March/April 2001 // Case Studies
Using Technology to Improve Curriculum Development
by Jan F. Scholl
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Jan F. Scholl "Using Technology to Improve Curriculum Development" The Technology Source, March/April 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Is it possible to develop quality curriculum materials more quickly using online technology? The traditional, paper-based development process has some crucial problems. Conducting needs assessments, holding committee meetings of teachers and development experts, mailing materials to reviewers, and waiting for responses takes enormous time and effort and often results in low participation. Most importantly, logistical constraints mean that the people most directly impacted by the new materialsteachers and studentsare too often not included in the development process (apart from a few committee representatives) and commonly find that the materials created lack quality and usefulness.

Case Study: Developing a 4-H Program

As an associate professor of agricultural and extension education at Penn State University, I develop curriculum materials on a variety of topics for youth (8-18 years) and adults (teachers and volunteer leaders). The materials are used in 4-H programs in each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. In 1993, I decided to shift curriculum material development from a paper-based process to a computer-based one using a database. Since then, our department has refined the process, creating nearly 40 curriculum items along the way. We now use a Web interface, though other computer-based ways of exchanging information, such as e-mail, would work.

This article is a case study comparison of traditional development practices and the computer-based development process my department uses. The materials developed during this study included a set of seventeen sequential curriculum modules, plus support materials of various types: reference lists, fact sheets, audiovisual scripts, evaluations and tests, and activity guides. The objectives of the study were to:

  1. Reduce the curriculum development time from the initial "idea phase" to product release.
  2. Improve curriculum materials.
  3. Maximize the usefulness of the curriculum by keeping resources current.

To simulate actual curriculum development conditions, the curriculum reviewers were self-selected rather than appointed or randomly selected. Reviewers were interviewed afterward in order to identify factors that inhibited or facilitated the process.

Reaching a Wider Audience

One of the immediate benefits of our online process was that we were better able to distribute materials quickly to a large number of evaluators. From a target population of more than 500 participants, 63 curriculum reviewersextension agents, teachers, parents, volunteers, and youthreviewed the electronic curricula. Though only a handful commented on all 17 modules in the series, overall, these reviewers evaluated 102 curriculum materials. In contrast, in the traditional process using mailed materials, only eight reviewers responded, providing comments on only 20 materials.

Because the materials were in a widely available database, county extension offices in Pennsylvania and evaluators from the Pennsylvania State Department of Education were able to access curriculum drafts easily and review them quickly. We provided explanations of each module, review forms, and a menu, all online, to show how materials fit within the overall curriculum plan. Support materials were assigned a document name and number and were reviewed in the same way.

Greater Efficiency

Using traditional methods, content developers spent a large amount of time corresponding with potential reviewers and managing the printing, collation, and mailing of materials. Some documents had to be re-sent when the originals did not arrive or were misplaced. Review was so time-consuming that reviewers rarely had the opportunity to discuss suggestions or respond more than once.

Using the database, no additional materials had to be re-printed and re-sent because of mailing delays, a problem we occasionally faced. The database simply "held" the documents until the reviewers were ready to read or share them with others. Modules could also be reviewed immediately. Reviewers noted that they were able to respond more easily to the materials and could adjust their review time better. Though I should note that some reviewers chose to print the documents and mail them back or spent time modifying the review form to fit their needs, overall the computer-based process saved time. In some cases, a professional editor made editing changes to the text, while reviewers simultaneously evaluated content, further reducing development time.

Content developers made sequence changes from one module to the next more easily, eliminating problems associated with managing different drafts of the same document. As reviews came in, developers continually incorporated changes into the documents. 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.

In the initial comparison in 1993, development time and effort were reduced by one-third (15 months versus 24 months, see Figure 1). In subsequent comparisons in 1995 and 1997, support materials were produced in 75% to 80% less time. 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 time spent distributing and awaiting return of materials.
  3. The opportunity to make multiple changes to documents without reviewer confusion (which can occur when review materials are mailed out in installments).

Producing Quality Materials

The greatest advantage of the computer-based process was to allow first drafts of materials, particularly widely-used or controversial ones, to be reviewed by a wide audienceincluding teachers and youthlong before the bulk of time, effort, and money were expended. The multiple perspectives allowed us to address the problem Whitten (1992) has identified: that small groups of developers making materials for large groups of users are "attempting to hit a moving target."

In other words, using a computer-based process means that controversial issues get ironed out when materials are in the early stages of development. The computer-based process allows such immediate access to materials for such a wide audience that potential problems can be brought to the table quickly and discussed thoroughly. The result is a far more useful and effective product, not only in terms of its short-term quality, but also its long-term application (its "longevity").

To provide an additional guarantee of quality, the electronic materials were also reviewed by professional curriculum developers throughout the United States. Their evaluations were so positive that the materials we developed have been included in a national curriculum collection. Best of all, we have achieved a measure of longevity; the materials developed with the computer-based process, some of them eight years ago, are still used to teach thousands of young people each year.


In this case study, we examined computer-based ways to improve the curriculum development process and create quality materials in less time. The online process reduced confusion, time spent, and redundancy of effort, kept meetings and paper revisions to a minimum, and involved a greater variety and number of reviewers. No significant problems were reported. The review sheet has been redesigned several times based on reviewer comments.

In the end, computer-based methods greatly surpassed traditional ones. The traditional methods too often resulted in final materials that lacked quality and usefulness, regardless of numerous needs assessments, planning meetings, and follow-up letters.

Since I found no other comparisons of this type, it would seem worthwhile to replicate this study, or at the very least to repeat and fine tune the computer-based process. This is especially true in situations where context is critical to the learning outcome (Leh, Sleezer & Anderson, 1998) and teacher and student participation is highly valued (Jonassen, 2000). Though ours is now a Web-based interface, it is important to note that it is largely irrelevant what sort of computer-based technology is used, so long as evaluators have remote access to the information in the database.

As new technologies are created and as experts from around the globe are called upon to solve problems and instruct students, knowing successful strategies for developing and transferring 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).

Jonassen, D. (2000). Transforming learning with technology: Beyond modernism and postmodernism, or: Whoever controls the technology creates the reality. Educational Technology, 40 (2), 21-25.

Leh, A., Sleezer, C., & Anderson, V. (1998). Measuring the value of educational technology in different contexts. Educational Technology, 38 (4), 28-32.

Whitten, W. (1992) The hurdles of technology transfer. Educational Technology, 32 (5), 19-24.

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