A District-wide Endeavor

An instructional technology coordinator on moving to a digital curriculum ecosystem.

GUEST COLUMN | by Martha Barwick 

CREDIT itslearning HarfordLike many school districts around the nation, we are being asked to do more with less these days. Though school budgets are tighter than ever and human resources are sometimes spread thin, 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 in this evolving environment 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.

We couldn’t simply take our existing, static curriculum—which was housed in a binder at the time—and load it into our LMS and think everything would be fine.

Since 2010 our district — Harford County Public Schools (HCPS) in Maryland — has been transforming its curriculum and instructional practices. Among its new practices are the adoptions of the Common Core standards (which then became the Maryland College and Career-Ready Standards), a multi-phase “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT) initiative, and moving to a more digitalized curriculum. However, we couldn’t simply take our existing, static curriculum—which was housed in a binder at the time—and load it into our LMS and think everything would be fine. And because we use a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) approach for grades 6-12, we also needed a more efficient way to manage learning content across multiple devices.

So what follows are a few of the lessons we learned during our transition:

  • 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.
  • 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 and your cohorts 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. The LMS platform offers a built-in planner that allows 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 platform’s 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 millions more OER resources directly into the LMS library.

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 talking 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.

As our transition has evolved, we now find ourselves with a curriculum management system that allows teachers to access curriculum and learning units via a built-in learning sequence. And because students can also access the content, we’re no longer using multiple platforms.

This same LMS platform saves our instructors time and allows them to focus on more important tasks—like teaching their classes instead of searching for and/or creating digital content to support curriculum. We’ve created strong links between curriculum, assessment, and standards and connected learning to our pupils’ personal goals, aspirations, and interests.

Pictured: The author (back row, left) and Harford County curriculum writers.

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


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