Digital Content in the Classroom: A Double Edged Sword

The EdWeek article –  ‘Big Three’ Publishers Rethink K-12 Strategies – focuses on how publishers are transitioning away from textbooks to digital content.  But what got my attention were the descriptions of what districts and states are currently thinking:

The 12,000-student school district swapped out printed textbooks for digital material in 2006, but students aren’t using e-textbooks. Instead, the district 


Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction, and student services for the Florida Department of Education, says that as districts in her state transition to digital curricula, schools want to pull the very best content from multiple sources—some they might buy, the rest might be free.
collects instructional materials the way a teenager creates a song playlist, taking digital content from various places, often for free. Meanwhile, for a fee, the … district shares its electronic library of resources with 68 partner districts across the state.

Digital Content in the Classroom - A Double Edged Sword

This desire to pick and choose the best content for a particular purpose makes perfect sense.  Why be constrained to one textbook series when there is a whole world of content available in a digital environment?

But there are some problems with this approach to curriculum/content development. Too much choice can be as dangerous as no choice.  Recently, I wanted to buy new golf clubs and went to professional to be custom fitted.   He watched my swing, used a computer to extract some metrics, and based on his professional judgment asked me to hit clubs from only two manufacturers—there are probably a dozen major club makers.   His view was that if I had too much to choose from, I would not be able to make a smart choice.  I chose and have had no buyer’s remorse.

In the same way, teachers or curriculum developers have too much to choose from.   Unless they develop clear criteria for how to make those choices, they are as likely to choose poorly as well.  Certainly, having a process to curate the choices available, as the golf professional did for me, will limit the choices to good options at least.

But the problem is still not addressed particularly in a Common Core State Standards world.   What is lost in moving from textbooks, which I agree are too limited, is the organization and structure they provide.  For example, in a previous post I discussed the importance of creating a secondary ELA curriculum which focused intentionally on increasing text complexity, a critical instructional shift of the Common Core State Standards. Creating a stair step of increasing text complexity across grades in “the way a teenager creates a song playlist” will be extremely difficult.  If a smorgasbord of digital materials are available to teachers and they are left to choose based only on their own preference and judgment without the context of other teachers’ choices, it is hard to imagine that a coherent curriculum will result.  A strong plan to curate teachers’ choices will help, but still will not be sufficient.   It is exciting that districts are embracing the digital world and all its possibilities, but the challenges they will face to choose wisely really make this world as dangerous as it is exciting.

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