Table of Contents
Content & Software
From the Field
“Teachers across the board have reported an increase in student engagement, more attention to the tasks at hand, and a more enthusiastic response to lessons, because students enjoy learning in this new medium.”
Barbara Allen, Director of Educational Technology, San Diego Unified School District
While devices often get the focus during purchasing time, comprehensive planning requires that districts pay attention to the purpose for having those devices in the first place. At the core of usage are the tools and content that help a district run efficiently and effectively and provide students and teachers with the resources necessary for learning.The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank, analyzed the software specifically used by small and medium school systems and found that the tools and content tend to fall into a few broad categories, all of which need to be addressed in planning and budgeting:
- Business and school operations software provides the operational functionality needed by non-teaching staff for performing financial and human resources work; to stay on top of educator evaluations and professional development; and to handle library, cafeteria and teacher substitute management, among other activities.
- Data management software is used by administrators, teachers and other staff to monitor student assessment, manage student information, and deliver reporting and analytics.
- Information technology software is used by the IT organization to manage and maintain the network infrastructure, computers and mobile devices and help desk operations; provide communications within the schools and out to the wider world; and perform content filtering and other security responsibilities.
- Academic software and digital content, used in the classroom by teachers and students, provides for productivity work such as word processing, offers learning management, and covers the wide spectrum of programs available for learning.
In each one of these categories and sub-categories multiple software offerings are available—so much so that often choosing the most appropriate program is itself a major undertaking. However, the category of academic software and digital content is by far the largest, most varied and most important category for two reasons: This software is intended to help with learning in the classroom and there are literally thousands of choices of software and digital content available.
Finally, two additional factors need to be considered throughout the selection and use of software in a school district: students’ safety and the privacy of student data. While polices related to these topics are covered in more detail in the Broadband section, it is important to be sure that software and content used by the students and staff of the district have appropriate safeguards for how students’ data is protected, and it is clear what data is collected from students by the software/content provider and who has access to the data and why they have access. Checking those policies and ensuring they are in line with the districts’ policies should be a key initial step in considering whether or not to select academic and non-academic software.
Selecting non-academic software
The process for selecting software for business and school operations, data management and information technology may be somewhat different from that for academic software. Academic software may be more localized and specific while the other three usually are applied districtwide and more complex. Sometimes in school settings, a particular software program may be mandated by an external authority. As an example, a state board of education might request that data be submitted for federal and state reporting requirements in a format that’s proprietary to a specific vendor’s program. Or a district may belong to a regional education cooperative that encourages its school clients to choose among just a couple of software programs for a given function. In those cases where choices are limited, software selection can be an easier process.
More often than not, a school system is left on its own to navigate the process of selecting software. It is important to gather as much information from as many sources as possible prior to taking software through a formal selection process. This includes reading trade publications, going to conferences, looking closely at web sites and talking with peers. Effectiveness data is difficult to come by, but probably is the most valuable information if it is available. The evaluation and selection process may take one of several models, depending on a number of factors: the software functionality sought; expected cost; district culture; and the impact of the program on overall school operations.
- A department may perform the evaluation internally.
- A specific department may perform the evaluation with the assistance of the IT organization.
- A cross-department selection committee or “task force” may be given the job of evaluating the options and recommending a short list or a finalist program.
- Personnel from several districts may work together in the selection process to gain vendor attention and leverage buying power.
The selection process for any of these models will follow a similar pattern:
- Gather and define needs and requirements for the software solution based on input from department users or the selection committee. This forms the basis of the evaluation rubric, a form listing each criteria and a way to score how well the software meets that requirement or need.
- Compile a document to communicate those aspects to the school community and external parties. The document should include a list of specific criteria by which the software will be evaluated as well as the evaluation rubric.
- Issue an RFI or RFP. For larger purchases (amounts may vary depending upon district size and purchasing laws and practices), the contents of that document may eventually be turned into a request for information or request for proposal, which is posted through normal purchasing channels.
- Advertise for possible candidates. In addition to advertising through the normal school district purchasing processes, this step may also include going to peer districts and schools for recommendations or using online resources such as education organizations, software portals or K-12 publications that compile lists and descriptions of potentially useful software.
- Develop a “finalist” list of software candidates from submitting providers. The department or selection committee should do an initial run-through of all possible candidates against the evaluation rubric to shorten the list to a manageable group of likely choices. This initial evaluation can be handled by running a demonstration version of the software; reviewing program documentation and product materials; and checking in with peer districts and schools and reference contacts provided by the vendor.
- Make the final selection. The handful of candidates that are left to choose from should be re-evaluated against the evaluation rubric based on working with a demonstration version of the software and discussions with the software vendor. For major purchases, the district or school may request that the vendor come on site to deliver a presentation and address questions. The score from the evaluation rubric will determine the final selection.
- Provide training. The people who install and maintain the software – system administrators, program administrators and line staff users – will need training and support to ensure that the transition to the new software is as easy as possible and that the software is used effectively over time. This training may be available from the software developers as a part of the purchase price or as a separate fee. Training on new software is not the place to save pennies.
Software evaluation rubrics
Many examples of school district software evaluation rubrics can be found online. The rubric is intended to be used by each person involved in the selection process. Many rubrics will include a list of the selection criteria in the left column followed by a scoring metric:
More complete rubrics will include the criteria under each column to help the evaluator assess how closely the objective is met:
Although each type of software (financial vs. web filtering vs. learning management system) will have needs and requirements specific to the category, most software evaluation rubrics include some basic elements:
- Platform requirements: Will the software run on the hardware and operating systems we have? Will it work on the browser we use?
- Software model: Is the software available in the delivery model we prefer—on-premises vs. software-as-a-service vs. cloud-based?
- Installation: How easy is the software to deploy?
- User help: How comprehensive is the documentation or other help guidance?
- User interface: Is the interface aesthetically pleasing? Are the graphics useful?
- Ease of use: How easy is it for the user to find what’s needed in the software and interact with the functions of the program?
- Content: Is the information shown on the screen accurate, relevant, current, complete and grammatical?
- Performance: Is the software responsive to user input?
- Reporting: Does the software provide reports in the format or data output required? Is it possible to customize the reporting? Is it possible for the user to create new reports as needs evolve?
- Technical support: Is the support available in the forms and times required (online text, online forum, live real-time, live delayed response)?
- Cost: What is the cost for implementation? What is the cost for annual licenses? What are the maintenance or renewal costs? What are the upgrade costs for new versions? Is training available as a part of the purchase price or is it an additional fee? Are there cooperative purchase agreements or statewide purchases available to lower costs through volume?
- Company: Does the company have a track record in education? Does it make reference schools or district contacts available for pre-purchase consultation? What is the company’s roadmap for future development of the software?
Focusing on Quality
Washington State Legislation for OER
In 2012, the Washington state legislature passed a bill directing the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to create a collection of openly licensed courseware aligned with the Common Core State Standards and conduct an awareness campaign to inform school districts about these resources. OSPI set about on a rigorous evaluation process of secondary OER materials for mathematics and English Language Arts. The review process and the final reviews for both 2013 and 2014 are available on the Open Educational Resources page of their site.
Digital content comes in many levels of quality. As classrooms move to the use of digital content, it’s useful to set standards by which to choose purchased digital content and to help teachers, principals and curriculum staff find and select appropriate content, including open educational resources.
As your school or district is evaluating new forms of digital content, there are a number of areas to consider:
- How well the content adheres to standards. Publishers of paid content are working hard to revise their curriculum to address new state standards. Ask your potential content provider the process by which it has ensured that alignment has been accomplished and validated. Make sure that users can search by standard. Have teachers do a “spot audit” on standards to evaluate how well they believe the curriculum addresses a given standard.
- How “findable” the content is. Multiple digital content programs and services have emerged to help teachers and schools identify relevant content. The best provide filtering by grade or subject or learning standard or a combination of filters, enabling educators to whittle down a list of thousands of resources to one with hundreds of resources. Many such services also include ranking mechanisms that allow educators to give ratings of the resources (such as five stars for the best and one star for the worst), thereby helping to highlight the ones other educators deem worth using or allowing the “cream of the crop” to rise to the top of the search rankings. A word of caution: digital content that is effective with one set of students may not be as effective with others.
- How interactive the content is. One of the values of digital content is the ability for learners to interact with the text and information. Flat PDF versions of the content are simply a digital version of content that has been used in classrooms for decades and do not take advantage of a digital environment. Tools such as digital highlighters and tools to build word banks are among the more simple but engaging aspects of interactive content. Virtual lab models and simulations and games are more structured and complex interactive approaches that digital interactivity can bring. But for many students, having the ability to create content of all kinds using tools they are familiar with outside of school as well as tools that school may introduce can not only captive students, but also deepen their learning.
- How searchable the content is. Digital content offers a potential advantage not provided by printed curriculum materials: the ability for the user to search it. When evaluating new digital content for its usefulness, assess how easily it can be navigated and how robust the search functionality is. If multiple resources are under consideration for the same purpose, consider holding a “search-off”; give potential users a short list of terms or concepts and see how easy it is for them to find relevant information in each product or service and have them rate the quality of the results they identify. Along the same lines, examine how extensively the digital content is “tagged” and whether the user, such as a teacher, can add additional tags.
- How often content is updated. In the case of paid content, publishers of printed textbooks frequently follow a refresh cycle of between three and five years for the content of their books. Digital content should be updated on a more frequent basis since it involves revising a single “master” copy and distributing that, or it is available online and can be easily updated there. Find out from your potential content provider how often the company offers updates and enhancements to its digital content and how it distributes those updates to users. Also, if the digital content contains errors, find out from the publisher what the process is for having those errors identified and corrected. If the content is licensed as open educational resources, the instructional staff or teachers may be able to modify the content as they wish and redistribute an updated version or communicate with the person or organization that developed it for potential revision by the source.
- How “reliable” the hosting service is. Many education start-ups have high hopes of reaching success, only to flounder when their funding runs out or their founders lose steam. Before recommending to educators any given source for digital content, consider how likely that content will be available in the future.
- How much training and support is required. Among the many software products out there, many require some level of training and support to ensure teachers and students can use if effectively and efficiently. Many districts assume that if they buy software, teachers will be able to figure it out for themselves, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Consider the skill level of the teachers in the district who would be using the the content or software and determine the best way to provide them the necessary training.
In Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 Textbook in a Digital Age, Appendix A lists key questions to address in adopting digital instructional materials. The questions fall into five key areas to consider: cost and cost-effectiveness, technology implementation, teacher preparedness, quality and alignment to standards and intellectual property.
The Overall Context for Making the Digital Transition
There are several interrelated factors cited in Out of Print that are crucial in moving from a textbook-based world to one that is digital. While the factors and their individual importance may vary depending upon where states and districts currently are on the path to digital instructional materials, the following are integral to success. Each of these are explored in more detail in Out of Print and in related sections of this Guide to Implementing Digital Learning:
- Sustainable funding for devices. While digital content can be implemented successfully with a less advantageous ratio than 1-to-1, in order to take full advantage of what digital content can bring, each student needs to have a device fully accessible, in school and our of school.
- Robust internet connectivity. The use of digital content calls for ample amounts of broadband and wi-fi that can support video activities taking place in the classrooms, general school operations, while at the same time some of the students are taking online tests.
- Up-to-date policies. In every state that has made a big push for the use of digital content in schools, legislators have had to update how their states legally define “textbook,” “instructional materials,” and similar terminology in order to encompass the use of other kinds of educational materials.
- Quality control and alignment to standards. There are multiple professed reasons for quality control, the most common of which are to ensure the materials are accurate, that they align to standards, that they are bias-free and that they adhere to local and state laws and policies.
- State and local leadership buy-in. The most critical part of a successful digital learning conversion is strong support from top district leaders who can communicate the vision to multiple stakeholders and ensure the appropriate resources are in place to carry it out.
Another factor is the “grain size” of content – whether educators use a comprehensive curriculum or many pieces of content from many different places. Some have compared this to the full album CD versus the iTunes approach where people can select and purchase single cuts from a CD rather than the entire CD. While different in scope for content for a subject area, the analogy rings true to many people. For years, districts have acquired textbooks that cover the entire curriculum of a course or subject area for a year. As districts transition from print to digital, the full curriculum approach is still available in a digital format, but also the options for content that they have available to use grow exponentially due to the ease of access to digital content, and the flexibility of the distribution of digital content. With the traditional textbook, educators not only received a full year’s content, but also the sequencing of that content based upon the opinion of experts in the field and suggestions for how that content could be taught to students and assessed. The ‘selecting from many’ approach provides great flexibility and possibly more personalized content for students, but requires in some cases that educators create a scope and sequence and other learning materials around that content. Districts need to weigh the pros and cons of those approaches and ensure that professional learning is matched appropriately.
A focus on teachers
Much of the attention right now in schools and districts is on making the transition from printed materials such as textbooks to digital classroom content. As schools succeed in acquiring a sufficient supply of student computing devices and ample broadband and wireless networking infrastructure, the next step is to prepare educators.
Most programs that have made the successful move to the use of digital content have given their teachers a school year’s worth of preparation or a summer full of information and activities prior to transition to digital. That seems to be an optimal amount of time to get educators comfortable using the computing devices themselves, learn how to integrate digital content into their lessons, and work with cohorts to begin restructuring lesson plans and teaching materials.
Programs may launch implementation of the technology by grade level or subject area to focus on small successes and create best practices within the school or district. An obvious place to start might be with math and English language arts, subjects where many schools are in the process of adopting new curriculum to help teach to Common Core and other state learning standards.
Within the individual classroom teachers need to feel comfortable and encouraged to try out even a single lesson using digital content rather than traditional printed curriculum and then to share the results with their colleagues. Sometimes these efforts will not have the outcomes expected; sometimes they will fail; other times they will spark additional experimentation and re-energized teachers.
The newest generation of teachers can help drive the adoption of digital content in the classroom. Some colleges of education are putting much greater emphasis in their programs on helping preservice teachers understand how to integrate subject content and teaching practices with the use of technology. While these teachers who are in their first teaching jobs are gaining valuable insights from more experienced teachers on how to manage a classroom and interact with parents, for example, they can help invigorate learning with their experiences in using digital resources.
Educators also can learn about making the transition to digital content while furthering their own education by streaming professional development lessons and collaborating online via voice, text, and video with peers in formal and informal learning settings.
The Difference Between Copyright & Licensing
Even though most digital content can be easily copied and shared, users still need to be concerned with copyright and licensing. The approach to resolving copyright and licensing of digital content depends on whether the content comes from a for-profit entity, such as a publishing company; a public entity, such as a state board of education; an individual educator working for the “common good”; or some other source. Considerations about copyright (or ownership) and licensing (or sharing) need to be top of mind from the beginning of the acquisition process.
The areas to consider in evaluating digital content from the perspective of copyright and licensing are these:
- IP rights. Are the intellectual property (IP) rights of individual digital content objects clearly indicated on the resources? Can users search digital content resources by IP license?
- Restrictions on customization. Are there any restrictions on how the content can be combined with the content of other providers, including at the section, lesson or unit levels? Is the use of a custom platform or website required to access the content or can access be provided via a school’s platform of choice?
- Restrictions on usage. Are there restrictions on the redistribution and access to the content, for instance, by students, parents, or siblings at home—or by students and teachers in other schools or districts?
- Duration of licensing. Once the content is acquired, does the school or district retain the rights to use it in perpetuity or only upon payment of ongoing fees?
Considering how everything works together
A major aspect of selecting new software and digital content in the district should focus on data interoperability. Information for and about students exists in multiple applications and systems. Data from any one of the available data sets can be made much richer and more revealing when educators are able to mix it with data from other sources. Without data interoperability, goals such as developing personalized instruction for every student will always be out of reach, because the information needed by teachers is too hard to access or too difficult to work with.
Broadly speaking, data interoperability requires consistent data definitions, enables the sharing of information across systems, and facilitates the search and discovery of education resources. A number of interoperability initiatives are helping to ensure that school software can share data and make relevant digital content resources “findable.”
Decisions regarding data interoperability must also encompass security and privacy, which goes hand in hand with student data.
To ensure the right level of data interoperability in the software and digital content your school or district uses, have your education leaders and data experts evaluate it from the following perspectives:
- Does the vendor follow appropriate standards-based data definitions such as those developed by Common Education Data Standards, IMS Global Learning Consortium, Learning Resource Metadata Initiative, P20 Electronic Standards Council or Schools Interoperability Framework Association? (These do not compete with each other; the standards they have created are intended for distinct purposes.)
- Does the software allow for sharing of information across applications by adhering to standards developed in these types of initiatives: Digital Passport, Ed-Fi Alliance, Experience API, MyData, or OpenBadges? (Again, these do not compete; they address specific types of data sharing.)
- Does the software enable the search, alignment and discovery of digital content through the use of initiatives such as Learning Registry or Learning Resource Metadata Initiative?
Student security and privacy
- Does the school or district communicate with the families in its school community what data it collects, who has access to it, and how it uses the data?
- Does the school or district educate teachers and staff, students and parents about appropriate data handling and usage to minimize abuses, misuses and the risk of data theft?
Ensuring digital content will work on the appropriate devices
Any discussion of the use of digital content should encompass consideration of the technical requirements that exist “behind the scenes” to support that selection. Those areas include content format, broadband, availability and accessibility, among other aspects.
- Content format. The evaluation process for digital content should include making note of the formats the content is available in and the operating systems and internet browsers it is compatible with. It is important to monitor the minimum and recommended device specifications to make the best use of the digital content provided by the content publisher. If the content is not “device agnostic,” what are the tradeoffs you might be forced to make? (For example, if your school has a BYOD program, will all students be able to access and have the same experience with that content as somebody using a school-supplied device?)
- Test the various configurations. The best way to confirm that digital content will work on any given computing device or operating system is to try as many combinations as possible. Put together a “test kit” that combines each type of computing device, its system software and a sample of the content and allow users to interact with the content to uncover the unexpected “gotchas.”
- Content access. Decide what type of content access is preferred and then determine how the licensing and copyright considerations address those preferences. Can the digital content be saved to computing devices, made available online, or both? Is internet access required to see and interact with the content? Can the content follow the user and adapt to the device being used at the moment? For example, will the content adapt to a standard laptop computer screen as well as the small screens of smartphones or “phablets”?
- Broadband. Some digital content relies on the use of streaming video or high definition visuals. Are the plans for acquisition of digital content in sync with plans to expand the broadband access coming to the building as well throughout the building? For more on this refer to the “Broadband & Wi-Fi section.”
- Accessibility. How are the needs of students with disabilities and English language learners addressed by the technology and the content? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the content for these students? At the most basic level, is the content accessible? Additionally, does it provide the supports and scaffolds to support independent learning by a diverse student population?
- Use of the digital format. A major advantage of using digital content is that it does not need to follow the static format of printed curriculum. Interactive textbooks and online activities have the potential to provide for better student engagement. However, that cannot be assumed. Digital materials vary widely in quality and currency. When comparing choices, consider how well the digital content you are considering reflects “state of the art” in content creation and delivery.
One final overall consideration regarding technical requirements is the proliferation of user names and passwords as districts acquire and use various software packages and access content from various sources. The result of this proliferation is either students and educators having different user names and passwords for each piece of software or resource, with the list of those possibly in a less than secure place, or using the same user name and password for everything, also not the most safe and secure method. Another option is single sign-on, a way of access control of many disparate, independent software systems. With this capability, users log in once and then are able to gain access to all the systems they have security clearance for without having to log in to each. There is a myriad of entities that offer this capability.
Examining the Budget Implications of Digital Content
As schools and districts are all too well aware, the cost of printed curriculum will never be less expensive than it is now; and it’s likely to rise in price as the expenses related to creation and production go up. Therefore, cost is a major consideration in making the move to digital content.
When examining budgetary aspects of digital content, there are several areas to consider.
- Device availability and cost. The use of digital content does not require the classroom to have a 1-to-1 program in place. Creative teachers have learned how to make judicious use of just a handful of classroom computing devices. However, some curriculum requires every student to have a computer in hand. When comparing options, consider what the recommended student/teacher-to-device ratio is to make best use of the digital content, and consider the initial cost of the devices as well as their maintenance as a part of the budget discussion.
- Print vs. digital. If the school has sufficient student computing devices available to make the use of digital content practical on a daily basis, the evaluation should compare the cost of the digital content to the cost of the print materials it would replace.
- Moving to OER. Are high-quality open educational resources (OER) available for the subject area for free? What costs would you incur by making use of OER, such as modifying the curriculum to fit your district’s learning standards or providing sufficient time to teachers to identify the OER to be used in the classroom?
- Sustainability. Are any and all costs sustainable over time? For example, if a grant enabled the school to implement a given learning curriculum but it comes with licensing that needs to be renewed each year, when the grant is gone, will the school or district be able to continue supporting that curriculum?
Constantly checking for success
The best teachers do not approach instruction and student learning from one dimension. They understand that the contents of curriculum, whether it comes in the form of a printed book or digital content will need to be supplemented. Each student has a few optimal ways to learn, and the great benefit of digital content is that it can be made available in all of the various formats that might be useful and necessary. Likewise, do not assume that a single source of digital content will meet all needs in a classroom.
Teachers need time to meet with each other and share the digital “jewels” they have found in their explorations and explain how they have integrated those resources into their lessons. This form of “peer encouragement” is the most effective way to spark new practices and address old fears and concerns that educators have in making changes to their instructional practices.
Therefore, as your school or district expands its use of digital content, do not lose sight of the change management aspects of that transition. Be prepared for varying levels of enthusiasm among teachers regarding the use of non-printed materials in the classroom. Celebrate and publicize successes as they surface. And continually re-evaluate the approach and resources used for locating and identifying digital content to make that part of the process as satisfying and efficient as possible. Finally, be sure to track and evaluate how different content is used with students over time. Ultimately the effectiveness of the content should be reflected in student learning.