Show Me The Money: The Cost of Creating Digital Curriculums

So today Dan Meyer posted an interesting piece about digital textbooks. He asked if the current batch of digital textbooks is any different than their print counterparts. And if they are different, are they different enough? The long and short of it is that he doesn’t believe they are different enough yet and he encourages teachers and others to press educational publishers to start making products that leverage what networked devices have to offer.

As someone who has been designing digital math curriculum for over four years now, I decided to respond as a voice (not the voice) of someone in the industry. I don’t normally talk about my work online. I’m not exactly sure why. I guess because I try to represent myself online, someone who taught for 8 years and loves working with kids, and when I talk about work I feel like it sounds like I’m representing the company I work for. The last thing I want is for people to think I’m trying to sell them something! Anyway, by the time I was done responding, I realized I’d basically written a blog post response to Dan, so I decided to bring those thoughts over here for safe keeping.

Here are my thoughts on creating digital textbooks/curriculums that are different enough (or not):

How much money do you think it would cost to create the full-featured digital textbook/curriculum you are describing?

I don’t know a precise figure myself, but I’ve been designing digital math curriculum for over four years now, and I can tell you that the digital teaching platform created by my company (“my” as in the company I work for, not that it’s my company) was extremely expensive. Even more expensive was rebuilding it from scratch to adapt to the world of Flash-free tablets that didn’t exist when the company first started.

The existence of our company, and subsequently our digital teaching platform and curriculum materials, was made possible by the substantial wealth of one individual who wanted to make a difference in education. We were lucky to be able to exist at all and put out the materials that we did.

The US publishing companies, on the other hand, are existing companies that have had an identity as providers of print textbooks for many, many years now. They’re large and slow to change, like any bureaucracy. They’ve made moves into digital, but only so much as it has been worth the investment. There’s no reason to spend millions of dollars developing a product that not enough people are going to buy. (I say “There’s no reason” to refer to the business’ interests. Obviously educators can think of lots of good reasons, but do they make up enough of a customer base?) Going back to our company, even though we believed in our curriculum and software, we realized that we entered the market too early.

However, despite all that, I fully agree that teachers, parents, principals, and even students should be telling these companies what kinds of products they want. Otherwise you’re leaving it up to the companies to guess, and while they have market research teams, it doesn’t hurt to get explicit suggestions.

And yes, I am purposefully not saying any company or product names. I’m not here representing my company, nor am I trying to “get the word out” on any particular product. I just want to be the voice of someone in the industry who is trying to work towards what you are describing. My team is working on something different, possibly different enough, and yet we recognize there is still room for improvement.

I’d like to add that the term “digital” brings to mind different things for different people, which causes additional frustrations and concerns for companies planning to invest in creating digital products. Case in point, our company created a digital curriculum that was meant to embed technology into the workings of the classroom. The teacher still taught, but with the aid of the digital lessons. The students still explored math concepts and talked together, but it was facilitated through the technology. I loved it so much when I started working for the company that I was jealous that I wasn’t one of the teachers using it in a classroom! That’s what we meant by digital. Well, we meant a whole lot more, but I don’t want to go through the whole feature set.

Anyway, the term “digital” to other teachers did not necessarily mean the same thing and that caused problems. The most common misunderstanding is a digital product is automatically an adaptive practice program because that’s just what computers do. Practice has a place, and adaptivity has its benefits, but that’s not the product we were creating. We wanted technology to become part of the teacher’s interactions with the class and the students’ interactions with each other. We weren’t trying to get kids to work at their own pace by themselves. But some teachers were unhappy with our product because we didn’t do that. Being “digital” to them meant that the computer made all the instructional decisions for them and I guess gave them some free time to grade papers while the students were like little drones on the computer.

Other teachers couldn’t comprehend having to still teach. I kid you not, a teacher was baffled because she thought that having a digital curriculum meant that she could push play and go sit in the back of the room while the computer taught her kids. First of all, if she thought she’d still have a job if a computer could do it for her, she should have been scared, not excited at the prospect. Secondly, that was not our goal at all. That’s sort of the exact opposite of what we were going for. But again, preconceived notions got in the way of our design goals.

I say all this because I believe in what you’re proposing. I just wonder what percentage of our teacher population understands and believes it, too, because that’s the market. That’s who these companies need to buy this product if they invest the money in making it.

When faced with a product that did things along the lines of what you’re recommending, some teachers were just absolutely resistant because it did not fit their worldview of the role of technology in the classroom. Perhaps enough of a cultural shift has happened that this problem wouldn’t be as bad today than it was a couple of years ago, but I can see why some companies might be hesitant to develop a product like this that can backfire by not living up to expectations of what “digital” means to some unknown percentage of teachers.

And to end on a positive note, there are teachers who absolutely got it and love what we were trying to do. It’s extremely satisfying to hear a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 20 years tell you that she can’t imagine going back to the way she taught before. That felt good.

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