In the last decade, the number of web-based education resources has grown from just a handful to a mind-numbing myriad of sites geared either towards a wide audience for general education, or to teachers for use in the classroom. Equally diverse is the manner in which companies or groups of individuals have chosen to develop and distribute those software resources. Private companies, non-profit groups, government entities, cooperatives and even individual teachers have worked to create their own panacea for educational ICT.
In particular, increasingly technology-literate teachers are developing their own software resources and making them available freely. As a result, there has become an explosion in the availability of open-source education-oriented content available on the web. Understandably, educational institutions, with their collaborative mindset and budget-conscious administrators, are quick to champion the effort of their teachers, hoping, as well, to cash-in on the relatively cost-free method of teacher-created e-content.
The abundance of freely available teacher-created resources does not come without pitfalls, however. Firstly, the sheer quantity of digital content now being posted on the web by teachers is dizzying. Some efforts have been made to create depositories or portals by which teachers can upload and share their materials, but unfortunately, the huge diversity amongst teaching styles, pedagogies, and curriculum from one teacher, or school, or country, to another, ultimately creates a mishmash of resources with no particular standards for quality or design, no guidelines for identifying learning standards in the resources, and no common method of naming or tagging resources to make them easily searchable. The end result then, is that the depositories, or portals, which have been established, are mediocre in regards to their utility in assisting teachers to find applicable content for use with students.
Secondly, the content created by teachers is, frankly, not often of very high quality - certainly not the quality expected by a youth reared in photo-realistic video game graphics and mobile apps that can accomplish almost anything at the touch of a screen. In an ideal world, in addition to the knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy teachers already have, they would also have both the technology skills and time to create quality e-content. This is, however, not such a world. Classroom teachers simply are not able to produce the kind of engaging and stimulating e-content that today’s visually oriented, attention span impaired youth demands. The idea that teachers, lacking either digital expertise or sufficient time allowances, are producing open source e-content on par with premium content providers is simply wrong. It is unfortunate, then, that institutions relying entirely on such content are depriving their students of the best possible software resources.
The Young Digital Planet Solution
Fortunately, there are premium content providers, such as Young Digital Planet (YDP), that are stepping in to meet the demands of this generation and ease the burden on teachers, thus allowing teachers to focus on what matters most - interacting with and assisting students. In the Universal Curriculum (UC) and yTeach website, YDP has developed a system which delivers in both quality of content and ease of use for teachers and students. The UC modules are a series of high quality, highly engaging lessons, whereas the yTeach.com website is an online depository that is effective and easy to use. Since the UC modules are designed and constructed through collaboration between professional software developers and subject-area experts, they deliver an experience that is unsurpassed by open-source or free content - a range of modules which are all developed to a high level of quality, with engaging animations and interactive activities, accurate in their facts and aligned with international standards for appropriate subject areas. Paired with the comprehensive web portal, yTeach.com, where the UC modules are organized, easily searchable and even modifiable, YDP has developed an extremely powerful tool for implementing ICT as part of learning - learning both inside and outside of the classroom.
The quality of the UC modules is unsurpassed. Over the years, I’ve searched for online resources that are truly useful in the classroom and also supplemental to the classroom experience. Unfortunately, sites often excel in one particular area, but fall far short in another. Two sites that I’ve used in the past, ExploreLearning and BrainPop, are prime examples of this problem. Both are premium content providers, but focus on one particular aspect of the learning process - either interaction and manipulation or tutorial. ExploreLearning, for example, provides access to fairly high quality interactive ‘Gizmos’ for students, but lacks almost any significant tutorial component. Contrarily, BrainPop provides excellent short tutorials for students, but lacks almost any significant interactive component to reinforce the content. YDP’s UC modules, though, seamlessly integrate written, video, and animation content tutorials with interactive components such as quizzes, games, and experiments. The interactive component of the UC modules goes a long way towards enhancing the learning experience and engaging students to an extent that I’ve not witnessed with other resources. Lessons within the UC modules consist of high quality, professionally designed and created images, flash animations and videos - each with professional narration - on par with what students would expect in today’s digital world. The videos and animations guide students through successive levels of knowledge, and then facts and concepts are reinforced through the use of interactive activities. It is apparent that YDP has gone to great lengths to ensure the quality of each of its UC modules.
Furthermore, not only has YDP created outstanding lessons in the UC modules, but it has packaged them in an intuitively designed and easy to navigate interface. From a student’s perspective, lessons accessed through the companion student portal (www.ylearnonline.com) usually consist of subsequent pages containing small bits of text, images, animation and/or video, which is then followed by some sort of interactivity reinforcing the immediately previous content. The interface is not too busy, and neatly tucked into the interface are valuable tools such as a periodic table, glossary, encyclopedia and pop-up calculator. The inclusion of these tools helps students to keep their focus on the immediate lesson rather than losing valuable time and attention elsewhere. Also included in the lessons geared towards younger students, are entertaining ‘prize’ animations. Students enjoy revealing these animations once they’ve successfully completed the applicable activities on a page. As a whole, the Universal Curriculum, packaged and delivered to students via their own online web portal, provides a uniquely engaging, educational, and easily navigable approach to eLearning for students.
Value to Teachers
As well designed for student use as YDP’s eLearning solutions are, the value for teachers must not be overlooked. Foremost, the range of resources available is vast. With hundreds of full class lessons and thousands of individual activities, covering subjects as basic as rounding numbers and the skeletal system, to advanced topics such as derivatives of exponential functions and relativity theory, there is a resource available for almost any math or science subject. Finding the applicable materials in such a large college of resources could be a daunting task, but YDP has taken great care to organize the resources conveniently and make the entire collection searchable by keyword, subject, and age appropriateness. If, in the chance that a particular lesson can’t be found which matches closely enough a teacher’s requirements, the yTeach.com site allows teachers to mix-and-match different activities and content from within multiple lessons to a teacher’s suiting. Adding significantly to the value of the UC modules and the yTeach website are the ability to track student progress through the modules and create reports of student activity and progress. The end result, then, is a high customizable system which is easy to use and easy to monitor.
The Ultimate Test - Value to Students
The most important factor, however, is the software’s ability to help students learn. It doesn’t matter how flashy the animations are, how interactive the activities are, the variety of resources available, or the ease by which teachers can incorporate the modules, if at the end of the day, students aren’t actually gaining knowledge and skills. The ultimate test, then, and thus the ultimate value of YDP’s eLearning solution is in their ability to actually teach students.
Of course, the modules can be used during classroom instruction or as homework to either introduce or reinforce concepts covered in class. When used in the classroom, it becomes apparent how engaged the students are - and any time the students are engaged, there is learning taking place. In this regards, the UC modules are far superior to most traditional methods of information dissemination that utilize lectures, worksheets and textbooks. Students are glued to their computer screens and the activities, except for the occasional question to the teacher to either clarify or expound on something in the lesson.
When assigned as homework, that the modules are online and engaging translates into far higher rates of completion, and thus far higher levels of learning and preparedness for future lessons, as evidenced through subsequent student participation in class discussions. “Mr. Wilcox, can we use the yTeach activities to study for the test?”, “Oh… that was in the yTeach assignment we had to do as homework last night!”, and “We learned about that on the yTeach lesson!” are the sorts of statements that I often hear coming from students following implementation of UC Modules in my curriculum. These statements evidence the value students perceive in the modules, as well as the information retained through their use.
Of course, it’s difficult, while implementing the UC modules in a real world scenario - alongside classroom instruction - to quantifiably differentiate between the effect of the UC modules and traditional modes of learning. However, there is absolutely no question that the students who have completed the UC modules are both more knowledgeable in the subject area and are better able to incorporate their understanding into other areas of study and other contexts. The use of the UC modules do, indeed, accelerate learning and encourage students to explore the material to a far greater extent that what is normal through traditional methods.
If I could only invest in one ICT software resource, Young Digital Planet’s Universal Curriculum modules would be my choice. As a total package, it delivers in quality, breadth of content, ease of use, depth of student engagement, and depth of student learning.
 For schools where internet access is limited or nonexistent, paid users have an ability to remotely download content and install it for use on a local server or computer.