21st Century Curriculum | Feature

3 Ways To Build a Digital Content Library

Districts are finding a variety of ways to gather materials that meet the needs of the 21st century classroom and align with Common Core standards.

As districts in 45 states put the final touches on their Common Core-aligned curricula, they are depending more and more on digital educational content. But where do all these new materials come from? Some districts look to outside vendors, others create everything they need in-house, and some use a hybrid of these two approaches. Here's a look at how educators across the country are building their repositories of digital content.

The Hybrid Approach
According to Matt Zuchowicz, director of educational technology services for the 20 different school districts served by the Santa Barbara County Education Office (SBCEO), these districts were among the first in California to develop an online portal to deliver digital content. Zuchowicz said, "We built out the 'shell' of the portal and then filled it in using a number of streaming resources."  The portal is populated with teacher-produced digital content as well as materials from outside sources like Lesson Planet, World Book, and Maps101 (a local firm). Video streaming comes from California Streaming, a service that is supported and run by 17 county education offices in the state. Zuchowicz noted that economies of scale have worked in SBCEO's favor. "We buy at discounted rates because we're buying in bulk," he said.

The SBCEO and its partners keep close tabs on all digital content to ensure that it adheres to copyright law. For example, some of the content can only be streamed, not downloaded. "We monitor all of that very closely," Zuchowicz said, "and we trust that our vendors are meeting the same copyright laws. We rely on them to make sure they're meeting their end of the deal." (For T.H.E. Journal's legal expert's take on this issue, see "Staying on the Right Side of Copyright in Education.")

As part of its digital strategy, the SBCEO has also been filling its coffers with materials that align with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This is where external vendors can prove their worth, according to Zuchowicz, who after several years of working with online content platforms said that attempting to develop 100 percent of the materials from scratch would be challenging for the typical district. "Realistically," he explained, "it's hard for a district to have the internal capacity to create the necessary depth of digital resources to provide a rigorous, CCSS-aligned curriculum for students." At the same time, he added, "Teachers are really hungry for these lessons that we're getting from sources like Lesson Planet," he said, "which offers content that's already aligned with CCSS."

The Wiki-Based Library  
As K-12 schools nationwide explore their digital content options and try to come up with solutions that meet the needs of the 21st century classroom and align with CCSS, districts like Vail School District in Tucson, AZ, have a head start in the race to develop and maintain digital content repositories. According to Debbie Hedgepeth, assistant superintendent, the district worked with 50 others across the state to create a wiki-based library of lesson plans, quizzes, interactive Web links, ideas, presentations and related content.

That information wasn't always so well organized and accessible. "We originally had stacks of binders that housed all of the materials created by our teachers," said Hedgepeth. "Our goal was to find a good way to organize that information on the Web so that teachers, students and parents could access it." After deciding on the wiki-based approach, the district turned to its teachers — all of whom already had a strong grasp of their respective curricula and the related state guidelines for that content. This fact alone would become a key driver of Vail School District's DIY approach to digital content development.

"Our teachers started creating their own content because they knew what their targets were and how to keep their students focused on those goals," Hedgepeth explained. "Over time, more and more instructional content was added to the repository and used — to the point where we haven't done a textbook adoption in over 10 years."

According to Hedgepeth, the district takes a two-pronged approach to quality control for digital content. On one hand, teachers are entrusted with the task of providing only reliable, effective and useful resources that help their students reach their educational goals. "The teachers' names are attached to these resources," said Hedgepeth, "which have to be of incredibly high quality." To maintain quality control, the district has an employee who searches through postings to ensure that they indeed are rigorous enough and that they match objectives.

"If anything problematic comes up (i.e., a copyright issue with posted content)," Hedgepeth explained, "we send a short e-mail message to the poster and ask him or her to address it (by, say, contacting the original publisher for permission to use the content) and adjust and/or replace as needed."

When it comes to CCSS, Hedgepeth said that some of the content has been reworked to align with the new standards, but notes that the assessment piece remains something of a mystery. "Our target is fuzzy because we're not yet familiar with the level of CCSS assessment," said Hedgepeth, noting that while sample questions are available, the state of Arizona has yet to select a specific assessment firm, "so our teachers are creating their own tasks, problem sets and instructional resources to align with CCSS to the best that we are able to interpret them right now."

Vail School District's digital content challenges go beyond fuzzy targets and extend into classrooms where students are being asked to learn in very different ways than they are accustomed to — and certainly differently than their parents did. "The learning objectives that parents are used to — and that they encountered themselves — are changing," said Hedgepeth. "Because of this, some of them are struggling to support their students at home."

Hedgepeth said she believes that, "We have to allow time for the students and teachers to learn and let the struggle run its course, even when it feels uncomfortable." To help, the district modified its year-round calendar to include a "fall break" that gives teachers time to build out their digital repositories and upload tasks and lessons. "That way," said Hedgepeth, "when students come back from break the lessons are ready to go for the next two quarters of the school year."

To further help teachers create new lessons, the district allocates several days during each quarter for professional development. In October, for example, a group of math teachers spent a Friday collaborating on new course development. The district also created a video that teachers can use as a tutorial on how to capture video and transform it into classroom content.

In some instances, just letting teachers know that they're not alone in their struggles to develop, maintain and update digital content goes a long way. "We send out messages letting everyone know that we expect that struggle, that it's perfectly normal, and that we'll all work through it together," said Hedgepeth. "Teachers want to do their very best for their students and when they don't achieve that goal, it can cause a lot of stress. We want our teachers to know that we're right with them through the struggle."

The Third-Party Partnership
From Margaret Pfaff's perspective, deciding whether to develop digital content in-house or outsource it to a third party was simple. Pfaff, the director of curriculum and instructional resources at Carroll County Public Schools in Westminster, MD, said her 26,000-student district faced a number of barriers to the DIY option, including copyright issues, time constraints, cost and lack of digital content expertise. "Our resources are very limited," said Pfaff, "and we don't have the staff available to create digital content."

Since September 2013, the district has obtained its digital content from Discovery Education. An initiative funded by a competitive grant from the Maryland Digital Learning Innovation Program provides students with 24/7 access to digital science textbooks (what the company calls "techbooks") and other dynamic, curriculum-based content. As a result of this partnership, which Pfaff said wouldn't have been possible without the grant support, the district can now offer teachers and students an array of digital resources without worry over copyright issues or time and resource constraints.

When asked if those resources align with CCSS, Pfaff said that the district will address that issue "as part of the bigger picture with teachers in terms of the pedagogy involved with any multimedia resource." And while the district doesn't have to worry about the actual design and development of the content, she said her department does assess the effectiveness of the resources. It also provides a robust professional development component (as required by the grant), which comes as part of the Discovery Education package.

"We're providing training for our science teachers who are using the textbooks and for the other teachers who are using streaming," said Pfaff, who said she believes that the "trainer of trainers" model is the best approach in this case. "We're bringing in four teachers from each school and providing them with the training that they'll use to support their own colleagues."

Carroll County Public Schools recently wrapped up phase one of its professional development process. The district has also kicked off its use of streaming content, having just finished up one such rollout in October. So far the results and feedback have been positive, said Pfaff. "Teachers are excited about using the resource because it gives them quality material to use in their classrooms. We haven't run into any snags yet."

Making the Choice
Whether districts choose to buy or create their digital class materials, Lesson Planet's Jim Hurley said that the key is finding an approach that is sustainable, flexible and built on a commitment to quality content.

And while finding, curating and publishing online materials can be a monumental undertaking, that doesn't mean it can't be done internally. It just means that DIY districts need the right combination of human and financial resources to make this approach work. Open educational resources (OERs), for example, can help districts populate their digital repositories and complement materials that have been produced internally. "Most OERs can be modified, adapted, taken into the classroom," said Hurley, "and transformed into new [digital resources]."

No matter what content-creation method a district chooses, Vail's Hedgepeth said that adopting a long-term view — rather than grasping at a quick solution to the issue of CCSS alignment — is the key to success. "We've been honing our approach for years, and we're still working on it and adjusting it as needed," said Hedgepeth, who noted that her district's progress has been "remarkable in light of the thousands of students and families who have gone through the process so far."

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