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More Learning Happens With High-Quality Digital Curriculum

Evaluation Criteria for Selecting Digital Curriculum
Jean Sharp
Vice President, Content Development, Apex Learning

Selecting Digital Curriculum

In today’s knowledge-based society, educators are embracing personalized learning as a way to increase student outcomes and prepare students for success in college and career.

Personalized learning shifts the learning approach from a teacher-driven model, which delivers the same lesson to every student, to a student-centered model, where the content, method, and pace of learning are different for each student based on his or her individual level of readiness. In personalized learning models, teachers identify areas where students need support, determine instructional strategies that work best for each student, and track progress.

The concept of personalized learning is by no means new, but its recent rapid adoption by districts is due in part to new rigorous state standards and to advances in technology platforms. Personalizing the learning experience is made easier through technology, but it’s not just the technology that makes personalized learning effective. Impactful personalized learning requires: establishing a common vision; providing educators with professional learning opportunities to successfully implement personalized learning techniques and technologies; a qualified teacher to guide and support students; and access to high-quality digital curriculum that supports student learning.


Start with a vision, not the technology

At its heart, personalized learning is about student learning, not technology. The vision for student achievement in your district is what drives changes in instructional strategies, which in turn drives changes to curriculum. Start with the desired outcomes for personalized learning and then determine the policies, instructional strategies, and resources needed to achieve those goals.

To illustrate this, let’s look at an ongoing study of schools using personalized learning approaches commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the RAND Corporation. The 62 schools included in the study all received funding from three Gates Foundation initiatives focused on improving student outcomes, particularly college and career readiness. Schools were selected to participate in these initiatives through a competitive process, which included a rigorous evaluation of its leadership team and its instructional vision.

At a high level, the vision of each of the school leaders was to increase the number of students graduating prepared for college and career. A look at student achievement data found that students who initially performed below national medians in math and reading performed significantly above national medians after two years in personalized learning environments. This progress toward the vision of college and career readiness was achieved through personalized learning, which was facilitated by a variety of instructional approaches and curriculum materials to meet the learning needs of all students.(1)

After two years of personalized learning, student achievement on MAP math and reading assessments jumped above the national median. 

MAP Math and Reading
Source: RAND Corporation (2015), Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Retrieved from http:// k12education.gatesfoundation.org/student-success/continuedprogress-promising-evidence-on-personalized-learning/



Support your vision for personalized learning with quality digital curriculum

Personalized learning comes in many different forms but the foundation for success is the same: selecting a high-quality, rigorous curriculum that accelerates and deepens student understanding. Not all digital curriculum are the same and not all will enable teachers to design a variety of rich learning experiences that meet the individual learning needs of all students. Which is why evaluating digital curricula options is critical when ensuring that the personalized learning goals of the district are being supported.

In a survey of educators conducted by MDR, an education-industry research firm, the most important factors when evaluating digital curriculum were clarified:

  • Consistent high quality
  • Highly engaging and motivating
  • Accessible to all students
  • Provides measurable results (2)

Based on that, what specific criteria should you look for in a digital curriculum? The Center for Digital Education (CDE) recommends the following.

Learning paths

Students embark upon individual pathways with the goal of reaching mastery level.

Interactive elements

Students interact with and progress through lessons; by engaging with content, organizing, sorting, categorizing, responding, etc., students build critical-thinking skills rather than simply memorizing facts.

Assessment items

The digital content includes multiple formative and summative assessments, prescriptive pretests, and authentic assessments that elicit higher-order thinking; opportunities to reflect on learning and interactive skill assessments should be incorporated.


Data collected through student interaction with instruction and assessment adjusts the lessons to create a personalized learning path that adapts to the individual student’s needs.

Data collection and reporting

Data is collected and reports on that data are accessible for a view of learner usage, progress, and achievement.


Students work through instruction as they master content knowledge and skills at their own pace. (3)

Because the use of digital curriculum is in the early stages of adoption, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recommends that states, districts, and educator-preparation programs provide educators with professional learning opportunities surrounding the selection and use of digital curriculum materials, and ways to integrate them into instruction. (4)

Digital Curriculum Reading


Develop an implementation strategy based on established goals

The key to a successful implementation of personalized learning is to identify measurable goals that are tracked and responded to throughout the implementation. Quantitative and qualitative data should be regularly collected and evaluated to gauge progress toward established goals. The most effective implementations are developed in collaboration with the digital curriculum provider, who offers expertise and works closely with administrators and educators to design programs and instructional models that meet student needs and support and build capacity of the staff.

Professional development for everyone from district and school leaders to classroom teachers is essential for the effective implementation of personalized learning programs. Professional learning should be designed around the goals of the program as well as the experience of educators. The key is to develop a program that enables educators to choose their own paths to knowledge and provides coaching and mentoring to support educators as they develop their skills.

Find the right match

If your district already has an evaluation process in place for instructional materials you will likely start by reviewing that process and modifying it as needed to incorporate criteria unique to digital curriculum resources that support personalized learning. Once you’ve developed your general evaluation framework, consider the following checklist based on iNACOL next-generation learning models for personalized learning needed to ensure your digital curriculum solutions match those elements.

Apex Checklist
*Apex Learning checklist for quality digital curriculum


Digital Curriculum Implementation


Empower students, improve outcomes

Personalized learning has the potential to accelerate and deepen learning for all students. This instructional approach guides students toward knowledge and mastery on their own learning paths. For the promise of personalized learning to be realized, the following combination is needed: a rigorous digital curriculum, technology that enables access for all students, an implementation plan that provides professional learning and support for educators, and ongoing evaluation against program goals. With all of these components in place, every student will have the opportunity to thrive.

Digital Curriculum Girl


About the Author

Jean Sharp

Vice President, Content Development

Jean has 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries. Her expertise includes software design, project management, technology implementation, curriculum strategy and development, and instructional design. As Vice President, Content Development at Apex Learning, Jean oversees the teams responsible for creating original curriculum solutions.

Prior to joining Apex Learning, Jean served as Vice President of Curriculum and Instruction for AdvancePath Academics, where she was responsible for overseeing curriculum design, implementation, and efficacy. Previously, Jean was Vice President of Curriculum Development at PLATO Learning Inc. Among her credits are numerous award-winning educational software products published for both school and consumer markets.

Jean holds a master’s degree in Educational Technology and Instructional Design from the University of Oklahoma.

Jean Sharp Apex Learning


About Apex Learning

Founded in 1997, Apex Learning is the leading provider of blended and virtual learning solutions to the nation’s schools. Our digital curriculum provides an active learning experience that engages all students in rigorous coursework to prepare them for college and career. The standards-based digital curriculum in math, science, English, social studies, world languages, electives, and Advanced Placement® is widely used for original credit, credit recovery, remediation, intervention, acceleration, and exam preparation. Quality digital curriculum, excellent services, support and program success management combined with robust reporting is our commitment to you. More learning happens with Apex Learning digital curriculum.



1 Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., & Hamilton, L. S. (November, 2015). Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. RAND Corporation.

2 MDR. (2014). Purchase Criteria, Product Requirements and Emerging Trends.

3 Bjerede, M., Laufenberg, D., & Ray, K. (June 2016). Guide to Choosing Digital Content and Curriculum. Center for Digital Education.

4 State Educational Technology Directors Association. (March 2015). Ensuring the Quality of Digital Content for Learning Recommendations for K12 Education.