Administrator Magazine: Curriculum
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The age of digital textbooks.

Build Your Own Digital Textbooks

In the future, curriculum will be planned and delivered DIY-style.

When the governors of the nation's two most populous states bang the drum for schools to switch to electronic textbooks, you gotta think that the transition away from paper and toward digital devices would be rapidly under way.

Indeed, the big three textbook publishers do offer nearly all of their products in a digital form, just as they're scrambling to keep up with demand for supplemental, game-like resources. But while the rallying cry for open-source digital textbooks is coming from California and Texas, the real revolution is happening elsewhere.

Create Your Own
In districts from Arizona to Indiana, educators are opting out of textbooks altogether, culling from vetted electronic resources and courseware to essentially create their own texts. Online articles, simulations, and audiovisual files, along with lesson plans shared through wikis, can be found on the syllabi for a growing number of secondary classes. This approach, while piecemeal and labor-intensive, makes for materials that are inexpensive (except for the cost of the technology) and easily updated.

For a few states and many districts, the textbook adoption cycle may be a thing of the past. They're going all or mostly digital.

"The long-term transformation is not books going online," says Mary Skafidas, a marketing executive at McGraw-Hill. "It's the creation of different tools, a step beyond digital prose. We have gone beyond that to create simulations, math disguised as video games, and whole digital worlds. Teachers no longer think, ‘What book do I need?' They think about what video or simulation or game."

What to Do Now?
Two years ago, teachers in Indiana's Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation were meeting around a conference table and reviewing a selection of secondary-level texts from the major publishers.

"We basically said, ‘Ew. These books are uninspiring. These don't meet our needs at all,'" says social studies chair Libby Arthur. "We sat there looking at each other and somebody said, ‘Well, what are we going to do now?' "

Greg Lewis, a colleague in another Bartholomew high school, remembers thinking the evolution of textbooks had been "rather glacial, despite all of the PDF and online versions. They lacked a sense of narrative."

What Arthur and Lewis learned later was that in another conference room, about 40 miles north in Indianapolis, the very same thing was happening.

Social studies specialists at the state level issued a memo that same day stating that the state would not be adopting any textbooks that year.

"They didn't like a single book," says Michael Jamerson, the district's director for technology. "That opened the door for us."

Bartholomew kept the textbooks it had adopted in 2006, but also purchased a subscription to NetTrekker, an online search tool that gives access to articles vetted by other teachers. With the help of a software developer, the district created a way for teachers to build their own digital units. The social studies teachers in Bartholomew are making their own textbooks.

"It's worked because it's been gradual," says Bill Jenson, district director of secondary education. "We have a framework for instruction and assessment and for what we want our students to know. These tools allow us to make that framework come alive."

Bartholomew's framework for differentiated instruction, which it developed using universal design for learning principles, has made its switch to digital resources go relatively smoothly. Because they have a precise map of which standards are essential and how they can help each student master them, the district is able to choose the best tools to make that happen.

Reinvent the Lesson Plan
Bartholomew's process for building a lesson plan looks like this: Teachers find articles, audio or video clips, games, and interactive instructional content. They put together a portfolio of the materials and store it online in a "curriculum loft" developed by a local software company.

Materials in the curriculum loft can be accessed by students, parents, and all the teachers in the district. "Tonight's homework," says Libby Arthur, who teaches ancient history, "might be to create a Venn diagram comparing Sparta and Athens. They'll read the articles I posted and learn how the two cities were different. Every word is annotated, and if they need a definition, instead of three paragraphs in a textbook, they find 11 articles."

Arthur's school provides a laptop for each student. Where Greg Lewis teaches, teachers wait their turn to use a laptop cart. "It can be half an hour to get everybody set up," he says. "Next year we're looking to add 1,600 laptops and some teachers are wondering how we're going to manage."

Growth Prompts Change
The community of Vail, Arizona, experienced such polulation growth in recent years that educators began reconsidering their resources. Continue buying textbooks at nearly $100 apiece or come up with another approach?

"Some textbooks didn't cover Arizona's standards and others went into too much detail," says Andrew Chlup, Vail school district's director of technology and cofounder of Beyond Textbooks, the district's online framework. "We brought our teachers together and went through the standards. Then we asked, ‘How can we help at least 80 percent of students master these?' That gave us a wedge moment to cut away from the textbook."

Vail opened a new high school four years ago with a laptop for each student. While few courses used electronic textbooks, educators began to develop a district-wide curriculum-building process. With their state standards as the guide, they select articles from education databases and use a wiki technology to share curriculum and pacing calendars.

"It started primitively," says Chlup. "We spent a lot of time reformatting and the pages got messed up, but all of the sudden we had teachers sharing things across district."

Now they have scaled up to include every school in the district. Each classroom has a digital projector, audio enhancement, a document camera, and an interactive whiteboard. But Chlup says the real benefits are not so much about the new tools.

"For us, this is a way of thinking about teaching," he says. "Core to our belief is What are the results? We pay close attention to how students are doing and whether this is making teachers' lives easier."

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