State Ed-Tech Leader Sees New Demands for Modular, Organized Content

Managing Editor

State and district officials are constantly inundated with offerings for instructional materials in both print and digital form. And the materials pitched by commercial publishers and other providers are naturally made to sound superior to the competition.

How can school buyers separate high-quality resources from the rest? In an effort to help state and local policymakers make good buying decisions, and set clear expectations for what they want, the State Educational Technology Directors Association recently released an online guide, “From Print to Digital: Guide to Quality Instructional Materials.”  The association breaks out five key steps for policymakers to follow in choosing materials, and offers a host of resources, and questions to consider, in each category. The five steps are: planning; budgeting and funding; selection; implementation; and effectiveness.

I spoke this week with SETDA Executive Director Tracy Weeks about what ed-tech companies should take away from the guidelines. Weeks also talked more broadly about changes she sees in state and local demands for print and digital materials, and the impact those changes are having on the K-12 market.

Weeks has a practical understanding of state and local appetites for digital content. From 2008-2014, she led the North Carolina Virtual Public School, as chief academic officer and executive director. She later served as chief academic and digital learning officer for the North Carolina Office of Public Instruction.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Among Weeks’ takeaways:

There’s increasing demand for bite-sized, modularity in academic resources.

“There are fewer cases in which folks are looking for entire courses or classes of materials…They’re looking for something more broken down than that—by the unit, the lesson. They might be looking at [core materials] they’ve had for many years and they’re trying to supplement that. Sometimes that happens by purchasing collections of materials, or by using open ed materials, where the school or district or state is developing those materials, or finding them….all of those things are happening.”

But demands for smaller chunks of content also pose a challenge for states and districts, Weeks explained, because as they allow materials to be collected from a variety of commercial and openly licensed sources, state and local officials are often left scrambling to judge their quality. That’s part of the reason SETDA created the online guide—to help policymakers set clear standards, rather than acting in an ad-hoc way, she said.

“Do you have to look at every website [educators] are going to?… We’re not telling you what those standards should be, but you need to figure out as an entity, what do you consider to be quality? Because there are a lot of great things out there, and there are things that are just PDF versions of the print things we’ve had all along. How do you make sure you’re holding everything to a standard?”

Vendors are likely to face different, and more exacting standards than in the past for demonstrating that their materials are top-notch.

“The thing they want to consider is how would they characterize the quality of their materials. [From my previous work at the state agency in North Carolina, education companies often defined high-quality materials as] ‘Here’s how many math items we have. And they’re aligned to your state standards.’ But we often didn’t get into the conversation of, ‘How are these better than what we’ve had? How will we help students learn differently?’ ”

States and districts are increasingly turning to learning management systems to help them manage libraries of academic content.

“More and more states and districts are looking at how they want to use learning management systems in a traditional classroom. It’s something that really got more usage in our online and blended learning programs, but I think now as states are looking at the  adoption of digital materials, [states and districts] need a place to organize them, make sense of them.”

Expect policymakers to continue to demand interoperability of platforms and content, whenever possible.

“That’s something I’ve seen states struggle with. When a provider often develops instructional materials, they develop them to work in their own proprietary ecosystem, their environment they work in. But in this era of wanting to mix-and-match, [states and districts] are not going to want to jump into five, 10 different proprietary systems. They’re going to want it all to work within an LMS, if they’ve got one…but having content, or at least chunks of content not work in its own little proprietary system, is important. Teachers don’t want to have kids have to leave one system for another.”

State and district ed-tech policy is typically set by several players. Ed-tech providers should try to help them get on the same page.

In some states and districts, there is extensive cooperation between administrators like digital learning officers, chief academic officers or other instructional leaders, and experts on data interoperability, Weeks said.

“It’s really important when providers are meeting with state or district officials [to try to] bring together those different groups from within the state or district agency. Otherwise you’re going to end up with a lot of round-robin, because the tech folks are waiting for the academic folks to tell them what they need. If you can get all of those folks in the room together, and help them understand what that product can do to change teaching and learning, [it can] be a force multiplier.”

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