5 Common Mistakes in Moving to a Digital Curriculum

Dr. Natalie Saaris
April 13, 2020

In recent years teachers have increasingly moved their curriculum to a digital format. In fact, in a 2019 report by Gallup and NewSchools Venture Fund, 89% of students in grades 3-12 reported they’d been using digital learning in school at least a few days a week, and 71% said they’d used it outside of school to complete school work. This year, since the coronavirus crisis began, digital learning has accelerated across the country. Even when used only inside the classroom, schools find that digital texts generally cost less than paper, are easy to update, and spare the time (and environmental cost) of photocopying.

What many administrators and teachers are discovering, however, is that making the move to digital is not as easy as swapping out books for tablets and guiding learners with a simple step-by-step process in person or through video chats. Here are five common mistakes schools have made when moving from paper to screen and how to rethink ways to engage students and promote deeper learning.

1. Building a digital curriculum around random articles

Research shows that students need to build content knowledge to become stronger readers, and that knowledge is best built by assigning texts that connect to one another and develop a coherent schema around an idea. This is the thinking behind text sets, or sequenced texts that are grouped together by topic. Educational research centers like Achieve the Core and the Fordham Institute promote text sets as a means for students to build knowledge and become better readers.

For example, a student who is learning about Japanese internment would benefit from reading a textbook chapter about World War II, an article about propaganda efforts to ostracize Japanese people during this period, and a firsthand account of the conditions in the camps. This is the sort of interconnected knowledge that builds deep understanding of a topic. 

“Research has shown the use of conceptually coherent text sets to be effective in building knowledge and vocabulary, as well as preparing students for new texts on the same topic. Both broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are essential for reading comprehension.”

- Thomas B. Fordham Institute

On the other hand, students who read a series of disconnected articles fail to build the deeper understanding they need to understand how ideas connect to one another. They read one article about bee communication, another article about foreign policy in Iran, and a third one about basketball. The end result is that some students struggle to achieve reading gains because they can't retain what they encounter in these disconnected, fleeting texts and regard reading as a purposeless endeavor.

Building a digital curriculum takes expertise and strategic planning. The vast array of text choices on the web creates new challenges for teachers who have to select and prioritize the texts available to them. Given the amount of time it takes and the mental bandwidth required, this is a task that is better tackled by an entire department, a curriculum specialist, or a trusted content provider rather than an individual teacher.

  • Craft your digital curriculum around sound learning principles: students should be reading sequenced text sets that build deep understanding of relevant topics. It’s not just the quantity of reading that counts, but also the content of those texts and how they relate to one another.
  • Rather than assigning the task of building this curriculum to individual teachers, leverage entire departments to craft coherent, sequenced digital curriculums that meet learning objectives and advance student knowledge.

2. Assuming teachers will figure out digital texts on their own

Digital texts often provide additional features like data, embedded questions and media, and shareable annotations. It’s unlikely that the digital text is just an electronic reproduction of the paper text (and if it is, you probably shouldn’t buy it). Figuring out how to leverage these features in the classroom or in a remote learning environment requires a new set of skills. For instance, how do teachers make the best use of the data available to inform instruction? How do they figure out where to embed a question in a digital text? How do they integrate shareable annotations into the reading and learning process?

Teachers who receive no training on how to use the new features available to them are likely to miss out on some serious benefits. They are also more likely to feel frustrated by the transition to digital if they haven’t had basic training in how to use the software. In a recent survey of teachers’ use of digital curriculum materials, the Gates Foundation reported that a significant number of schools provide little to no support in helping teachers integrate digital tools into their instruction:

“Teachers are almost equally likely to report that they are on their own using digital technology and managing the data it generates as they are to say that their school has dedicated staff to support them in these areas (31 percent vs. 39 percent, respectively).”

- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

  • Take advantage of PD provided by the digital curriculum vendor. They are experts in their product and have the expertise to guide teachers on best practices to make digital learning engaging and effective for all their students.
  • Leverage professional learning communities to share knowledge about teaching with digital texts. Teachers are more likely to use the curriculum and get more out of it if they can see how it is being used in other classrooms.

3. Going all-in before teachers and students are ready

Because digital texts require teachers to alter what they normally do in their classes, it makes it much easier for everyone to transition step-by-step as opposed to throwing away every textbook and forcing teachers to rely exclusively on the digital format. Teachers will be much more successful making the switch if they can experiment using shorter texts before diving into a full-length novel or civics textbook.

Students also need some time to adapt to reading on a screen. This might seem like a ridiculous claim given the amount of time that students spend on their smartphones, but there is a difference between the cursory reading of a Facebook or Instagram feed and the focused reading of a textbook, as many students have discovered during this year's sudden plunge into remote learning. For some students, making that attitudinal switch is much easier if they can gradually work up to it by starting with a few articles and then moving up to longer texts.

  • Invest in flexible reading platforms that allow teachers to build their instructional expertise over time. Some teachers will be quick to transition all their reading to digital, while some might take longer to gain confidence, familiarity, and expertise in the digital platform.
  • Avoid overly prescriptive programs that require teachers to immediately assign all of their texts on a screen. This is a recipe for frustration as teachers and students struggle to adapt to the new medium.

4. Assuming all teachers will be thrilled to go digital

Teachers are busy individuals, and many of them rely on lessons that they’ve perfected over the years to save them time and maximize learning for students. It’s not obvious to every teacher why going digital is the right move for the classroom as well as periods of remote learning, and confusion is likely to turn into outright resistance without some good reasons for making the switch. Remember that teachers are being asked to give up what they are most comfortable with and venture into unknown digital territory. Reluctance is an understandable reaction.

Some teachers might also believe that digital texts are harmful to student learning. Several popular studies have shown reading on a screen to be detrimental to students’ reading comprehension. Be prepared to counter these claims with research about what the studies may have missed.

The reasons for going digital should ultimately focus on the benefits of digital texts for teachers and students. What improvements can teachers expect to see in their students’ learning as a result of using digital texts? How do digital texts make their lives easier and their instruction more impactful? Being able to answer those questions is the key to convincing teachers that they should abandon what they know and like in favor of an unfamiliar instructional format.

  • Be attentive to teachers’ attitudes toward digital texts and offer research to support your reasons for going digital.
  • Focus on the learning benefits of digital text. No teacher will be excited to learn a new digital platform if the only advantage is lower cost to the district.

5. Continuing to teach in silos

One of the great advantages of digital text is the ease of sharing resources. It is far easier for teachers to get feedback on their assignments, co-author and co-teach assignments, and even pool their resources into one easily accessible place. This is a transformation of the way teaching normally works with paper, and one that should lead to more collaboration among teachers at your school.

“Teachers who regularly collaborate to share student work develop more reflective practices and are more likely to make instructional changes.” 

- Neebe & Roberts, 2015

Research shows that teacher collaboration is a key factor in student achievement. Teachers who discuss their teaching challenges and trust one another generally outperform teachers who work in isolation. Digital texts allow teachers to collaborate even more, and to do it asynchronously. Teachers whose schedules do not line up can still share assignments and curricular materials via their LMS or reading platform.

  • Encourage teachers to take advantage of the collaborative features of digital texts. This will save them time and improve the resources they teach.
  • In the increasingly important world of remote learning in which most teachers across the country have jumped into with little training or experience, teachers can greatly benefit from collaboration with peers and coaches.

Related posts:

Work Cited:

Neebe, D., & Roberts, J. (2015). Power up: making the shift to 1:1 teaching and learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse .

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