The Role of Digital Curriculum in Education … Then and Now

January 23, 2017

Another new year is upon us, and if you are like me, January is a time for looking back and looking forward. It is in this spirit that I reflect on how the role of digital curriculum has changed in our schools over the years. Years ago, when educational technology began to make its way into classrooms and computer labs, one of the primary goals was to introduce students to technology and to do so in ways that supported classroom learning. Software — initially in the form of floppy disks and later 3.5 inch hard disks and CD-ROMs — provided opportunities for students to use “drill and practice” software to practice reading and math skills.  Point-to-point simulations, the precursor to learning adventures, created environments for critical thinking and decision making.  And, access to software tools for writing stories, learning to keyboard, and creating pictures and multimedia presentations supplemented classroom learning.

I started my career in educational publishing with the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), the company best known for The Oregon Trail. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this classic software program, The Oregon Trail was a first-person simulation software game that was designed to augment instruction on America’s westward expansion.

The Oregon Trail was rich in history, drawing from the real-life places and situations that pioneers might have experienced as they traveled from Independence, Missouri, to the new frontier. The point-to-point simulation encouraged students to make decisions along the journey … what supplies were needed for the journey, when to hunt for food, how far to travel in a day, when to rest, and other decisions that the pioneers faced as they traveled west. The decisions had consequences … a broken wagon wheel, supplies that were lost when forging a river, sickness, disease and even death. Not every pioneer who set out for Oregon arrived safely.  And the outcomes in The Oregon Trail mimicked that reality, too. But as students "played" this game, they were immersed in history, engaged in critical thinking and learning about the real-life decisions that were inherent during this time of westward expansion. The Oregon Trail became a classic in part because it allowed students to experience history in a real way. But, The Oregon Trail was only a part of a unit on westward expansion; it was not the curriculum.

In those early days of educational technology, software enabled students and teachers to engage with technology to supplement classroom instruction. Today, the availability and accessibility of digital content means that our students are using technology as a primary source for research, communication, creation, and building understanding of the content. Digital curriculum has become a primary resource of instruction and assessment to support students as they become better learners. Whether it’s an entire course or specific lessons, digital curriculum must enhance outcomes and efficacy to ensure that direct instruction leads to student results.

For digital content providers, now more than ever, the content must offer strong alignment to standards-driven curriculum, relevant and engaging instruction for today’s students, strong pedagogy that takes into consideration how students learn, and features that make grade level content accessible to the diverse needs of learners. For educational publishers, this is an awesome responsibility. So, what are some of the considerations when creating quality digital curriculum that will maximize learning results for students?

  • Standards: Quality digital curriculum must start with the standards. Understanding what we are asking students to know and do and then building a scope and sequence that guides them through that learning is key. As students engage with a course of study, the lesson must include content that meets the spirit and intent of the standards and allows students to demonstrate mastery.

  • Design: Research suggests that today’s tech-savvy youth are wired differently than students of years’ past. These digital natives seldom approach content in a linear or sequential manner but rather explore content, clicking around to “discover” information that is embedded in text, images, media, and interactive learning objects. For this reason, the design of digital curriculum is extremely important for engaging learners. We need to be very deliberate and intentional about how we create the narrative in the course to maximize interest and understanding.

  • Presentation: Quality digital curriculum ensures that the presentation of the information takes advantage of the visual aspect of design. Page layout, how information is managed on the page, and access to additional information are all very important and play an integral role in the learning process. If the page is too busy, cluttered or text-heavy, students will disengage or get confused.

  • Clear Takeaways: At every point in instruction there needs to be clear takeaways for students. Presenting lessons with content in digestible chunks of information is one strategy for making it accessible for all students.

  • Quick Checks for Understanding: Just as teachers give quizzes and facilitate discussions to check for student understanding in the classroom, digital curriculum can build these strategies into the learning pathway as well. The goal is to support students on their path to learning and checks for understanding point teachers to opportunities for coaching, rather than discovering that the student really didn’t understand what was being presented in the direct instruction when they fail to pass the unit test. 

  • Supports and Scaffolds: To support student learning, particularly for students who are not on grade level, building in supports and scaffolds allow students to get information when they need it, in the moment, when the question arises.  How do I reduce these fractions? How do I write a good closing paragraph? How do I compare information on a timeline? As students guide their own pace and path through instruction, they begin to take control of their own learning.


When educational technology was first introduced in the classroom, the primary focus was to expose students to technology. Today’s students, however, have grown up with technology. It is an inherent part of their everyday lives. Digital curriculum is becoming a primary way to deliver instruction and is helping students’ master learning in ways that offer students’ choice over the time, pace, path, and place of learning. Digital curriculum should maximize student outcomes by meeting the diverse needs of our students.

Learn more about how Apex Learning is leading the way for creating quality digital curriculum that is rooted in pedagogy and meets the needs of today’s youth.



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