By Eric Hirsch
EdReports Executive Director


Across the country, schools have rapidly transitioned to providing remote services in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educators are working around the clock to strategize and design ways to best support their students and communities. As planning begins for the next school year, EdReports has heard from many districts looking for support to identify digital instructional materials that can help students in uncertain times ahead. 

Most materials published within the past five years have some digital components available either in the core package or as an additional purchase. It is also important to define the term “digital” as it can apply to different types of materials. For example, materials could be lessons available for free online, commercial supplemental programs, or year-long comprehensive core materials. For year-long comprehensive materials, the term is used to encompass a broad range of products ranging from online PDFs or ebook versions of textbooks to materials designed for full-time remote teaching and learning. In this blog, “digital” is used in its broadest definition, referring to any materials accessed through technology as opposed to print. As educators look to new digital materials, it is essential to prioritize content that will prepare students for college and careers.

"Navigating the digital landscape—particularly for districts that have not purchased new curriculum in the past few years—is complex."

In the coming weeks and months, EdReports will provide more information about digital materials, the design and functionality of sets of aligned instructional materials, and examples of how districts have continued to prioritize high-quality materials that can work in in-person, remote or hybrid learning environments.

Regardless of format, all instructional materials require meaningful vetting to determine if the content meets college and career-ready standards and other important local priorities. And, given research demonstrating the importance of curriculum in supporting student success, material selection over the coming months and into next year can have significant short and long-term effects.

Questions to Consider when Evaluating the Content of Digital Materials

Digital curriculum provides the content to support instruction, whether that be in person or at a distance. Digital materials are a tool just like printed materials are a tool; all require support for teachers to ensure that the content is delivered well.

Selecting digital materials should follow the same best practices as any other format of curriculum. We recommend engaging a dedicated team to evaluate resources that includes teachers, administrators, and content-area experts. The strongest teams also include members with expertise in supporting English learners and students with special needs. Some questions that teams should prioritize in their search include:

Students do not come in a "one size fits all" category and it's important that your materials do not either.
  • Are the materials standards-aligned?
    While it might be tempting to cast a wide net in searching for new resources, there are real risks in sourcing materials from unvetted sources. At EdReports, we’ve reviewed dozens of digital year-long math, English language arts, and science programs for alignment to college and career-ready standards.
  • Are materials providing student access to the depth and breadth of standards?
    EdReports reviews of alignment provide more than a 1:1 check for the presence of standards, and we encourage all review processes to do the same. We look for coherence, connections within and across grade levels, and how well the materials support teachers to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners. If choosing multiple digital supplements, it is difficult to ensure that students are getting this depth and breadth. Consider how well the resources promote coherence, provide opportunities for students to grapple with different problem types, or support students in grappling with phenomena.
  • How well do materials support diverse learners?
    Students do not come in a “one size fits all” category, and it is important that your materials do not either. Investigate materials to ensure they provide resources to address diverse student populations that require support for learner variance and language acquisition. In your search, look for content that includes English learner content and lesson objectives that are grade-level appropriate and of equal rigor to help English learners meet grade-level standards.

Questions to Consider When Evaluating How Technology Features Enhance Students’ Ability to Access the Content

Most schools and districts are trying to implement remote learning at scale for the first time which means educators are rapidly trying to understand the role of technology in schooling. It can be tempting to consider a product based on all the things it can do online. But if those attributes don’t reflect the specific needs of your students or exceed the technological capabilities of your school or district, then what’s the point?

It can be tempting to consider a product based on all the things it can do online, but if those attributes don't reflect the specific needs of your students or exceed the technological capabilities of your school district, then what's the point?

Since EdReports released its first reviews five years ago, the materials landscape has changed dramatically, especially in the area of technology. District questions have evolved from ensuring materials could be accessed on older browsers and versions of operating systems to detailed questions about interoperability, compatibility, security, support, and digital design.

These questions have become even more important during the COVID-19 health crisis as districts become more aware of the broad range of technological access and capacity amongst students, teachers, and schools. What will work for one district may not work for another. Therefore, when evaluating the technology necessary to continue providing a quality education to students regardless of learning environment, consider these questions:

  • Technological capabilities: Do members of the school community and schools have sufficient devices and internet access to utilize digital materials as designed? Does the curriculum allow students to work independently, collaborate, work on tasks and assessments both remotely and in school? Are there supports for parents, students and teachers to access and use the materials?
  • Equity of access: Does the product align with your vision for quality instruction for all students? Will the materials build on instructional successes and provide teachers with support for reaching all students in all settings for next year and beyond? Can the materials be downloaded and printed in packets?

Planning for Professional Learning and Support

Simply put: Digital curriculum does not teach itself. As with any type of curriculum, teachers deserve professional development and opportunities to collaborate and learn from peers as they use new materials.

"As districts move to source new, high-quality curricula, they need to prioritize strong rollout and implementation plans to ensure teachers understand and use the new materials."

Teachers are being asked right now to take on a herculean task in learning how to engage students through new platforms, often while creating or seeking their own content. As districts move to source new, high-quality curricula, they need to prioritize strong rollout and implementation plans to ensure teachers understand and use the new materials. Implementation can be complicated under normal circumstances, but the ambiguity of what school will be like in the fall compounds the challenge. That’s why it’s imperative that districts tailor professional learning to the curriculum so teachers are prepared to deliver the content regardless of the learning environment next school year.

Materials Matter Now and in the Future

This crisis has already exposed gaps in the instructional materials many districts are using. Conversely, we have also seen the benefits of having an aligned, quality curriculum in place that clearly articulates what students should be learning two, four, and even eight months down the line.

As schools find their way through the current circumstance, we know that all educators are working their hardest to ensure that their students are getting the best. Looking forward, we hope that this crisis can be a real turning point in the field of instructional materials and that all districts will recognize the value of investing in quality curriculum.