Five Questions to Ask When Choosing Digital Content for Education

There is just so much digital content out there … a simple Google search reveals hundreds of education technology companies offering digital content products. And the difficult part for teachers and parents is that the claims these companies make all sound pretty much the same. They’ll tell you that the kids will learn from these lessons and will have fun doing it. They’ll tell you that the lessons are easy to use. And there’s a very good chance that there will be a cute character to boot.

So how to go about choosing? It can be incredibly difficult. This list of five questions to ask when purchasing digital content will help you be an empowered consumer.

1. “What does this product teach a student to do?”

You can ask this question in a variety of ways, but what it should boil down to is this: “What will my student/child be able to do after finishing this lesson/program/curriculum that he or she cannot do now? What are the learning objectives?” And if you get a broad answer like “Read” or “Understand math facts,” then dig further. “Understand math facts” covers a myriad of sins. So don’t be satisfied by an answer like that. The learning objective should be something that is observable and measurable. “I see … so what will my child be able to do so that I will know that the program worked? What is the performance that I should be looking for?” If the person who you talk to can’t explain this to you directly and simply, don’t buy the product.

2. “Do you have student performance data showing that this product is effective?”

Some vendors will not have data or, if they do, they may show you data on how many sessions students completed or how much time students spent on task. That’s not what you’re after. Remember that first question, “What does this product teach a student to do?” Well, the data that you are asking about here should correspond to that! You want actual student performance data; data showing that learners who finished the program can now do that thing you agreed was the purpose of the program! You’re thinking of buying spelling instruction lessons? Great. How much improvement in spelling words is seen following completion of the lessons? It sounds simple, but you might be surprised at the answers you get.

Note: The exception to this question is if you are discussing a program that is mastery-based. A mastery-based program, by definition, cannot be completed unless the skills being taught have been mastered by the learner. So in this case, a program completion does indicate skill mastery.

3. “Can you tell me about the sequencing in the instructional design?”

This question is not targeted at the scope and sequence of the topics or subject matter. Rather, the information we are seeking here is whether or not the instruction gets progressively more difficult (i.e., sequenced from easy-to-difficult) as the learner succeeds in the program. Additionally, we’re interested in whether or not, during acquisition of a new skill, the program starts with a few examples and builds to a greater number as the learner makes correct responses. Ultimately, we would like to see the examples and non-examples grow in number and in difficulty so that we can evaluate the student’s ability to apply the skill to novel situations.

4. “Does the student have a timed performance test in this program?”

Why does a timed test matter? Because when students learn new skills they need to be able to do them accurately and quickly. Perhaps a student is learning to speak Spanish and goes on holiday to Spain. If that student speaks Spanish accurately, but very slowly, her attempts to speak to the locals will be unsuccessful. Likewise, the student can speak very quickly, but inaccurately, and will be just as unsuccessful. The key is to be accurate and fast. The same concept is true for reading, math skills, and any range of other subjects. But make sure that this timed test requires that the student actually performs the skills of interest! If the skill is two-digit addition, the student should be adding two-digit numbers. If the skill is working a geometry proof, then the student should be doing that. The test should not be a multiple-choice assessment about two-digit addition or geometry proofs!

5. “Can I try to run a session myself?”

This is an important one. When you try running the session yourself, as if you are the student, do these three things:

  • Make repeated errors on the same item. Does the program let you make an infinite number of errors? Or does it limit the number of errors you make and provide you a cue for the correct answer? An infinite number of errors can be detrimental for the learner because this can establish a pattern of errors that is then difficult to break. Instead, we want the program to rise up and support the learner when needed.
  • Examine the layout of the screen. Is it too cluttered? Are there items or animations on the page that have nothing to do with the task at hand? A layout that is too busy can be very distracting to learners. Look for a clean, uncluttered layout in which the center of attention is the activity the learner needs to complete.
  • Look for any irrelevant cues that might give away the answer to the question presented or give the learner an excellent chance of guessing the correct answer.

Hopefully these five questions will help you be a more informed “shopper” for digital content in education. Do you have some other tips? Please share them!

This post originally appeared on the Promethean Planet Community Blog. You may find it by clicking here.

About Promethean Planet

Created by teachers, for teachers, is a unique teaching, sharing and support community – the place for educators to connect, create and change the classroom! Available in 15 language versions, with over 1 million members in more than 150 countries, Promethean Planet is the international meeting place for educators in the 21st century classroom. Planet’s free membership enables access to more than 60,000 downloadable resources, as well as online training, the ability to interact via forums and blogs, and a wide range of other resources.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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