What Goes Into Developing Effective Digital Curriculum?

February 20, 2017

At Apex Learning, we take great care and thought into developing digital curriculum that supports all students in achieving their potential. The development process itself is rather complex and involves the work of many specialists including project managers, instructional designers, subject matter experts, art leads, and video producers, to name a few. Interested in a behind-the-scenes peek into the multifaceted process of creating effective digital curriculum?  Read on!

A careful planning process is core to how we develop digital curriculum. For any given course, the typical development process includes the following stages: 

Project Initiation

When developing a new course, we begin with an understanding of the market need. Who is going to use this course? What are the course requirements? Is the product going to cover core academic content, or is it an elective course? What are the specific standards around which the content will be built? The market requirements help us determine our approach to, among other things, the course length, the scope and sequence, the mix of computer scored and teacher scored activities, and the standards coverage for the course. These elements drive the design and development process.

Product Design 

One of our top priorities is to ensure that the instructional design of our courses give district partners the confidence that these courses are credit-worthy and that students will experience learning similar courses taken in a brick and mortar setting. In this stage we design the course in great detail – all the course activities, the flow of instruction, how instruction will be presented on the page, where direct instruction will be augmented with supports and scaffolds, how other activities will support application and skill development, and what assessment will look like throughout instruction. 

Our ultimate goal is to create a course that is standards-based but is also engaging and relevant to students. So, at Apex Learning, the hallmarks of quality content include:

  • Standards driven
  • Rigor and relevance
  • Supports and scaffolds for ELL and struggling learners
  • Pedagogy that engages students in active learning 
  • Improving student performance and outcomes
  • Preparing students for success

 

These guideposts lead to quality instruction and an appropriate learner experience.

Starting with the scope and sequence for the course, we design the course content. Content is rooted in strong pedagogy, written by content experts who often have teaching experience in the subject. From experience, they know how to present the content, where students often have misunderstandings, and where additional support might be helpful to build understanding. By knowing where students often get stuck in a given subject matter or course, we are able to design the course in a way that pays close attention to potential problem areas.

Our team reviews the content iteratively and is careful to make sure each activity meets the spirit and intent of the standards. We also intentionally design ways for students to interact with content through thought provoking questions, checks for understanding, and interactivity such as polls. We design feedback to guide students through the content and use examples that are relevant and meaningful.

Every aspect of design is intended to support instruction, and that includes the use of media. We know most of our students are visual learners, and we put a great deal of thought into the use of images, informational elements such as charts and graphs, and, of course, video. For example, break up text on the page with imagery that reinforces the content on the page. The media is very deliberately incorporated to make the content engaging and instructive. 

When we design instruction, we pay close attention to text to ensure it is written at the appropriate length, complexity, and readability. We also adhere to bias and sensitivity guidelines in all our content.

Production

Obviously, the course design informs the production schedule, budget, and resourcing for the project. As each unit, lesson, and activity is authored and reviewed, the content is entered into our development tools to bring them to life on screen. Interactive elements are built, assessment questions are entered, and all content is reviewed for accuracy and completeness. Our production teams – producers and product assistants – take great care to ensure that the content is entered accurately, including elements that provide access to supports and scaffolds such as key terms and support cards. Along the way, our copy edit team is reviewing the content so ensure that the text is clear and concise, appropriate grammar and punctuations make the text clear, and text follows our conventions.

Review, Publish, and Evaluate

Once all the content is written and entered into the development environment, we conduct several review passes to ensure the quality of the final course. The instructional design team conducts their review of the course in its entirety to ensure instruction is complete and cohesive. The production team reviews the course from a user functionality perspective to ensure all elements of the course are functioning as expected. This includes testing all vocabulary, pop-up windows, web links, links to rubrics or supporting information, and more. The copy edit team does a final proof pass and, once the team is confident that all issues have been addressed, the course is published. 

For us, the measure of effective curriculum is student achievement. We continue to monitor student performance data to gather insights into how students are doing in the course. The data informs opportunities for improvement in the course. Looking at the data in aggregate and at the item-level allows us to determine if the course is meeting student needs. 


 
Developing quality curriculum requires careful attention to the instructional design and the learner experience. Our courses focus on what standards indicate students must know and do as a result of engaging with the course content. The development process takes time and intentionality. But the result is a course that supports the needs of students. Presenting content in a way that takes advantage of solid pedagogy, engaging media, and strategies that support learning help facilitate student success. 
 

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