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Moving to a Best Practice Digital Instruction Model by Martha Barwick

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Martha Barwick is Coordinator of Instructional Technology at Harford County Public Schools.

School districts around the nation are being asked to do more with less these days. Though school budgets are tighter than ever and human resources are sparse, we’re required to continually improve student performance, follow dozens of different standards, and support a more personalized, customized learning experience across all grade levels.

Achieving that balance is even more difficult when we have to deal with myriad disparate teaching systems like intranets, an LMS, and document-sharing tools, all of which require multiple different logins. That situation leads to a lack of consistent vision, high teacher turnover, and letter grades that don’t provide students with enough feedback or motivation to improve.

Fortunately, it’s now possible to integrate learning resources into a single seamless online learning environment. Of course, this also means moving to a more digitalized curriculum. However, we can’t just take an existing, static curriculum, load it onto a platform and think everything will be fine. Teachers will have to change their approach so that they still encourage discussion rather than leaving students to stare at a computer screen.

So, combining best practices with the transition to a digitalized curriculum is the optimal approach for more efficient instruction.

How to Combine Focused Best Instructional Practices with Digital Transformation

  • Work with your professional learning community (PLC) to define a consistent approach to digital or blended learning and find research and/or professional development on best practices in your specific content area.
  • In order to ensure a consistent approach, create a basic course template based on the best practices you and your PLC are targeting. While it should serve as a model, the template should also allow some autonomy for you to use what’s most applicable to your students while meeting relevant standards.
  • The course templates should include a standards-aligned planner organized into units and lessons as well as a variety of linked materials, including digital resources and student-centric activities.
  • If possible, form curriculum-writing teams to create the templates. Use the best practice training to evaluate which of your existing resources are suitable for a digital curriculum and to transition those resources from a paper/pencil activity when appropriate.

Efforts like these are best as a district-wide endeavor; that way, you can obtain a high level of support and technological integration. Granted, teachers can find several platforms that let them deliver courses and have students engage in collaboration and discussions. But streamlining work processes and allowing educators to share resources with their colleagues all in one place, with a single sign-on is a big part of the picture.

Our district selected a digital platform called itslearning for its efficiency. itslearning’s built-in planner allowed us to easily convert curriculum maps and unlike some other curriculum mapping tools, the planner allows teachers to then extend this instruction to their students – becoming a great tool for both large and small group instruction. Best of all, plans can then be shared across a school or district so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel from one teacher to the next or from year to year.

Additionally, the itslearning Library allows districts to create or curate content, discover and use open education resources (OER) or even load IMS Common Cartridges from publishers all in one unified user experience. And the company’s recent partnership with Gooru will bring over 5 million more OER resources directly into the itslearning Library.

This system saves our instructors time and allows them to focus on more important tasks—like teaching their classes instead of searching for and/or creating standards-aligned curriculum. We’ve created a strong link among curriculum, assessment, and standards and connected learning to our pupils’ personal goals, aspirations, and interests. So, the system also optimizes and supports learning outcomes for our nearly 38,000 students.

If you’re thinking about advocating for a district-wide platform, some key technological features are listed below. If you’re thinking of figuring out a way to combine different tools to approximate the effects I’ve talked about, that’s a much harder task, but this list will help you weigh your options:

  • A customizable planner to help you align the curriculum to student learning objectives and/or district, state or national standards.
  • A comprehensive standards-based repository of learning objects (you can develop or purchase this).
  • An ability to embed external content such as YouTube videos and vendor content as well as to integrate web-based tools such as Prezi and Office 365.
  • An ability to create reports and analyze data; the platform should also enable you to use subjective feedback models such as student blogs, discussion boards, surveys, and polls.
  • An auto update for content so that when you tweak the curriculum during the school year, the system reflects those changes immediately, with a minimum of effort.

These features translate into more efficient teaching overall. Teachers are more efficient when they can stay on a single platform, get content pushed out to them by the curriculum department, use a single login, and manage learning right in that platform. If you could put a price on time, we’d all become wealthy by using this type of system.