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4 things schools need from digital-learning providers

Welcome to Insights, a new SmartBrief Education Originals column, featuring perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

In this column, Jean Sharp, chief academic officer at Apex Learning, outlines four important ways digital-learning providers can -- and should -- support schools.

Disruptive change. For me, that accurately describes the impact COVID-19 has had on teaching and learning this spring. I’m reminded of a book titled Disrupting Class, written about a decade ago, in which Clayton Christensen asserted that in order to “reinvigorate our commitment to learning, we need disruptive change to push us toward innovation.”

Clearly, Christensen could not have envisioned this rapid transition to remote learning for all students. However, these circumstances have prompted deep conversations about teaching and learning across the education community that inevitably will lead to change. Even now, as we turn our attention to the restart of school, one thing is certain. This year will be different.

That raises a question for me. When we think about digital curriculum in this new era of distance learning, what really matters? For me, it begins with a core belief that publishers serving the education market with a digital learning curriculum have a responsibility to come alongside schools as a trusted partner in helping all students succeed to their full potential.

And to truly be valued as a partner in the education process, it is our obligation to understand the needs of schools, recognize the challenges they are facing and the results they need to achieve, and support what they are trying to get done. So, what do schools tell us they need from digital learning providers? These four things top their list.

Flexible Partners Who Can Respond to Changing Needs

As we approach the restart of school, uncertainty lingers. As districts place priority on the health and safety of their students and staff, plans for the fall include multiple scenarios -- online learning, a hybrid model with at-school and remote learning days, and at-school learning, but with contingency plans for rolling school closures. It seems obvious that online learning will play a larger role in delivering continuity of learning to students, no matter where learning takes place this fall.

Digital learning providers must anticipate and respond to the changing needs of schools and support their continuity of learning plans in order for schools to quickly, reliably, and seamlessly adjust the delivery of instruction whenever school buildings need to be closed. Digital curriculum must be available to meet the academic needs of all students, whenever and wherever they are learning.  And, it must afford the flexibility teachers require to personalize learning pathways to meet the individual learning needs of students.

High-Quality Intentionally-Designed Content

As schools rely more heavily on digital curriculum to deliver instructional content for all their students, they look toward a digital curriculum provider who shares their commitment to delivering high quality content that supports student learning. Digital learning providers have a responsibility to ensure that content is intentionally designed in ways that mirror good instruction and pedagogy. To do anything less is simply not acceptable.

High quality curriculum and instruction begins with an understanding of what to teach. Content and assessment standards for a grade level or course are the basis for developing a scope and sequence of instruction designed to guide student learning. Proven instructional strategies are employed to deliver instruction that is accessible to students.

Designing instruction that intentionally presents frequent checks for understanding, provides instructional supports and scaffolds that activate prior knowledge and help students make sense of text, and incorporates active learning strategies to ensure students are engaged with content, is key. This attention to detail results in better outcomes that prepare students for success -- the credit earned, the EOC or high stakes exam, or the next course in the high school sequence.  Learning matters. And high quality curriculum is the foundation in a virtual learning environment.

Hands-On Support With Implementation Plans

The rapid transition to online learning brought a critical issue to light. Many teachers were simply not prepared to teach in a virtual learning environment. Perhaps that’s understandable. School, for as long as we have known it, has been a face-to-face learning model with teachers overseeing the learning environment in the classroom.

While teachers worked hard to provide learning packets, classroom assignments, and even teacher-led lessons online, in reality, more of their time was spent troubleshooting technology and communicating with parents than actually teaching. This summer, districts have made it a priority to support teacher readiness for online learning, beginning day one.

There’s good news. Digital learning providers have been supporting teachers with successful transitions to online learning for years. And effective partners have worked side-by-side with schools in building implementation plans that meet their program goals.

As teachers develop effective strategies for maintaining student engagement, providing feedback to guide student learning, and monitoring student behavior and choices through data and reporting, the teacher’s role as a learning coach drives student outcomes. And, with parents more engaged in overseeing learning in the home, the transparency of student progress will be important as parents are kept informed. 

Help Nurturing New Ways of Thinking

It sounds cliché, but it is true. Schools have been navigating in uncharted waters. The end of the school year has served as a milestone along this journey. As we pause to put our experiences into perspective and determine the learning that comes from these experiences, we can make better preparations for the restart of school this fall.

Education leaders are inviting input from partners who have the experience to inform their thinking, who can share effective strategies and promising practices, and whose expertise challenges them to find solutions to make this work.

Digital curriculum providers who have been serving the needs of education for years, can anticipate the challenges and bring their expertise to bear to help schools solve real problems as they transition to online learning.

We know, for example, that teaching in a virtual learning environment necessitates a change in mindset to accommodate a more student-centered learning environment. And that data not only informs instructional decisions but is a powerful tool in guiding student learning. Sharing what works helps schools scale digital learning for success.

In the midst of this challenge lies opportunity. Disruptive change will not hold us back, but rather propel us forward. Together, across the education community, we will renew our commitment to learning and to the success of our students.  Now, more than ever, we recognize that our success depends on that relationship. That’s what matters.

Jean Sharp has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries. Her expertise includes product development, curriculum strategy, instructional design and development, project management, and effective implementations for digital learning solutions. Among her credits are numerous educational software products published for both school and consumer markets. Jean currently serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Apex Learning.

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