A Blueprint for Quality Education Content: Behind the Scenes at HMH Studios

Cm Qualitycontent3

How do we define “quality” educational content in the 21st century? If you can download a free lecture on cell structure or algebraic equations from YouTube, or a 99c app on vocabulary, how hard can it be to create effective educational content?  

What really goes into creating quality curriculum?

You may be surprised by the brainpower that goes into each and every detail of educational content - from reviewing the standards and setting learning goals, to writing age-appropriate, culturally sensitive copy and creating an engaging user experience, to adapting for different learning abilities and ensuring efficacy.  Research for a single program begins at least two to three years in advance, with insights from thousands of education professionals.

We visited Peggy Smith-Herbst, a former teacher and VP of HMH’s Math & Science Studios, for a behind the scenes look at the expertise, creativity and pedagogy that go into creating a single lesson.

HMH:  HMH’s content development model is built around a “studio” concept. Each studio is made up of different “architects.” What exactly is a learning architect?  

Peggy: Like a building architect, learning architects are the planners responsible for ensuring our programs are built with strong foundations. Learning architects ensure that our content is grade-level appropriate, meets the curriculum standards, and contains appropriate language, images, instructional strategies, and interactive experiences. We also lead the charge in determining how technology can enable a more engaging and effective learning experience, for example through game theory principles, collaboration, and adaptive learning.

In order to optimize content for new platforms, content developers have had to evolve, think outside the box about learning solutions and diversify delivery methods. This evolution sparked a reconceptualization of our content development team and our processes last year, when we moved away from the notion of traditional “editors” and created a team of learning and design architects in a studio model.

HMH: Your team brings a wide variety of expertise to the process. What kind of people tend to be drawn to learning architecture?

Peggy: The variety of expertise and experience that our learning architects bring allows us to create truly innovative and powerful learning experiences. While many learning architects are former teachers and editors, we also have a chemical engineer, former film and TV producers, and a paleobiologist who worked at the Smithsonian and even discovered a species! By leveraging his unique background of science, language and story-telling skills, he makes math and science concepts come alive for students. This diversity of experience provides deep content knowledge, but also a range of perspectives that help make our content rich.

HMH: It is no secret that the education industry is evolving. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your tenure at HMH?

Peggy: Today, we have so much more research and information on what works best for kids when it comes to creating a strong foundation for success and sustaining academic growth, and the more we know, the more effective we can be.  In my years at HMH, technology has opened the door for more flexible and mobile learning environments and personalized learning tools that can tailor content to a student’s abilities.  

HMH: Let’s talk more about technology. How  do you ensure that digital tools increase engagement and ultimately improve student outcomes?

Peggy:  Learning and design architects work closely to optimize content regardless of the delivery method.  A great example is a tool we created to bridge the gap between the classroom and the home in our Go Math! series. We embedded  a QR code next to some of the activities, so that if a child comes home and doesn’t understand his homework, his parent can scan the code to access a Math on the Spot video that helps explain how to approach that specific problem.

Math on the Spot
Scan the QR code and get access to a video that explains how to solve the problem.
  Math on the Spot

For example, in the print edition of Go Math, students draw learning cubes to practice counting, while in the digital framework, they manipulate the cubes by dragging and repositioning them. We know that when kids participate actively in the learning process, it improves their focus and retention, so interaction and ownership is key, regardless of the medium.

  GO Math!
In the print version (left side), students draw the counting boxes.
In the digital version (right side), students move the boxes to solve the problem.

HMH: You played a part in the creation of our Content Manifesto. What is the one message that you want readers to take away?

Peggy: The Manifesto emphasizes the true depth of the content development process. Nothing frustrates me more than to hear someone say “content is content – it’s is the same whether it’s print, digital, or an app.”  That’s bunk. Content is most meaningful when it is created for the right context and format. The way a child turns the pages of a book is different than the way she progresses in a lesson on a tablet.

Our work is about much more than editing copy to fit the device. It’s about evolving design and weaving together the right context for each delivery method.  Our content development team puts a tremendous amount of thought, planning, and care into developing content so that students can easily understand  — and in formats that are engaging, effective, and appropriate.

If you’d like to learn more about how we develop content, check out our Content Manifesto.

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