What Do School Districts Want From Digital Content?

Barbara Kurshan, Forbes

In my position as the Executive Director of Academic Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, I have the privilege of working with teachers  and district leaders from across the country. Through the many interactions that my team and I have had with these educators, I have gained substantial insight about what they hope to obtain from digital content. I have written extensively about the education innovation ecosystem (see working definition here, and additional Forbes blogs on the topic here and here), and the important role of educators’ voices as part of this ecosystem. For this reason, I have decided to share with you the features that teachers and district officials most often seek when choosing digital content to use in the classroom. Education entrepreneurs should take these requests into account when developing technology products.

First, given the price tag of many digital content purchases, it is not surprising that districts and teachers are interested in monitoring usage rates and impact. Therefore, digital content developers should make usage and impact reports readily available to authorities at both the school- and district-levels. These reports should be produced in a format that is useful to decision-makers. For example, many teachers appreciate features that disseminate student data, which reduces the amount of time that teachers have to spend gathering and organizing this kind of information for distribution. Some software programs, such as Lea(R)n and Allovue, automatically send student performance data reports to teachers, school leaders and/or parents on a regular basis.

Second, there is a critical content gap in the availability of computer-based remedial skill intervention programs for high school students. While there are several credit recovery programs for high school students to meet graduation course requirements, such as the online courses offered by The American Academy, more intensive programs that are skill-based and target specific student learning needs are desperately needed.

Third, teachers, especially teachers of students with special needs, often request edtech products that have tools/functionalities such as read aloud, highlighting, increased print size, translation in multiple languages, bookmarking and note-taking. Only a few programs currently on the market include a diverse array of options for students with many different kinds of special needs. CAST is one example of an organization that is exploring and designing programs that address universal design learning.

District officials also have also complained to me about the headaches associated with the technical back-end workings of some products that are necessary to get those products up and running. Rather than requiring central office staff to upload teacher and student information on an annual or more frequent basis, systems should allow for teachers to be able to register themselves and their classes. Central office administrators applaud digital platforms that are able to connect seamlessly to the district’s student information system.

EdWeek surveyed 2,200 district leaders, school leaders and teachers between February 2015 and May 2016 about what they think is wrong with current digital content.  They reported issues such as inadequate network bandwidth, cost, lack of evidence that digital content improves student achievement, difficulties related to student home use/access, lack of support from digital content providers and inadequate teacher training. EdWeek’s findings are illustrated in the graphic below.

Based on an EdWeek survey of 2,200 district leaders, school leaders and teachers conducted between February 2015 and May 2016. For more information, please visit https://webinars.edweek.org/shop/featured/what-schools-want-from-digital-content-cao-insights-exclusive-data/?_ga=1.206217552.25896616.1410310880

Based on an EdWeek survey of 2,200 district leaders, school leaders and teachers conducted between February 2015 and May 2016.

Despite articulating these wishes for digital content, many educators and district leaders are hesitant to purchase and introduce new digital resources. District leaders cite many advantages to maintaining existing digital resources in spite of the availability of better products. Change is rarely easy, and many teachers have used the same digital resources for several years and are already familiar with them. As a result, district officials worry about the learning curve and time involved in helping teachers learn how to use new products. In addition, it can be difficult for new products to get tied into existing district technology. Many school districts have technology systems that are antiquated, which complicates the integration of new products with district hardware and software that is currently in use. Both teachers and district officials note that most national products are not tailored to a district’s scope and sequence, which can require a great deal of “crosswalking” work for the district’s academic leaders. Entrepreneurs should be aware of these challenges when selling to school districts.

When creating digital content, it is important that education entrepreneurs understand the issues that educators believe need to be addressed.  Some of the most successful entrepreneurs I have met have used innovative thinking to consider these identified issues in new ways.


This article was written by Barbara Kurshan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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