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

Introduction to the spectrum of approaches to evolving to digital curriculum that we are seeing in the marketplace

Many state level education authorities, local education authorities and colleges/universities are looking at accelerating the movement towards digital curriculum materials.  This is because digital materials have many potential advantages. Among these are:

  1. Potentially lower cost than printed textbooks because there are potential savings in the printing and distribution.
  2. More interactive and engaging student experience as digital curriculum can potentially be much more interactive and up-to-date than printed materials.
  3. More personalized and accessible in that digital materials can be chunks of content or applications that go directly at a perceived gap in competency or an alternative learning style or a preferable set of user delivery preferences.
  4. Producing data usable by the teacher and student in that digital materials can assess student progress and identify potential gaps via digital assignments, quizzes, etc.
  5. Easier to transport in that digital materials of almost unlimited volume can be carried on a tablet or laptop or even a mobile phone.

In a separate post we have described this evolution from the printed textbook as needing more of a digital toolkit that is easy for faculty to make use of on a student-by-student basis.

We feel that the digital toolkit metaphor is the right one to latch on to if you want to get this right. In fact, it is critical to actualizing the benefits listed above. This is because we see much misguided effort going into two other alternatives that are on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of the approach.  The approaches are illustrated in the following diagram.

At the very “basic” level of going digital there is the PDF (non-reflowable digital book) or e-text (such as Kindle or Nook) version of a textbook approach. The advantage of this approach is that it is very consistent with well-understood textbook-based models of instruction. The disadvantage is that it only addresses “lower cost” and “easier to transport.” The other major issue with this approach is that many of the mobile readers each have their own proprietary platform formats.  This includes the proprietary standalone app formats of Apple devices. In other words, support across a range of platforms is a major issue with anything other than static PDF. And static PDF is not usable across all screen sizes – that is, a printed textbook is generally better.

At the very other end of the spectrum is what we affectionately term “learning objects in the sky” approach. This is a very advanced vision of being able to find, mix & match instructional materials from all over the web. This is not a new vision at all. The reason we have affection for this idea is that 1EdTech has been involved in working to enable this vision since 1995.  There has been a lot of well-intentioned investment in this vision – and there is a new wave of such activities today that are attracting quite a bit of buzz. One is the Learning Registry – that has been funded by the U.S. Government and the Gates Foundation. Another is LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative) funded by the Gates Foundation. And, the Shared Learning Collaborative, now InBloom, again, funded by the Gates Foundation.  While 1EdTech completely agrees with the learning object vision, the fatal flaw has been the ability of these “found materials” to fit together and thus produce a better instructional experience. There are numerous other issues associated with achieving this vision – none of which have been adequately addressed by the new initiatives. We will cover these in more depth in future installments. The bottom line is that whereas this approach has great aspirations to achieve the interactive/engaging, personalized experience and usable data benefits listed above, the current implementations are far from overcoming the large obstacles to getting there.

In the middle is the digital toolkit idea. This is where the productive activity is today. The approach fundamentally is about selecting digital material suppliers (commercial, OER, whatever works) that are carefully selected to be complementary to the instructional approach desired, ability to provide the data desired to students & teachers, and ability to easily work in a coordinated fashion with the other sources selected. Based on our interactions with both buyers and sellers, while there are still many issues that need to be worked out to get to this more modest goal (versus the learning object in the sky), that it is a more pragmatic approach with a higher probability of getting to all five potential benefits above.

In the next two installments we will discuss some specifics regarding the types of content interoperability that must be supported to achieve the five potential benefits of evolving to digital and the perennial issue of metadata (needed to describe and thus search for learning resources). Also, we will review some RFP guidance, policy and analysis papers as they are released in next couple of weeks.