Digital Content- Things to Consider

Henrico has had a long and interesting relationship with digital content. We’ve been struggling with this issue since we first went to 1:1 back in 2001. We’ve used everything from simple networked directories to full blown learning management systems (Blackboard and Angel). We’ve bought content. We’ve made content. We’ve had content submitted openly from any teacher and content only shared after careful vetting by content specialists. So we’ve tried most thing I can think of. Now the pressure is on to make a scale move to digital content and to do it well.


Use digital content to help define and reinforce best practice in the classroom.
Digital content and digital curriculum are not the same but if you are making this kind of shift it makes sense to think hard about how to use this content to shape teaching in the classroom. Duplicating a text in PDF format won’t get at any sort of change, nor will the slightly modified “rich” online textbooks that most publishers put out.

Invest Internally
The current model in education is to pay outside vendors for “expertise” on a regular basis. This ends up causing a variety of problems. The most important being that our own teachers end up being “given fish” over and over again and then people are surprised to find that they cannot “fish” for themselves. We’ll wish we invested more in our people as funding continues to dry up.

For example, I have argued that we should not buy any sort of map software for social studies. We have Google Earth and the Internet. We should use them. We should invest that money in our teachers, giving them the training and time to find and create specific maps that align to our content in ways that matter instead of spending money on products that give us every map under the sun but don’t create embedded evangelists, increase teacher skills, or provide a pathway towards the habits of mind required to be a creator instead of a receiver.

Current Impediments

Lock In/Overhead
More and more digital content is not sold as digital content but rather as part of a larger LMS/CMS package. Each LMS you take on adds overhead for the students and teachers who have to navigate between and within the various systems. If you add things like Study Island to the mix, it would be easy for teachers to be building and organizing content in three or more systems, each with its own capabilities, quirks, and isolated content.

That’s bad enough but the really unfortunate thing is that most of these systems do not have any way to get your work out. The longer you use the system and build within it, the more trapped you are1. Our initial use of BlackBoard in 2001 taught us the importance of being able to get content/work out. We spent a great deal of time and effort to create courses and build within the BlackBoard system and when it was found the system would not work for us- all of the content was lost. Needless to say, this hurt us badly in terms of teacher trust and hampered subsequent adoption of other systems.

The Box Set Model
The music industry seems fairly progressive and forward thinking compared to the way digital content vendors bundle content. I would be more than happy to pay lower overall costs (higher per item) to be able to target exactly what I want to buy. The current model is worse than the album model the recording industry clung to for so long, it’s closer to only selling box sets. I don’t want to give teachers the Tom Jones box set. I just want that one song. Forcing me to buy the box set actually dilutes what I’m trying to do while adding cruft that someone will have to sort through. The fact that paid content comes with a presumption of approval makes granular decisions about what you provide even more important.

Clarity For Us, Garbage For You
I want to know what people are using and I want to know on the item level. I have every confidence that the vendor knows this yet most data I get from these systems are absolutely worthless. It’ll be logins from the beginning of time2 or I won’t be able to see anything below a 10,000 ft view. This makes it impossible to tell if people are using specific recommended pieces of content or, conversely, if they’re using items you’d rather they didn’t. You can’t ask questions, you can’t target PD, you can’t even tell if it’s worth reordering the product.

1 Expect price hikes.

2 Elluminate is bad about this as is Quia.

Comments on this post

  1. Peter Price said on November 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Tom, this is a very helpful post (which I found via @ddmeyer on Twitter)!

    Working in higher ed with a Moodle platform, and running my own business producing content, I find your comments absolutely spot on, and quite encouraging as a small producer of digital content. I can’t compete with the big publishers, but if you are right, I don’t need to.

    I do think you are right: being able to pick exactly what teachers need in order for them to do an expert job is a sort of “holy grail” for managers of content systems, and so much better than having to sign up for an entire system which inevitably contains a lot of stuff you don’t need.

    • Tom said on November 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm


      I think that people who are circumspect will look for quality and specificity over sheer numbers. Different scales ought to enable more targeted conversations with different people as well. This might be something that people have to learn the hard way.

      It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

  2. Tricia Stohr-Hunt said on November 7, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Tom,

    Saw your name today in a VSTE e-mail regarding your award as VSTE Leader of the Year. Congratulations!


    • Tom said on November 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks Tricia. Hope things are going well at UR.

  3. Mike H said on December 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Joining this a bit late. Obviously, I understand where you’re coming from when you refer to Google Earth instead of purchased maps. Here’s why I disagree:

    1) It’s true that it’s better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish. But what if this man also has to make a house every day, feed dozens of people, find warmth in the winter, get water, etc… My point is, today’s teacher has to: remediate, differentiate, do a duty period, call parents, grade homework, take professional development, give county made benchmark tests, evaluate data… and hopefully, teach. Learning how to use Google Earth effectively takes time. Teaching students how to use Google Earth effectively takes time. Teachers don’t have a lot of time. Not only that, teachers in different schools have more responsibilities, so even if some teachers in some schools could learn this, not every teacher could.

    2) For $70,000, about, we could get a tool that is flexible, addresses a need, requires little training, and gets the job done. That’s for 70 schools and that’s a one time charge. So, $1000/school, gets a lot. Plus, these maps would be good for 5 years, at least. And updates aren’t expensive. So, over 5 years, that’s $200/school on a product that would get used by students and teachers. I’d argue, much more than Google Earth would get used. Free is worthless if it’s not used.

    3) We have Adobe on the laptops at a considerable cost. Is anyone using it? These maps would actually give purpose to this purchase.

    4) Google Earth is a great tool. I’ve used it. We’ve given training on it together. I’d love to see teachers using it in a creative way. But, for the day to day need, it’s a shotgun for the need of scooping of the spider and tossing him out the door.

    5) I know we want to go away from paper, but sometimes paper is needed. Google Earth doesn’t provide easy to print maps. The maps I want can be digital, used on a Promethean Board, and printed out. You get the best of both worlds.

    Basically, while I love Google Earth, I don’t think we have time and money (in training and time) to implement the maps teachers want as efficiently as this $70,000 solution could give us.

    I’d love to put this in one school, and see how effective it can be.

    • Tom said on December 6, 2011 at 11:19 pm

      For clarity, that wasn’t meant to call you out in any way. If it was interpreted as such, I apologize. In any case, my responses are below.

      1) Using Google Earth at the level required to access pre-built content is “lowest common denominator” easy. If a person can’t pick it up in 5 or 10 minutes then we’ve got little hope for them in general. I’ve had 1st graders figure it out with no trouble in 5 minutes of messing around.

      I’d argue that teacher who are learning to use Google Earth have greater opportunities to engage students which would help cut down on some of that list you gave. It does come down to what is defined as important and valuable. I think there’s middle ground that can be found there.

      2) “Free is worthless if it’s not used.” I agree with that but it comes down to leadership and expectations whether things are paid or free. You can end up with something that is utterly unused in either case. We’ve certainly demonstrated that historically.

      3) I don’t recall if the product you’re talking about requires Adobe Acrobat or not (seems like Adobe Reader would be enough). Acrobat is one application in the Digital School Collection which HCPS did purchase for high school. The MS contract included the DSC suite so cost is harder to delineate there. I know technology is trying to get hard numbers on usage but I wouldn’t imagine that one application in a suite of 4 being used for one purpose in one subject would justify much in terms of expenditure either way.

      4) I disagree. Google Earth is a tool with a low threshold and a high ceiling. You can easily use it in simple ways but it has the power to do much more. I’d argue it’s
      less like a shotgun and more like a good mountain bike. You can ride it to your neighbor’s house and it works fine but it also performs when you have to deal with more aggressive terrain. To me, the PDFs feel like those skinny road bikes. Good for narrow usage, in fairly specific conditions.

      I’d also argue that we spend far too much time asking kids to “put spiders outside” when we ought to be doing things that are more complex and engaging.

      5) As a whole, I see very little large scale effort to do anything to cut down on paper usage. I’d like to see when and why having paper maps was valuable. I’m not saying it isn’t but I’m having a hard time thinking of an occasion. I know people want that but I’m just not sure why other than comfort based on previous usage.

      Simply put, PDF maps are not what I believe digital content should be. They don’t take advantage of any of the things that make current technology attractive. They aren’t interactive in any way that is engaging or experiential. They aren’t malleable or flexible. They don’t allow teachers or students to easily customize and expand things.

      There is no doubt that purchasing maps is an easier road that allows us to say we have provided teachers with X number of digital maps. It does closely mirror the kinds of maps historically provided with text books. PDFs of this type do what we have always done with maps. They don’t allow anything transformational to occur in the process. That may be where we are at but I find that frustrating. We should be further along. We should be beyond duplicating old capabilities with new technologies.

      Bottom line, I’m not sure I’m right. I can only say what I believe.

      • Mike said on December 7, 2011 at 9:32 am

        No, I wasn’t feeling called out at all. I guess I still feel that in social studies classes, like Maslow, there is a hierarchy of “learning.” That maps are the lowest need. The base knowledge. Going back to my horrible analogies, but I use it with students all the time, a good athlete (e.g., football player) runs, lifts weights, maybe ballet (Lynn Swann). All that helps on the field although you never do that on the field. Maps of the nature I’m talking about help build the base knowledge of students before they can perform in 21st Century ways.

        And last, as I now have a daughter in 6th grade social studies and have to help her with her daily quizzes, tests, and benchmarks she seems to get, I’m not sure how a parent would help a child study if things were on Google Earth. The Parent Gap.

  4. Tom said on December 7, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    That may be at the root of things. I see maps as a thematic and skill based element that ought to unite a progression of increasingly sophisticated skills that weave together content. I can’t see PDFs doing that in a scaffolded way. I can use Google Earth in simple ways, while down the road, I build towards increasingly sophisticated uses and applications.

    The analogy puzzles me. If maps are conditioning/ballet/weights, what is the game? I’d think you’d want students using and creating maps throughout the continuum of social studies with increasing sophistication. They can be both weights/ballet and the game. It just depends on the context for the use.

    I can’t/won’t see parents as that kind of barrier. If they are seen as a barrier, then they are a barrier to virtually all technology options that are more sophisticated than basic Word usage. Few will know Photoshop, Audacity, Moviemaker, Prezi, VoiceThread, etc.

    If we’re doing our jobs correctly students may need help but it won’t be on how to use Google Earth, it’ll be on how to analyze the data it displays or how to conceptually display data with the greatest impact.