Defining a Digital Curriculum

digital curriculum
(Image credit: Unsplash: Dai Ke)

We have heard and used the phrase "digital curriculum" almost daily in education since March 2020. Sometimes because of need, and sometimes just because it makes the work sound future-ready. However, as a district leader, I always want to ensure that when our educators provide a digital curriculum or move to more online resources, it fits the students' needs and is rooted in best practice. Digital curriculum is a lot of things, but what it has yet to deliver is a universal understanding. 

I believe a digital curriculum is a customizable accumulation of resources aligned to learning criteria and expectations. Digital resources present themselves in a variety of formats, such as:

  • Text
  • Video
  • Images
  • Audio
  • Interactive media

A key to the digital curriculum is that the resources are also available to students outside the classroom. Teachers use digital resources to individualize and personalize student learning experiences. I have observed excellent teachers creating digital documents, ebooks, interactive lessons, and video tutorials to extend learning and add relevance to lessons. A textbook can only get you so far and is a static resource, outdated before it even gets into student's hands. Digital active curriculum assists students to dive much deeper into understanding and in transferring learning.

Learning Evolution Boost 

Classrooms have evolved steadily over the last 15 years as I developed as a school and district leader. However, in the past 24 months, the rate of that evolution has accelerated, and because of this, digital curricula and digital tools have gained prominence. However, these are not staples in every classroom yet, but with educators seeing the benefits that last two years, the digital curriculum is starting to have more foothold in learning communities.

A digital curriculum can replace traditional curriculum, such as textbooks and, in some cases, the conventional classroom environment. Some examples of a digital curriculum include:

  • Online courses 
  • Electronic textbooks 
  • Digital and online programs 

I have observed online courses ranging from a single class to a full K-12 course load to a student's vocational program. 

A classroom design for a digital curriculum allows for a blended learning environment in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom or an entirely online learning environment. In environments where the digital curriculum is expanding, teachers deliver assignments and curriculum materials via an online learning management system (LMS). Electronic textbooks have enabled teachers to replace the heavy books used previously. Today's electronic textbooks are web-based and can quickly open on a tablet, smartphone, laptop, or computer.

Digital and online curriculum programs are widely used in schools today. Some examples include Newsela, Khan Academy, and ST Math. These programs are designed to teach or reinforce curriculum standards using gamification and other engaging characteristics. A digital curriculum may reinforce math or reading standards using video lessons and practice activities, for example. In addition, personalized learning programs with built-in assessments, such as adaptive computer assessments, make it possible for teachers to individualize instruction to meet the unique needs of each student.

One of the significant advantages of a digital curriculum is the simplicity of sharing resources. It is far easier for teachers to give feedback on their assignments, co-author and co-teach assignments, and even pool their resources into one accessible place. This is a transformation of the way teaching works typically with paper, and one that should lead to more collaboration among teachers at your school.

Adopting a Digital Curriculum 

I urge education leaders to begin to move to using more digital curricula; however, because digital texts require teachers to alter what they normally do in their classes, it is recommended to have a step-by-step rollout instead of throwing away every textbook and forcing teachers to rely exclusively on the digital format. 

It's not obvious to every teacher why going digital is the right move for the classroom. Teachers will be much more successful in making the switch if they can experiment using shorter texts before diving into a full-length novel or civics textbook.

Digital content that engages students must be considered a priority since a significant amount of available content is shallow and dependent on entertaining students, not engaging them. Effective digital transitions are thoughtfully planned, executed, and measured. Teachers will embrace a change when they believe it adds value.

Students also need some time to adapt to reading or solving complex problems on a screen. A Facebook or Instagram feed is a lot different than the focused reading of a textbook, as many students have discovered during this year's sudden plunge into remote learning. For some, making that attitudinal switch is much easier if they can gradually work up to it by starting with a few articles and then moving up to longer texts.

As you begin or continue the transformation to digital curriculum, always remember, “Good instruction trumps everything.” I have seen many great digital transitions get hindered when they only focus on devices. If you begin with the idea that good instruction drives meaningful change, then digital content will enhance learning. 

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph (@ MatthewXJoseph) is Director of Evaluation and Supervision in Brockton, MA.