Tips for selecting digital materials for your classroom
By Susan Brooks-Young
More and more schools in the United States are adopting digital instructional materials for classroom use. There are many reasons for this increase, ranging from greater availability of the materials and more access to the devices required to use them, to increased parent and student expectations that digital content will be used in classrooms. But demands for use and increased access don’t guarantee that the materials selected will meet student and teacher needs, or be a good fit overall for a specific school and its programs.
To make sure that happens, schools must employ a process for reviewing and selecting digital instructional materials. This often consists of a defined progression of steps:
identifying a need;
finding a new tool that might meet that need; and
reviewing the tool to learn about features and capabilities.
If selected, there are additional steps that include using the tool and evaluating its impact.
Sometimes schools opt for a less rigorous process or even none at all, citing lack of time and resources. Based on my experience working in private and public schools around the country and findings in reports such as Teachers Know Best, published most recently in 2015 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this second option is rarely the best approach.
Why expend limited resources on an in-depth review process when something less comprehensive might get digital materials into classrooms more quickly? The answer to this question is found by asking additional questions, starting with:
What is it you hope to achieve through use of digital instructional materials, and how does this support your school’s mission or plan?
Are you looking for ways to automate administrative and/or learning activities so they take less teacher and student time?
Is it your intention to purchase digital instructional materials that will challenge students to solve problems and use higher-order thinking skills?
Does the school have the resources required to fully support selected digital tools, including infrastructure, professional development, and ongoing technical/instructional support?
A process that helps educators address these and other questions takes time to craft and implement, but it results in decisions that are more likely to be instructionally and financially sound.
To help educators decide how to approach this task most effectively, here are some tips, planning resources, and links to sites that host product reviews.
Five tips for selecting digital instructional materials
Include teachers in the selection process. Teachers and their students are the end users of the digital materials that are adopted for use, but they often have little or no say in what’s chosen. Be sure they are represented on the committee or have an opportunity to review and provide feedback on materials being considered.
Invest in devices and digital tools that support more than direct instruction. The bulk of technology investments made today involve purchasing items designed primarily to help the teacher provide direct instruction. These include projection devices, interactive whiteboards, and laptops, along with accompanying instructional materials. This may help teachers be more efficient, but it doesn’t have much impact on student learning. Look for technologies that are designed to support student use, either one-on-one or in small groups. Or learn about ways items such as interactive whiteboards can be used to support more than direct instructions.
Pay attention to product reviews. Most purchases of digital instructional materials are made based on word-of-mouth recommendations from other educators. That’s one good source of information, but it’s also important to consider unbiased product reviews. There are several online resources that target education materials. (Four are described later in this column.)
Pay attention to professional-development requirements. Many digital tool developers offer professional development when schools purchase their products, but it’s important to find out exactly what’s included in the offer. You need to determine how many educators will be trained and the content of that training. Ask for specific training objectives so you understand whether it focuses on only the mechanics of using the tool or if effective instructional uses are also covered. Based on the information you receive, decide if additional training will be required and who will provide that.
Identify requirements for ongoing technical and instructional support. It’s important to investigate the technical expertise that will be required to take care of software updates for digital tools or device systems and typical troubleshooting issues. Equally important is identifying the types of ongoing instructional support that will be required so educators can make full use of the tools’ capabilities. Having this information is necessary to allocate resources in terms of time, money, and personnel.
Resources for planning
Formalizing a process for selecting digital instructional materials is more complex than many educators realize. Yes, you need a rubric to use while reviewing tools for instructional suitability, but there’s so much more to think about. For example, you need to consider the level of professional development required for teachers and staff to make good use of the tool, ongoing costs (such as for upgrades), if the current infrastructure will allow the tool to function smoothly during regular use, and more. There are multiple resources educators can use to help with decision-making. Here are five to consider:
From Print to Digital: Guide to Quality Instructional Materials: This free guide from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) was designed to be used at state, regional, and local levels. It is useful for individual private and public schools or for groups of schools within a diocese or district. The guide walks educators through a five-step cyclical selection process that begins with planning and moves through budget and funding, selection of materials, implementation, and evaluation of usefulness of the materials. Because instructional-materials selection is an ongoing process, effective schools will always find themselves at one stage or another in this process. SETDA also hosts a free companion site, Essential Elements for Digital Content, where educators may engage in conversations about using digital instructional materials in classrooms.
Guide to Choosing Digital Content and Curriculum: Thanks to the differences between print and digital media, the skills educators use to select print instructional materials do not suffice when reviewing digital materials. Published by the Center for Digital Education (CDE), this 36-page guide is intended to help educators transition from selecting supplemental print instructional materials to identifying quality digital materials that can provide the foundation for a course of instruction. Information about effective practices and resources is presented in three sections: planning; understanding the difference between print and digital materials; and implementation.
EdSurge Guide to Choosing, Vetting, and Purchasing K-12 Ed Tech Products: EdSurge is a company that offers resources for individuals who make decisions about what and how technology is used in education. This link takes readers to a guide designed to provide information to educators as they choose, vet, purchase, and evaluate educational-technology products.
39 Questions to Ask When Choosing Media for Teaching and Learning: Tony Bates is a consultant and professional development provider with an extensive background in management of e-learning and distance education. His free, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age (2015), devotes an entire chapter to choosing and using media in classrooms. The link provided above leads to a blog post he wrote based on 39 questions he recommends educators consider when selecting digital instructional materials. While that may seem like a lot of questions, as Bates points out, there’s a lot to think about when making these decisions. The blog post also includes a link to the open textbook
Instructional Materials Toolkit: The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) have developed guidelines and a checklist that educators and administrators in K-12 schools can use when selecting digital instructional materials. This resource page also includes a list of frequently asked questions about Open Educational Resources (OER), instructional materials in the public domain that educators may access and use in classrooms. One word of caution: Educator Dan Morris (Denver, Colorado) warns that OER materials are “free, like a puppy.” The tool itself may not come with a price tag, but actual implementation will require an investment of staff time and resources.
Finding existing product reviews
Surprisingly the Gates Foundation report found that only 17 percent of teachers use education-specific online resources to read reviews of digital tools when deciding what instructional materials to select for classroom use. At the same time, 56 percent rely heavily on recommendations made by fellow teachers. Personal opinion can be helpful when making these decisions, but vetted product reviews can be another helpful resource. Here are some review websites to consider using:
EdSurge Product Index: Founded in 2011, EdSurge helps educators find digital tools they can use to support teaching and learning. The EdSurge Product Index is comprised of five categories: curriculum products; teacher needs; educational operations; post-secondary; and everything else. Teachers will be most interested in the first, second, and fifth of these categories.
Common Sense Education Ed Tech Reviews and Resources: Originally launched in 2013, Graphite was the product of a collaboration between Common Sense Media and Bill Gates. The purpose of this free online resource (now called Common Sense Education Ed Tech Reviews and Resources) is to help educators identify the best digital instructional materials for classroom use. Today teachers are able to read unbiased reviews of digital tools they can use to help make informed decisions as they select technology tools that support student learning across a wide range of content areas. This resource also includes tips for use, lesson plans, and a video library.
edshelf: The About section of edshelf describes it as “a socially curated discovery engine of websites, mobile apps, desktop programs, and electronic products for teaching and learning.” edshelf members are parents and educators who not only want to learn about quality digital materials for teaching and learning but also share their knowledge. There is no fee to join edshelf. Digital tools are added to the site by members. Each entry includes a product description, at least one member review, and links to member shelves that include that tool. Shelves are created by members and may be accessed by others. These are personal collections of tools listed on the site that may relate to specific content areas or other topics.
App Ed Review: In 2013, Dr. Todd Cherner and Dr. Cory Lee of Coastal Carolina University (CCU) developed a comprehensive research-based app evaluation rubric, along with the App Ed Review website, which features original app descriptions and lesson ideas for classroom use of apps. Reviews currently posted cover iOS apps, Android apps, Windows apps, and websites. Sample app lesson plans are also available. The searchable database includes resources for infants through post-secondary students and covers major academic areas.
Digital instructional materials can enhance and expand students’ classroom learning experiences, but only when they are chosen and implemented thoughtfully. It takes time and ongoing support for educators to make and sustain changes in instruction and learning activity design. Use the resources and tips offered in this column to ensure that educators at your school are making the most informed decisions possible. Find a list of all the links provided above.
A former Catholic school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author.
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