Evolving to digital curriculum based on open interoperability standards, Part III

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Investing in a Digital Curriculum Evolution Strategy

In part I of this series, Introduction to the spectrum of approaches to evolving to digital curriculum that we are seeing in the marketplace, we described 5 potential benefits of evolving to digital curriculum. We also described a spectrum of approaches that we are seeing in the marketplace to moving the needle to more digital options for teachers and students.

In part II, The Importance of Interoperability in Achieving the Potential Advantages of Digital Curriculum, we described in more detail the importance of interoperability standards in achieving the 5 potential benefits of digital curriculum. The net-net being that unless evolution to digital is based on widely adopted interoperability standards that the digital future is not clearly better than the paper textbook world of today. It may be more fun – but it won’t be better in terms of actually achieving the potential advantages of digital curriculum or evolving to more effective instruction. To help districts and states evolve to digital curriculum and associated delivery platforms based on open interoperability standards, IMS has published a policy note providing RFP language guidance for digital applications and content: Open-Standards Requirements for Digital Content and Application Integration with Enterprise Learning Platforms.

In this part III we’d like to circle back to the spectrum of approaches to digital evolution discussed in part I looking through the lens of “What strategy is going to give most bang for the buck both near term and longer term?After all, every step that a state authority or local authority takes is an investment of precious time and resources - which cannot afford to be wasted. The spectrum is visualized in the following diagram:


Each of the three strategies that are illustrated along the spectrum has their strengths and weaknesses, summarized here:

Strategy Major Strength Major Weakness
PDF or e-texts versions of books Potential for cost reduction while retaining familiar textbook model of instruction Lack of innovation, personalization and interactivity
Digital curriculum toolkit Puts onus on digital curriculum suppliers to provide coherent collections of digital assets that are teacher/student friendly Requires evolution to teaching, learning and institutional processes that enable personalized and experiential learning to obtain full benefit
Digital learning objects in the sky Google search is already what everyone does in all aspects of life, why not education? Difficult/time consuming to achieve coherence of instructional materials or the instructional experience




What strategy makes the most sense?  Well, the reality is that all three strategies are going to occur just because they are all options that are out there.  However, we think there is an obvious better choice both now and into the foreseeable future – and that is the “digital curriculum toolkit” strategy.

Why does the digital curriculum toolkit strategy make the most sense? The digital curriculum toolkit is the only strategy that attempts to improve instruction in a realistic manner. Why?

  1. It is much more likely that coherent digital curriculum that can be personalized will come through a combination of working with trusted suppliers/sources combined with institutional created content (noting that his latter category may include some of what comes from the Learning Objects in the Sky).
  2. As discussed in Part II actually achieving the 5 potential advantage/benefits of evolving to digital curriculum requires going substantially beyond the “PDF or e-text versions of books” strategy (even though some resources of those types could clearly become part of the digital curriculum toolkit strategy).
  3. The digital curriculum toolkit strategy seems to fit the “way institutions/states in K-12 do business” in terms of working with trusted providers and taking responsibility for curriculum (albeit that as noted in the above table, to achieve full benefit a concerted effort to evolve instruction to more personalized and experiential models will be required).

If you are in the U.S. you are seeing a huge amount of investment from the Gates Foundation, CCSSO and the U.S. Department of Education in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). So, it might be natural to ask,

“Won’t the Common Core provide the glue that will enable any and all of the three strategies?”

To this we would answer that we are hopeful that it might help, but realistically it is not going to be the panacea that everyone is hoping for. Here are the reasons why the Common Core will not radically change things:

  1. No one can be sure that the Common Core will work. There is already a huge amount of deviation occurring and, some are saying that it is not implementable.
  2. The Common Core, while potentially a positive step for U.S. education, is at best still a “driving while looking in the rear view mirror” approach to educational reform (the Common Core approach largely copies what some other countries have been doing for years).
  3. One can make a very good case that to fully actualize the goals of the Common Core that instruction must be radically evolved to a much more interdisciplinary, experiential approach to learning – and in doing so the Common Core (or any agreed upon set of learning standards for math and language) becomes a relatively small (while potentially important) part of the solution.
To that 3rd point, the IMS Instructional Innovation through Interoperability Leadership Council (I3LC) of school districts and states has recently published a position paper that attempts to put some of the myriad projects and investments made in the last few years in the U.S. by the Gates Foundation into perspective. These initiatives include the Learning Registry (initially funded by the U.S. government, later by Gates), LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative) and SLC (Shared Learning Collaborative), now InBloom. These projects all share the notion that learning objects or progress can be referenced back to a common set of educational standards, and are generally complimentary, and perhaps even dependent upon success of the Common Core.
The paper may be viewed as controversial in some circles because it clearly concludes that despite the huge investments from the Gates Foundation in the combined set of projects that they will not enable districts to support evolution to effective instructional reform. In the terms of this blog series, this is because the Gates investments are largely focused on enabling the “learning objects in the sky” strategy. While those investments may indeed help lead the way to enabling that alternative – in which case the Gates Foundation can point to a meaningful contribution – they are not focused on the most relevant strategy: the digital curriculum toolkit.
That’s the potentially “bad news.” The potentially “good news” is that organizations such as IMS can work pragmatically across the membership to help “bridge” these strategies. Metadata and federated search are great examples of areas in which the IMS membership will be working pragmatically to make the various marketplace pieces fit.  What pieces need to fit? Here is a diagram excerpted from the position paper.