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Selecting Digital Curricula to Complement Blended Learning Models

Hone in on specific criteria when choosing online resources for a blended learning curriculum

More and more districts are pairing digital resources with classroom instruction. The variety and number of available curricula is also growing, which may leave administrators confused about how to evaluate their options for tools that help to meet Common Core and other standards, boost achievement, and more. This web seminar, originally broadcast on November 7, 2014, featured interactive, adaptive technology expert, Tim Hudson, and his tips for selecting the appropriate digital curricula for your district’s blended learning program.

Senior Director of Curriculum Design
DreamBox Learning

In Classifying K-12 Blended Learning, Michael Horn and Heather Staker define blended learning as: A formal education program where at least part of the learning is online, and where there is some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace. At least part of student learning must occur in a supervised brick and mortar location away from home. The key distinction is where the learning is taking place. Two models of blended learning are flipped classroom and enriched-virtual. Both involve at-home instruction on a computer and in-school practice and project work with a teacher. But ultimately, blending is a means to what end?

The quality of what is being done with a teacher and what is being done on the computer are both critically important if blending is a strategy that your district is going to use to improve student achievement. You need to define your goals, and be sure that blended learning is an appropriate strategy to achieve those goals. The quality of digital learning experiences needs to be considered just as important as the quality of the classroom experience. Everyone knows how crucial quality teachers are to the learning process. Oftentimes when we choose to engage students with computers, there’s not that same high emphasis when reviewing and evaluating software. Blended learning should not be the ultimate goal. The goal should be improved learning, and the question should be, “how can a blended strategy be leveraged to achieve that goal?”

In Alive in the Swamp, Michael Fullan and Katelyn Donnelly discuss how technology-enabled innovations often are not focused enough on pedagogy and outcomes. Too often, online content uses basic pedagogy and acts as a tool that allows teachers to do the “same old practices” in a digital format. The “SAMR” model, developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, helps administrators analyze whether technology is substituting, augmenting, modifying, or redefining the learning that students are doing. The “S” and the “A” are enhancements, while the “M” and the “R” are transformations. When you are looking at different digital resources, you should consider whether something is just a digitized worksheet, which is just substitution, or whether the technology empowers students to engage in new tasks. Before you implement blended learning, you need to define what you want students to accomplish, how you will know they have achieved it, and what resources you will need for student learning. Practical student learning needs have to be considered first when digital curricula are being selected.

Different resources support and align with different grade and proficiency levels and content areas. The second consideration is learning outcomes: What are our goals, and what is the assessment evidence that will prove students have accomplished these goals? There are long-term, overarching goals that sometimes get overlooked, such as creating capable, confident, curious learners. Resources should not only focus on a specific skill, but help teachers and administrators facilitate a community of engaged learners. The Common Core State Standards list specific goals that digital curricula can address. Though technology cannot be the ultimate goal, it can influence goals.

For example, high school math students can use the website Wolfram | Alpha to solve problems, like calculating line equations. If the only problems students are assigned are ones that can be answered by pasting the question into Wolfram | Alpha, then we need to think differently about our outcomes. Given these technological advancements, educators have to be thoughtful about gathering evidence of deeper understanding and making the best use of students’ time. A third thing to consider when selecting digital curricula is the need for and quality of the learning experiences and instruction. There is a time for lecturing, but too often digital resources start and end with direct explanations in every lesson. When there is no learning experience to engage students in independent critical thinking, their ability to make sense of things and transfer ideas is hindered. Students may remember procedures, but not understand ideas.

So when you are selecting digital curricula, think about what is going to empower students to think critically and independently. We cannot give students understanding, but we can engineer great learning experiences that develop understanding. Digital curricula should support students as investigators. The next thing to consider is differentiation and adaptivity to support each student’s “light bulb” moments. As we look at the future of how schools are going to meet each individual’s needs, we should ask: What should he or she be learning, doing and thinking about tomorrow? And where should he or she be learning it? Could he or she be doing something online, or do the learning goals require being in a person-to-person community with a teacher? Too often, when we think about differentiation, the reason we have such a challenge is because the first question we consider is “When is the student’s birthday?” and “What does he or she already know?” and “What is the best use of his or her time tomorrow?” is not always the primary consideration.

Some classrooms try to differentiate with math packets; all students are given the same sequential packets, and whenever an individual finishes one on his or her own time, they get to start another. This approach supports very limited learning goals, however. True, effective differentiation should involve all students, include constantly evolving plans, and address what each student needs in this moment to progress with specific content (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). Effective differentiation is logistically unmanageable for any teacher with more than a few students. Blended learning supports personalized learning and makes us more thoughtful about limited classroom time. The teacher in a blended learning model needs to strategically switch between the roles of a strategic facilitator, coach, or instructor based on students’ learning needs.

Teachers are empowered to provide unique learning in the classroom that cannot be replicated online or substituted with technology. They need to be learning facilitators that help students make sense of things and engage their classes in a welcoming community. Digital curricula should complement this work in a blended learning model. The final elements administrators should consider as they select digital curricula are assessment design, progress and proficiency reporting, technology infrastructure and professional development requirements, and evidence of efficacy. The final step should be actually using and testing different digital programs.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: