Using Technology to Improve Curriculum Development

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Is it possible to develop quality curriculum materials more quickly using technology?

Lacking in resources and expertise, some curriculum designers may cut corners and produce educational materials that lack quality, usefulness, and longevity (Dowding, 1991). But as the amount and complexity of information increases, the ability to quickly develop and adapt educational materials could be more critical to the learning experience than is now recognized.  

Description of Case Study

The Agricultural and Extension Education Department at Penn State develops and maintains hundreds of curriculum materials, not only for student use but also for youth programs such as 4-H. In this case study, traditional development practices (see description below) were compared with the development and review of a sequential set of modules on an electronic database. In the initial comparison, a sequential curriculum (set of seventeen modules) was developed. Later, support materials of various types were created, including reference lists, fact sheets, audiovisual scripts, evaluations and tests, and activity guides. The overall objectives of these comparisons were to:

1. reduce the curriculum development time from the initial onset of ideas to the release of an actual product for educators to use

2. retain or improve the quality of curriculum materials

3. maximize the use and longevity of the curriculum by keeping resources and other support information current

The case study also compared the time spent by the curriculum developer and the reviewers in learning more about the curriculum development process itself.

The traditional curriculum development methods consisted of a needs assessment; committee meetings of experts and educators; writing, collating, and mailing materials to reviewers; and waiting to receive the comments back. The electronic process included the development and distribution of materials on an information database made accessible to the university, county extension offices in Pennsylvania, and the State Department of Education.

To simulate actual curriculum development conditions, the curriculum reviewers were self-selected in both cases, rather than randomly or specially selected. The reviewers also were surveyed afterward to determine their opinions and to identify overall factors that seemed to inhibit and facilitate the process.

From a target population of more than 500 participants, 63 extension agents, teachers, parents, volunteers and youth reviewed the electronic curricula. On the 200 sets of traditional mailed materials, only eight reviewers sent in comments. Although more curriculum materials (102 versus 8) were reviewed on the database, only a handful of reviewers provided input on all 17 modules in the series.

Because the electronic materials were placed on an information database already used by the reviewers in the study, curriculum drafts were easily accessed and quickly reviewed without a lengthy orientation process. Explanations of each module, review forms, and a menu were provided on-line to show how all the materials fit within the overall curriculum plan. The support materials were assigned a document name and number and were reviewed in the same way.

With the database, no additional materials had to be reprinted or sent out electronically because of loss in mailing or delay in delivery. The database simply "held" the documents until the reviewers were ready to read or share them with others. Once entered into the electronic system, the modules could be reviewed immediately. In some cases, a professional editor made grammatical changes at the same time as the reviewers looked at the content, further reducing the development time.

The developer also was able to make sequence changes from one module to another more easily and to eliminate problems associated with managing different drafts of the same document. As reviews came in, changes were continually incorporated into the documents on the electronic database. These corrections were highlighted, allowing later reviewers to benefit from the changes and forestalling redundant suggestions. Reviewers were informed that their comments might be modified if a disagreement arose. Disagreements were not uncommon and were resolved by consensus, usually in a conference call.

With the traditional methods, the developer spent a large amount of time corresponding with potential reviewers and managing the printing, collating, and mailing of the materials. Some documents had to be resent when the originals did not arrive or were misplaced. The traditional review was so time consuming that the reviewers did not have the opportunity to discuss their suggestions or respond more than once.


In the initial comparison (1993), development time and effort were reduced by one-third (15 months versus 24 months) using the electronic database (see Figure 1). In subsequent comparisons (1995 and 1997), support materials—mostly monographs—were produced in far less time (a 75 to 80% reduction). These favorable results appear to be due largely to three factors:

1. the ability of the reviewers to locate and review materials quickly

2. the reduction of developer time spent coordinating the distribution and replacement of lost materials

3. the opportunity for the developer to make multiple changes to the electronic documents with limited reviewer confusion (which can occur when review materials are mailed out in installments)

The greatest advantage of the electronic process was to allow first drafts of the text, particularly those that would be widely used and/or controversial, to be reviewed by the users of the final product before the bulk of the curriculum development investment (time, effort, and money) was expended. This was a decided advantage, as developing curriculum that works for a large group of people can be like "attempting to hit a moving target" (Whitten, 1992).

With either method, there was no indication of any lack of access to the curricula. When the electronic methods were employed, reviewers noted that they were able to respond more easily to the materials and could adjust their review time better. Some reviewers, however,  spent additional time modifying the electronic review form to fit their needs, and a few chose to print the documents out on their own equipment, at their own expense.

Despite these minor drawbacks, in the end there was no comparison between the traditional and the electronic methods. Despite numerous needs assessments, planning meetings, and follow-up letters, no one wanted to use the final materials that had been produced in the traditional way.

To provide some measure of quality, the electronic materials were also reviewed by professional curriculum developers located throughout the country. The evaluations were so high that the materials are now included in a national curriculum collection. Best of all, the electronically developed materials (and one additional module that was added later) are still used to teach thousands of young people each year.

Although the information database used in this study is no longer available because of Y2K concerns, an Internet home page is now being used with similar results. The review sheet has been redesigned several times based on reviewer comments.


This case study looked at electronic ways to improve the curriculum development process and create quality materials in less time. Except for the minor issues of the cost of printing documents by on-line reviewers and the alteration of review forms, no other problems with the use of a database were reported. The on-line process reduced confusion and kept meetings and paper revisions to a minimum.

Since no other comparisons of this type were found by the author, it would seem highly desirable to replicate this study or—at the very least—to continually repeat and fine tune the on-line process, especially in situations where context is critical to the learning outcome (Leh, Sleezer, and Anderson,1998), and teacher and student participation is highly valued (Jonassen, 2000).

Certainly, as new technologies are created and as experts from around the globe are called upon to solve problems and instruct students, the knowledge of successful strategies to develop and transfer educational materials becomes increasingly important (Baker, 1995). The ultimate challenge may be to convince colleagues to try a new approach.


Baker, B. (1995). The Internet and the World Wide Web: Potential benefits to rural schools. Presented at the Annual Conference of the National Rural Education Association (87th, Salt Lake City, UT, October 4–8, 1995). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 401064).

Dowding, T. (1991). Managing chaos (or how to survive the instructional design process). Educational Technology , 26–31.

Jonassen, D. (2000). Transforming learning with technology: Beyond modernism and postmodernism, or whoever controls the technology creates the reality. Educational Technology , 21–25.

Leh, A., Sleezer, C., and Anderson, V. (1998). Measuring the value of educational technology in different contexts. Educational Technology , 28–32.

Whitten, W. (1992) The hurdles of technology transfer. Educational Technology , 19–24.