Beyond OER: K-12 Needs An Open Standard for 'Deeply Digital Lessons'

1-to-1 is the new normal.  (Yes, Yes, Yes:  It is taking a bit more time to get there than we (Cathie & Elliot) predicted in 2010. Back then, C & E publicly pronounced, to a wave of ridicule, that K-12 schools in the U.S. would be at 1-to-1 by 2015. Futuresource Consulting LTD says in 2015-2016 K-12 is at 50% 1-to-1. Picky, picky, picky.)

1-to-1 enables blended learning – and blended learning demands deeply digital curricula.

No less a force that the United States of America’s Department of Education "gets" digital curricula:

"On October 29, 2015 the Department [of Education] announced that it is proposing a new regulation that would require all copyrightable intellectual property created with Department discretionary competitive grant funds to have an open license.

By requiring an open license, we will ensure that high-quality resources created through our public funds are shared with the public, thereby ensuring equal access for all teachers and students regardless of their location or background," said Acting Secretary John King. "We are excited to join other federal agencies leading on this work to ensure that we are part of the solution to helping classrooms transition to next generation materials."

OER — Open Education Resources — have the federal government’s stamp of approval! (Careful, careful: While that statement, about the feds and education, could be construed as a political statement in today’s contentious public discourse, C & E most emphatically disavow any intention of making such a political claim. Phew.)

The notion of learning objects that underlie OER dates back to 1994 — one year before Microsoft’s Windows 95 and the Internet becoming consumer technologies. Even in '94, folks understood that the "core idea of the use of learning objects is … discoverability, reusability and interoperability.”  

But, OER is just the start — not the end! OER are composed into lessons — digital lessons. It’s time for K-12 to turn its attention to standardizing the digital lesson as a key unit of instruction, as a key element of a digital curriculum. Indeed, it is time to move beyond lessons as digitalized versions of paper-based lessons and create an open standard that is deeply digital.

Picture this setting: In a 1-to-1 classroom, each student would have her/his browser open to the LessonLauncher, an HTML5-based tool, and in the LessonLauncher, the student would being seeing a Lesson Roadmap (e.g., Figure 1 — a deeply digital lesson where the student learns about the Earth’s layers).

  • In a Lesson Roadmap, learning activities are nodes that are connected by arcs that explicitly identify the pedagogical relationship among the activities. A student taps on a node, the node opens in the browser; a node contains a URL — a pointer to a PDF file, a website, a video, a simulation on the Internet.
  • Now, a deeply digital lesson becomes "interesting." A node can also be an app that is used to construct an artifact, e.g., in the upper left corner of Figure 1 an app that supports the KWL activity is used as a launch activity and as a culminating, wrap-up activity (bottom of Figure 1). It is important that the lesson representation specifies where the resulting artifact resides so that the teacher and the student can retrieve the file. In the case of the Lesson Roadmap in Figure 1, we are using Google’s infrastructure and thus files created by students are stored and retrieved from a student’s Google drive. The Lesson Roadmap also stores a copy of the file in the teacher’s Google drive to make it that much easier for a teacher.
  • Still further, because the arcs are labeled, the LessonLauncher can "reason about" the lesson. The "launch" activity, for example, was a pedagogical strategy used to support struggling learners, i.e., use the KWL strategy to have struggling learners be explicit about what they already know and about what they are expecting to learn. The LessonLauncher could delete that KWL "launch" activity for accelerated learners — and prompt the lesson creator to include another node —
    another learning activity — to keep the accelerated learners engaged.
  • Or, and now we are talking next generation — if a publisher has a new version of a video, a PDF file, a simulation, the Lesson Roadmap could automatically update the deeply digital lesson to include that newer version.
  • Continuing to dream .... If learning analytics were kept about student performance, those data could be used to change the actual Roadmap in real-time!
  • More dreaming .... Nodes (aka learning activities) could have pre-conditions and/or post-conditions attached to them. The pre-conditions might specify what needs to be known in order to tackle that node and what should be learned after completing that node. In other words, assessments could be built into the deeply digital lesson and LessonLauncher could make sure that students satisfy the pre-conditions and the post-conditions.

These are just a few of the potential benefits of an open standard for deeply digital lessons.

Today, some educational technology companies do have deeply digital lessons and can do the sorts of things identified above. But, those lessons are proprietary to the company — those lessons are closed to others in the community. In the manufacturing world, there is the notion of a "Bill-of-Material" (BoM) and a "Bill-of-Process" (BoP). The former specifies what pieces make up a product (e.g., a toaster oven, a car) and the latter specifies the step-by-step process for putting the pieces together.  In order to open up the playing field for all, the K-12 industry needs an open standard for deeply digital lessons — what the BoM/BoP has done for manufacturing and what SCORM/LTI have done for learning objects.

And just to be perfectly clear: In no way are we suggesting that the Lesson Roadmap should be "the standard" for a deeply digital lesson. A standard requires community conversation and consensus. All we are doing is using the Lesson Roadmap to point out the benefits that could come from having an open standard for digital lessons. 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at