close attention to both content and process outcomes, as efficacy research often only measures content outcomes (such as multiplying fractions) instead of process outcomes (such as “look for and make use of structure”).

10. Can you try before you buy?

It’s always best to take a ‘test drive’ with the digital curricular resources to see how it really works and get a feeling for the ease – or difficulty – of its use, and its power to engage your students. As you pilot the resources, focus on the learning outcomes you’ve identified. You can only determine what will be effective for student learning of content and process standards when you align purchases with the outcomes you’ve prioritized.

Tim Hudson

VP of Learning for DreamBox Learning, Inc., Hudson is a learning innovator and education leader who frequently writes and speaks about learning, education, and technology. Prior to joining DreamBox, Hudson spent more than 10 years working in public education, first as a high school mathematics teacher and then as the K–12 Math Curriculum Coordinator for the Parkway School District, a K–12 district of over 17,000 students in suburban St. Louis. While at Parkway, Hudson helped facilitate the district’s long-range strategic planning efforts and was responsible for new teacher induction, curriculum writing, and the evaluation of both print and digital educational resources. Hudson has spoken at national conferences such as ASCD, SXSWedu, and iNACOL.

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