Best Practices for Launching a Digital Curriculum at Scale

digital curriculum
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Creating and launching a digital curriculum is a significant undertaking at any level. Multiply that effort by a massive student base with a broad spectrum of learners, and finding new strategies to bring that implementation to scale are a must. 

Kara Thorstenson, Director of Digital Learning and Libraries for Chicago Public Schools, discusses the district’s impressive feat of launching a digital curriculum. For her part in that effort, she was recognized by Tech & Learning with an Innovative Leader Award during the Midwest Regional Leadership Summit.  

Launching A Digital Curriculum: The Bigger the District, the Bigger the Challenges 

digital curriculum

(Image credit: Kara Thorstenson)

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the fourth largest school district in the U.S, with more than 323,000 students, spread across 634 schools, encompassing 24.7% English language learners and 16.1% diverse learners. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the district did not have a formal districtwide 1-to-1 device plan. The shift to remote learning required a rush to distribute tech to cover students, with 1-to-1 remaining the CPS norm since. But a shift to digital learning required more than tablets-in-hand, and that change started from the top down.

“Delivering professional learning at scale has been a huge challenge for a district of our size,” says Thorstenson. “We started off with an enormous amount of edtech/curriculum vendor-developed and delivered professional learning, with a gradual handover to our internal teams (exclusively by SY25). Moving into a virtual environment during COVID-19 allowed us to think more flexibly and creatively, offering high-quality PL to more educators than ever.”

The next hurdle was to walk back a history of school-by-school autonomy to ensure everyone was on the same page. 

“After decades of decentralized purchasing for curriculum and no district- or state-mandated curricula, schools and individual teachers were teaching with learning materials with a lot of variability in terms of quality and standards-alignment,” says Thorstenson.

A visionary board and proactive senior leadership ensured funding for the ambitious project was covered. Finding the right curricula for CPS, however, was key.

“Evaluating the state of home-grown and purchased (out of the box) curricula adopted by other large districts, we discovered most resources did not directly address the needs of urban students of color, and were not relevant to the lived experiences of CPS students,” says Thorstenson. “Modifying and adapting licensed content to meet the district’s definition of high-quality curriculum ensured resources for teachers and students were designed with Universal Design for Learning principles in mind, including built-in support for English language and diverse learners.”

Why Go Digital? 

Considering the immensity of the task, one wonders why push for full digital while still recovering from pandemic-era challenges?

“Prior to developing our curriculum, district leaders traveled around the country to learn from other large districts to hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls that they had encountered in tackling similar projects,” says Thorstenson. “We learned that districts who had purchased countless textbooks or ‘published’ their own content in print were then bound to disseminate those materials into perpetuity. Development of physical materials also significantly slowed the process.”

At the time, CPS learned that approximately 50% of district teachers had no material available to them in the subject that they taught. This created both an opportunity and a sense of urgency to develop and deliver Skyline, its unique self-developed curriculum, to schools.

“Because Skyline was developed digitally, we were able to distribute it universally needing only sufficient bandwidth and appropriate content licenses,” she says. “We can continually update it to accommodate changes big and small, from the name of Chicago’s mayor to editing entire units if a different text is selected or a new state mandated learning topic is required.”

3 Key Steps When Launching a Digital Curriculum 

  1. Do Your Research. Talk to similar districts and attend conferences to interact with curricular products, both print and digital. 
  2. Relationships Are Key. Custom development of curricular content and digital resources require solid connections with external partners. 
  3. Choose Wisely. Ask the stakeholders what they need. Test scores and data tell a story, but that story is incomplete without ensuring the needs of teachers and students are put at the forefront of any priority project. 

The Buy-In Roadshow 

Launching any big project requires all stakeholders to be on board. 

“Our Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Digital Learning traveled around the district presenting the project to principals and our 17 network chiefs to gather input,” Thorstenson says. “We leveraged a huge group of teachers called the Curriculum Collaborative to review curriculum against a rubric and make suggestions for edits then used by vendor partners developing the curriculum.”

The district established a clear expectation that schools needed to demonstrate quality (defined by Ed Reports) in all content areas. Skyline was not mandatory, but being pre-approved and developed specifically for CPS on the central district budget’s dime offered a bonus of being a “free” option tailored to local students. 

We are really proud to be doing curriculum development in partnership with local Chicago museums and other cultural institutions,” Thorstenson says. “We provided schools with thousands of picture books, novels, science kits, and more to ensure that students are engaged in hands-on learning while learning from a digital curriculum. We have worked hard to ensure Skyline is holistic and lots of learning takes place away from screens/computers, even as materials are accessible digitally.” 

Digital Readiness Guides and Other Roll Out Strategies 

Digital readiness guides function as a checklist to ensure schools have the appropriate infrastructure, devices, and peripherals to ensure a successful implementation of a digital curriculum.

“We did not have to be 100% ready in order to leverage the Skyline learning materials,” says Thorstenson. “Digital readiness guidance acts as a roadmap in order to best budget and plan for establishing the best possible environment for digital learning over the course of years/budget cycles.”

The CPS Office of Teaching & Learning increased staff, hiring grade level-specific professional learning specialists to train teachers in Skyline. External partners helped develop the structures necessary to scale up for district-wide delivery. 

“For the technical platforms, we leveraged asynchronous professional learning and microcredentials to award digital badges to teachers, school leaders and district staff who complete the appropriate technical professional learning modules,” says Thorstenson. “These are continually updated so that they keep up with new development and ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the recommended workflows for planning, teaching, and delivering and scoring assessments.”

Sascha Zuger

Sascha has nearly two decades of experience as a freelance journalist writing for national magazines, including The Washington Post, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and others. She writes about education, travel and culinary topics.