Teachers All Across America 'Reinventing the Wheel, Nightly'

Education experts Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway consider a challenge to the ed tech industry.

Please, consider this quote from a third grade teacher:

"In the absence of textbooks, individual teachers are forced to spend hours searching the internet for resources. The process is not only time­consuming, but much of the material online has little to no editorial oversight.

With no textbooks, every teacher becomes an improvisational curriculum designer, which they try to do on­the­fly while also teaching their classes every day. When this amount of effort is multiplied by all the teachers doing the same thing around the country, it is clear that we are reinventing the wheel, nightly, to the detriment of both the students and the teachers."

Whoa! Heck of an image, eh? While the above is one teacher’s observation, there is definitely corroborating evidence.

  • The Learning Counsel, a company dedicated to bringing digital — curricula, practices, training — into K–12 education, conducted a survey and found that almost 60% of the teachers responding to the survey say they spend between two and five hours a week searching for digital lessons, and almost 10% say they spend six hours or more.  Looks like that third grade teacher’s observation is consistent with the Learning Counsel data.
  • There were 38 comments on our blog post, entitled: "So, When During the School Day Should Teachers Create Curriculum?" Usually there are zero comments on a blog post — but clearly that one post hit a nerve.

The overarching theme of our blog, "Reinventing Curriculum," addresses precisely the issues raised by this third grade teacher: With the demise of the textbook, and with 1-to-1 fast becoming the new normal, teachers are in need of curricular resources —  digital resources.  And right now, teachers are wasting time and energy "reinventing the wheel nightly."

What’s to be done? As a start, we recently praised for posting whole courses — not just 1-3 day lessons — on their website. A teacher can access a course on sixth grade science, for example, and then tweak it  — localize it to the geographical area, differentiate it for her/his students, contextualize it to better reflect the school and district, etc. The teacher can then assign the course to her/his students – all on More or less.

Indeed, there are five top-level functions, with respect to digital curricula, that must be supported by a blended learning platform if K–12 is really going to move into the digital age:

  1. Create a lesson: A teacher must be able to quickly and easily create a digital lesson from scratch — or take an existing digital lesson and modify it, e.g., add/delete a digital resource, or modify an existing digital resource.
  2. Distribute a lesson: A teacher must be able to send a lesson to her/his students quickly and easily. Importantly, a teacher needs to be to put students in groups so that the students can work collaboratively on the lesson. (Of course, it must be quick and easy to add/delete a student from a collaborative group, since on the day of lesson enactment, invariably students will not be in class.)
  3. Monitor the enactment of a lesson: A teacher must be able to quickly and easily "watch" what her/his students are doing as they are doing it — and make both written and verbal comments to the students on their work.
  4. Post-enactment, assess and provide feedback: In a lesson, students may well use three to five different applications; a teacher must be able to quickly and easily access all the artifacts created by the students (solo and in groups).
  5. Provide learning analytics: A teacher must be able to quickly and easily see key analytics that characterize student performance. For example, if the students are working in groups, a teacher needs to see at a glance if one of the group is not contributing.

While the five functions seem straightforward to state, enabling those five functions in a software platform is proving to be a challenge: To the best of our understanding, there is no one system that provides all five functions — and provides them "quickly and easily."

The Open Education Resources (OER) marketplaces (e.g.,,, do a first-class job of providing OER materials. (Though, they are light on providing access to applications — but that’s a story for another time.) Frankly, it is enough that the OER marketplaces provide OER materials!, for example, is focusing on providing standards-aligned OER and assessments that are evaluated with respect to their effectiveness. Props to them!

Let’s return to the third grade teacher’s observation and the challenge to educational technologists posed by the image of teachers all over the United States struggling with creating digital curricula. So much of the ed tech industry is focused on using big data and machine learning to provide so-called personalized learning — and in so doing missing the bigger opportunity! That is: Helping teachers be more effective in creating and using digital curricula is the real multiplier!

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