From Page to Screen: Lessons Learned from Digital Curriculum Design

Irene Baker has more than 20 years of experience in instructional design for high school science students and teachers. The co-author of curricula such as EDC’s Foundation Science, she specializes in developing project- and inquiry-based instructional resources that promote understanding of the big ideas that frame science disciplines. In several recent projects, she has worked on making digital enhancements to student and teacher curriculum materials. In this post, she shares her lessons learned from multiple examples of redesigning Foundation Science from a print curriculum to a digital curriculum.

A “perfect storm” has overtaken education development and technology use. Recent reports from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning, among others, assert that technology must play a major role in moving classrooms and instructional materials into the 21st century. Many educators now believe that the appropriate application of technology to curricula can provide deeper student engagement and understanding of content and can assist teachers with implementation in a cost-effective way. In classrooms nationwide, technology use is increasing and the costs of devices that can effectively deliver instructional materials are decreasing.

As tech tools spread through schools, teachers and leaders are looking for materials and support to help them make the best use of these tools to promote student learning. In the national education policy arena, growing concerns about the accessibility of high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula are increasing policymakers’ interest in digital curriculum. Over the next few years, policymakers are likely to demand comprehensive digital materials for all STEM subjects. This perfect storm means that in just a few years digital materials could be widely used.

To meet this demand, curriculum developers and publishers are working on adapting existing and developing new instructional materials. The current offerings of digital products range from PDF files and lists of resources to carefully designed web-based curricula with seamlessly integrated innovative digital features that deepen and enhance learning and teaching. Developers envision that the digital environment provides potential for developing curriculum with new content beyond what is possible in print. For example, digital curriculum can provide on-demand supports that help students and teacher gather and categorize information, plan and perform tasks, and communicate in and out of the classroom using social media tools. A digital format can also enable customization and enrichment of instructional materials based on the needs of students. However, to achieve the promise of digital curriculum, print materials have to undergo substantial redesign.

Here in EDC’s Learning and Teaching division, the team that developed the high school science program Foundation Science—which includes me, Jackie Miller, Kathy Paget, Chris Brown, Bettina Dembek, and Ruth Krumhansl—has been exploring the process of redesigning print for the digital environment. We have worked on several different examples of digital curriculum based on Foundation Science. With our EDC colleagues Bill Tally and John Parris, we have also worked to develop an Electronic Teacher Guide (eTG) prototype based on Foundation Science: Genetics. Our main goal for all of this work is to determine how best to carry out the print-to-digital redesign in ways that support the goals of Foundation Science and that enhance science teaching and learning. Our secondary goal is to document our experiences in this redesign process.

Some of our lessons from this work follow:

  • Navigating the Separate Landscapes of Print and Digital Information Takes Practice and Time: Obviously, there are significant differences in print and digital formats. Print is linear while digital is radial. The digital layout must offer ready access to desirable links and features while providing enough of a linear structure so that users can readily absorb key information, reliably find key resources, engage with interactive features, and complete key tasks. Determining the best way to achieve this balance is neither obvious nor intuitive, requires careful development and extensive classroom testing, and is greatly helped by gathering the input and perspectives of users (students and teachers).
  • Identifying Features to Support Science Practice is Uncharted Territory: While there is a body of research on digital features that support reading comprehension, research on features that have the potential to support science practices, such as the use of visualizations/animations and collaborative tools, is in its infancy. Foundation Science gives students opportunities to carry out practices and skills—modeling, questioning, planning investigations, collecting and analyzing data, collaborating, sharing ideas with peers, and integrating knowledge—and also provides support for teachers to facilitate and assess these practices and skills. Our work has taken us into new territory, as we sought digital features that can support and extend these opportunities and their assessment, and other instructional designers will encounter this same challenge as they work to move science curricula from “page to screen.”
  • Collaborating is Both Essential and Challenging: Print-to-digital redesign requires deep and sustained collaboration between curriculum developers, education researchers, software engineers, web designers, teachers, and eventually publishers or other distributors. This collaboration requires careful planning to ensure there is enough time for creating a shared vision of digital curriculum and developing good communication between team members who can be geographically dispersed and are often not at all familiar with each other’s work, ways of working, and even language, as the technical vocabulary of one field is often opaque to people working in other fields.

To view some of the products from this work, check out our recently-published Biology: Concepts & Practices and Chemistry: Concepts & Practices curricula. Visit the Foundation Science website for more information about the original curriculum.