Trying to figure out which digital content providers are right for your school or district is difficult. Though the digital content market is still in its nascent stages, it is already diverse and complex enough to overwhelm many teachers or school leaders who are trying to decide which products to choose.
Faced with the prospect of selecting content from a market in which new companies crop up every month and in which each product promises great results, school leaders often ask me questions such as: Where should we begin? How can we narrow down a short list of content providers from the many that are available? How do we know if a provider will work for our group of students?
I suggest that any teacher, school leader or district leader answer the following set of questions before beginning to search the digital content market:
1. What role do you want digital content to play in the learning process?
2. What role do you envision the teacher playing in the management of the digital content?
3. What are the unique needs of your student population?
From my experience, answering these three questions at the outset makes the digital content selection process more focused and ultimately, much more manageable.
1. The Role of Digital Content
To select content that will work for your school you must have a good understanding of what role or purpose you want the digital content to play in your classrooms. Do you want the content to introduce new concepts to students? Allow students to practice skills the teacher introduces during direct instruction? Test students and identify skill gaps? Use it to remediate or accelerate student learning?
Blended learning can be used for any one or all of these scenarios, and there are products that target each. For instance, a number of our schools use Virtual Nerd to introduce new concepts to students because of its strong direct instruction component. Others prefer TenMarks because of its easily assignable, concept-based digital worksheets that allow students to practice what they have been working on in class. Other schools want products like i-Ready and iLearn that effectively incorporate direct instruction and practice components in one easy-to-use product.
The more specific you can be about what you want the content to do before you start looking at potential providers, the easier it will be to narrow down which are right for your school.
2. The Role of the Teacher
The second aspect to consider is what role the teacher will have in managing digital content day-to-day. Schools that are new to blended learning may want to start with a more adaptive program like DreamBox Learning which is designed to automatically find and assign content to each student in their “Zone of Proximal Development.” Programs like DreamBox often work well for new teachers because students get lessons and practice that target their skill gaps with minimal input from the instructor. The caveat with adaptive programs is that the content will not be as tightly aligned to what is being taught in class on a particular day.
Teachers who want to take a more hands-on role with their digital content should consider assignable providers like Achieve3000, a practice-based reading program that delivers the same AP articles and accompanying comprehension questions to each student at their individual Lexile level. Assignable products allow teachers to align what students are seeing on the computer to what is being taught in class. The tradeoff with assignable products is that they usually take more time for the teacher to manage, as they have to push content out to students on a regular basis.
There are also programs like Odyssey by Compass Learning that are flexible, meaning that they allow teachers to choose whether to assign specific lesson modules to students, or they can let the program adapt and administer content tailored to each student.
There is no right answer in the adaptive vs. assignable discussion, and there are tradeoffs to each approach; however, the takeaway is that it’s important for schools leaders to honestly assess their teachers’ bandwidth and desire to manage content in a hands-on manner.
3. Student Population Needs
Finally, outline any trends or special needs that your student population has and think about how these factors may affect the content you will ultimately choose. All too often schools purchase a product because they heard it worked for another school. However, it is important to remember that what might have worked for one group of students may not work for your own.
Before deciding on content, think over the strengths and weaknesses of your student population. Are the majority of your students reading below grade level? Do you have a significant ELL population? Are there a cohort of students who need accelerated subject matter? Outlining your student body’s weaknesses (and strengths!) will help you identify the product offerings that are most finely tailored to the needs of your kids.
For instance, ST Math is an example of a program that uses a spatial temporal approach and presents mathematical concepts visually. While this approach works well for the general student population, it works especially well for English Language Learners because it does not rely on words but rather on visual representations of mathematical concepts.
With this framework in mind, you will have a strong starting point for selecting digital content that does what you want it to do, works for your teachers, and addresses the needs of your students. Ultimately, by asking and answering these questions, you will increase the chances of success when implemented in classrooms.