The Perfect Storm: 4 Conditions Align for a Revolution in Curriculum Development

For good economic and pedagogical reasons, by and large computers have been used in K-12 classrooms as supplemental, not as essential, elements of the curriculum. And research has shown that supplemental use of computers does not lead to increased student achievement. However, as we describe more fully below, four events are in the works that, taken together, provide the enabling condition for the creation of a new — revolutionary —  generation of curricula, where the computer is an essential element, inextricably interwoven in the everyday activities of students. Truly, the opportunity to dramatically impact K-12 teaching and learning is at hand!

We are not speaking out of class in observing that the computer technology use in K-12 has not had a particularly significant, positive impact on increasing student achievement. By and large computers have been and are being used as supplements to existing curriculum — as nice-to-haves, as add-ons when time permits. But research indicates that only when computing technology is an integral, essential, used-on-an-everyday-basis component of curriculum are increases in student achievement observed.

As we argue below, it hasn't made good economic and pedagogical sense for curriculum developers and publishers to include computer-based learning activities in the core curricula — to create curricular materials where computing technologies are an integral, essential component of those materials. But, as we also argue below, four enabling conditions are coming together relatively fortuitously, to create that "perfect storm" — to create the opportunity for curriculum developers and publishers to produce new curricular materials where computing-based, learning activities are essential to the effective enactment of the curriculum.

And, if the educational community can take advantage of that opportunity to create such revolutionary new curricula, then, like a tide that raises all the boats, those computing-based resources will enable all teachers to be more effective, which in turn will result in significant increases in student achievement! Finally, computing technology will have the promised, positive impact on K-12. Oops ... we are getting carried away a bit.... Let's dive into those promised arguments!

Enabling Condition 1: Hardware — 1:1 Is the New Normal
There has been a very good reason, from a curriculum developer's and publisher's point of view, for why computer-based learning activities were not included in textbooks and core curricula: The technology in classrooms had been so unpredictable that curriculum developers and publishers couldn't guarantee that the activities they would include in the core could be enacted in all classrooms, in all states, in the United States.

By unpredictable we mean:

  • Since the earliest days of computing, school budgets were challenged to provide adequate computing and networking support. And, if there were computers in the classroom, there was no way for curriculum developers and publishers, writing their materials in an office far, far removed from schools, to know what computers those classrooms had: Macs, Windows, outdated OSes, etc.
  • And, still further, the hardware technologies themselves have changed rapidly. Over the last 20 years K-12 has been exposed to multiple generations of desktops and laptops, multiple generations of interactive whiteboards, and multiple generations of tablets (iOS, Android, Windows).

The impact of such unpredictability was most consequential:

  • While a textbook might well be around for seven years, textbook writers couldn't feel confident that the learning activities they wrote would actually be enactable over those seven years;
  • To handle the Windows and Mac issue, multiple versions of the same app needed to be developed — which is a development and maintenance nightmare; and
  • There were times when it was virtually impossible to make a computer-based activity run across multiple devices, e.g., while the Flash-based math and science simulations that educators and students came to love would run on desktops and laptops, that Flash-based content was banned from Apple's iPads.  

Bottom line:  It hasn't made pedagogical or economic sense for curriculum developers and publishers to create in their core curricular materials computer-based learning activities for such unpredictable hardware/software environments!

With respect to hardware unpredictability, then, what's different now?

The prediction we made in 2001 is actually coming true: The cost of a computing device is virtually the same as the cost of a pair of gym shoes — about $100. Chromebooks and Windows-running Chromebook-competitors, $99 laptops, in fact, are just around the corner.  And well appointed, 4G/WiFi, 5.5-inch Android smartphones — phablets — can be had for $129. One-to-one — every student having her or his own personal computing device — is about to be the new normal. Device access is no longer a roadblock.

(Caveat: the digital divide is still dividing America's children. A recent report by Common Sense Media documents the disparity of computer access, with the have-nots, of course, having significantly less access. Thus, our excitement about the new, 1:1 normal must be tempered — and our public and private organizations must redouble their efforts to address the scourge of the digital divide.)

While networks remain the Achilles Heel still of school computing environments, that too is changing. For example, the new generation of remotely-controlled Wi-Fi access points is helping schools to decrease the cost of providing connectivity while also helping to increase the reliability and robustness of their networks.

Most importantly, while the diversity of devices in classrooms is now exacerbated, as we describe in the next section, a very recent innovation in software development — one of those four Perfect Storm enabling conditions — will ameliorate the diversity issue and render it moot! Ta Da!

Enabling Condition 2: Software — Creating Device-Agnostic Software, Finally
The ubiquitous availability of computing devices is a necessary condition — but not a sufficient condition — for curriculum developers and publishers to create materials in which computer-based learning activities are woven inextricably. Indeed, it is another innovation — a very recent one — that will unlock the opportunity that ubiquitous computing availability affords. And that innovation is HTML5.

"HTML5 [HyperText Markup Language] is a core technology markup language of the Internet used for structuring and presenting content for the World Wide Web," according to Wikipedia. "As of October 2014 this is the final and complete fifth revision of the HTML standard of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The previous version, HTML 4, was standardized in 1997."

Yes, but what exactly is HTML5 and why is it potentially an educationally disruptive tool for curriculum developers and publishers? Take a deep breath ...  let it out ... here we go!

A browser is a core application in a modern computer (desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.) that enables a user to explore the World Wide Web. Except for limited-purpose computing devices (e.g., MP3 players, e-book readers), virtually every computing device can run a browser. And, while browsers — Microsoft's Internet Explorer and now Edge, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox, Opera's Opera — differ with respect to interface design, ease-of-use, computing resource demands, etc., all the browsers support the standards set forth by the W3C. Thus, viewing a Web site in Apple's Safari browser running on an Apple iPad or viewing that same Web site in Google's Chrome running on a HP Chromebook — or an Asus Chromebook — is virtually the same.

Okay, there are differences due to screen size, computing power, etc. Viewing a site in Safari on an iPhone is not exactly the same as viewing that site on an iPad in Safari. Picky, picky, picky; but for all intents and purposes the viewing experience is the same.

Now, here is where the story gets really exciting: while HTML4 only supported a limited range of interactive elements, such as dialogue boxes, HTML5 finally provides software developers with the tools to create highly interactive, highly functional Web pages that have the same sorts of interactivity and functionality that applications and apps written in programming languages such as C++ and Java have had.

And, since HTML5 is a W3C, international standard, apps — which are just Web pages — written in HTML5 will run on all standards-supporting browsers, and thus there is no need to write a version of the app for Mac and a version for Windows. HTML5 apps are device-agnostic.

So, for example, a developer could write a concept mapping application in HTML5 that provides essentially the same functionality that Inspiration, the highly regarded concept mapping application, provided, but the HTML5 developer does not need to create a version for Windows and a version for Mac. Rather, the same HTML5 app will run in the Safari browser on the Mac and in the Chrome browser on Windows or Android, for example.

HTML5's write once, run everywhere finally gives — or should give — curriculum developers and publishers the confidence that what is included in their core materials can be enacted in virtually all classrooms in the U.S. for the lifetime — and beyond — of their textbooks — paper and/or digital.

HTML5-based applications make BYOD (bring your own device) a quite workable strategy! In a typical BYOD classroom, a teacher might well be faced with students bringing in different makes and models of laptops, tablets, and smartphones. While BYOD classrooms sport diverse sets of devices, as long as each device runs a W3C standards-aligned browser, then a teacher, too, can feel confident that all the devices in her/his BYOD classroom will be able to run those HTML5-based apps.

Yes, it's ok to say it: Holy Cow!

It gets better! Besides being device-agnostic, writing applications in HTML5 confers yet another benefit for curriculum developers, teachers and, ultimately, students. The benefit is subtle, so perhaps the best way to see it is via an example.

The video below depicts a lesson, encoded in one of IMLC's collabrified apps, LessonLauncher, on thermal radiation and heat transfer. When a student taps on "Activity 1 WeRead," for example, the student is taken to a Web site at Wisc-Online where the teacher has found a wonderful tutorial on heat transfer. When the student clicks on the purple bubble for "Thermal Energy Review" the student is presented with some questions to answer, in collaboration with other students, about what was on the Wisc-Online site. Activity 2 points to a page on the Lowe's site on home remodeling!

Here comes the point of this little example: notice the tabs in the browser. The tabs, in effect, define the lesson. In other words, a digital lesson can be created by putting together Web resources — apps, text pages, videos, animations and more.

Thus, curriculum developers can now create complete, digital lessons using all of the resources available on the Web — where some resources are computer apps written in HTML5 and some resources tap into the amazing Web sites that scientists, companies, countries, foundations, individuals, non-profits and even kids have created and published and are available for free on the World Wide Web.

Another "Holy Cow!" is most appropriate here:  Now curriculum developers and publishers can create curricular materials where technology is inextricably interwoven into those materials and feel confident that those materials will be enactable everywhere.  But, why should they develop such materials? See the next event in the Perfect Storm!

Enabling Condition 3: Call to Curricular Change — CCSS/NGSS
While the hardware and software technology is finally in place (enabling conditions 1 and 2), it is the third enabling condition that will push curriculum developers and publishers to actually use HTML5 for development:

  • 46 states and the District of Columbia have already adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and ordered that their schools use curriculum that are aligned with the CCSS. At least in those 42 states, new curriculum is needed! Ho ho!
  • Complementing CCSS are new science standards, the Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Like CCSS, NGSS are standards — and not curriculum; NGSS like CCSS specify what needs to be learned, not how it is to be taught or learned. Fifteen states have so far adopted NGSS. But, stay tuned: NGSS has only recently been released.

While some districts are developing the CCSS-aligned curriculum themselves, most districts don't have the resources for such development and will need to purchase CCSS-aligned curriculum from publishers. Producing such new curricula before they are sold requires investment. Hmmm. Read on!

Enabling Condition 4: Funds To Support Change
While K-12 has come to expect that educational software is free, K-12 is still accustomed to paying for curriculum materials. Teachers need curriculum, not just apps, since curriculum provides them with guidance on how to use those apps effectively.

Fortunately, investment support is pouring into K-12 at an unprecedented rate to fuel the development of new educational resources:

  • Straight from the horse's mouth: "Funding to education technology companies is booming. Financing grew from $944 million in 2013 to $1.6 billion in 2014, a 71 percent increase. In the last four quarters, including Q2 '15, ed tech startups attracted $2.3 billion, a jump of 96 percent compared to the previous four quarters. Meanwhile, deal flow ticked down in 2014 compared to the previous year. There were 217 deals in 2014, down from 223 in 2013. Note: This data only includes funding to VC-backed companies in the Ed Tech space."
  • Non-profits, such as the Gates Foundation, the Lucas Education Foundation, the Spencer Foundation are making considerable investments in education. 
  • For profits, too, are getting into the act! Mc-Graw Hill, for example, is making significant investments in refurbishing their education business.

The 4 Enabling Conditions for the Perfect Storm in K-12
Yes, the conditions for the Perfect Storm are at hand. Yes, the opportunity to finally create curriculum materials, aligned with the standards that incorporate computing-based learning activities from the get-go — learning activities that research suggests will result in increased student achievement. Hurrah!!


  • You can lead a horse to water.... Sigh, but, there's no guarantee that the resulting products will in fact be "good" curriculum. While there is research that can be used to guide the development of "good" curriculum, there is no guarantee that those research guidelines will be followed. Just because good curriculum can finally be built, doesn't mean that it will be built;
  • And, even if the materials are good, materials alone are not enough to ensure that increases in student achievement are observed: teachers must be afforded significant professional development opportunities in order to learn to use the new materials effectively;
  • And, materials and PD are still not enough! Curriculum and PD are three (curriculum counts twice, since it is so important) of the 12 factors we have identified that need to be addressed in moving a school to using a modern pedagogy where computers are used as essential tools, not just as supplements; and
  • It takes time! We have worked at a primary school in Singapore for six years; and while the school is different today, and while technology is infused in the curriculum, the processes of change continue to grind ... and grind slowly.

Does America have the will to create the next generation of curriculum, where the computer is an essential element, inextricably interwoven in the everyday activities of learners?  The "Perfect Storm" described here is happening; 1:1, device-agnostic software, standards-based curriculum, funding — all those enabling conditions are in process. But, will America's educational organizations take advantage of those enabling conditions and produce the revolution in curriculum that is on offer? Stay tuned!

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