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Are Textbooks Relics of the Past?

As textbooks disappear and your district becomes more digitized, the question is not why but how you’ll handle the transition.

At a Discovery Education leadership symposium recently, Todd Wirt, an assistant superintendent overseeing digital transition in Wake County, North Carolina, began a presentation on the subject with a slide that had a single word on it: WHY? Then Wirt drew a big X through the word and said, “If you want to talk about why, you haven’t been listening for the last three years. So let’s talk about how.” For Scott Kinney, Senior Vice President at Discovery, the statement perfectly dramatized how far the movement has come.

"Three years ago, a district that was going digital was a little bit out there on a limb," he says. "Now, you're seeing the early majority who say, ‘We know we have to get there. Let's talk about how we're going to get there.'"

Other indicators abound. Take Discovery itself—more than 650,000 students in 42 states have access to the company's Techbook series, a digital textbook solution for K-12 students. Discovery offered its first digital textbook solution to the state of Oregon five years ago.

Or take PBS LearningMedia, which says it added more than 200,000 registered users in September and had a 400 percent uptick in usage of its site compared with last year. "We rolled out a series of webinars talking about how to use digital media in the classroom called Get Your Tech On," says Alicia Levi, managing director of the free digital resource for teachers. "We have had over 6,000 educators register for those, and we're still about three weeks away from conducting them."

Or consider Roslyn Public Schools on Long Island, New York, where, in October, Superintendent Dan Brenner passed out iPads to ninth graders, making his high school completely 1:1. He isn't looking back.

"Our goal this year is to make sure all our teachers are trained on iMovie and iBooks Author and that we have Apple TVs in every classroom so that teachers and students can key in to the SMART Board effortlessly during a class ­period," Brenner says. "We're trying to move toward using the instrument as a producer of material beyond just the communication component."

Nothing Without PD
On the other side of Long Island, in North Massapequa, the Plainedge School District is about two years behind Roslyn in the transition, according to Superintendent Edward Salina Jr., but nonetheless, he says, his district is "in the heat of it, baby!"

Salina has just equipped his fifth and sixth graders with iPads loaded with eSpark, which provides educational apps for students based on their score on an assessment of their English and math abilities. He has rolled out iPad mobile labs (each with 27 to 30 iPads) in his schools' libraries and is offering iPads to fourth graders in a program that provides extra ELA and math support. And he has instituted eBackpack, a digital learning management system intended to streamline student and teacher communication in the 1:1 program.

In addition, Salina has just installed Epson interactive projectors and Apple TVs in 80 of his high school classrooms. He's also instituting a "desktop virtualization" that allows teachers and students to access school documents 24-7 on any device with an Internet connection and browser. "From a year ago, it's like an educational revolution," he says.

But it's a revolution that could not have happened in either Long Island school system without excellent ­professional development, both superintendents say. "You have to have professional development-otherwise it's going to be a failed initiative," Brenner says. "What will happen is you'll be putting these great learning tools in kids' hands, and you'll be arming them with a distraction. It will sound good that they have them, but I'm not sure they'll be using them the way you would hope."

In the case of Discovery's Techbook deployment in Oregon, says Kinney, "We literally weren't going to let people purchase our system without professional development. Even though ours was a third less [expensive] than everyone else's, including the cost of on-site PD, we felt like it was on us to make sure that this deployment was successful. We did not want that digital environment to fail."

Now, helping districts manage the transition is part of the 12-year-old company's mission. And only after questions about implementation, PD, content strategy, and administrator and parent communication are settled does Kinney recommend going on to hardware, and how to pay for it. "We've made the same mistakes that we've made literally for decades," he says. "Let's put a bunch of hardware in and then talk about what we do with it when we get there."

Implementation in Action
The results of a successful implementation can be dazzling. Take, for example, the scene witnessed in Forsyth County, Georgia, by Andrew Schlessinger, cofounder and CEO of Safari Montage, a digital learning platform that supports streaming video and resources for managing, organizing, and accessing learning objects for presentation.

"The teacher was playing a video for the class and using his iPad to chat with all the students who had mobile ­devices," Schlessinger recounts. "While the video was playing, the teacher asked, ‘Why do you think the narrator just said that?' And every student was compelled to respond and could see every other student's response. Some of them were wise-guy-type responses, but that was okay. [The students] were having fun, they were engaged, and they were learning. It's a new, great way to utilize video and to engage students in a way that we really didn't have available to us before."

Or picture the scene in one of Brenner's Khan Academy-inspired flipped classrooms, where the lesson is part of the homework and class time is devoted to answering student questions. "Instead of using teacher time to disseminate the information, what they're really doing is using teacher time to problem-solve," Brenner says.

Then there's Mountain Heights Academy, a charter school outside Salt Lake City, where teachers assemble their courses from open sources like CK-12, OER Commons, and, match what they find to standards, and then create their own lessons if there are gaps. During the year, they use the open sources to tailor extra material to their students' demonstrated ability to grasp the concepts. "The teacher's job is to be a weaver," says DeLaina Tonks, the school's director. "Taking different threads and putting them on the loom and weaving them together to make a beautiful customized tapestry for each student."

Though classes at Mountain Heights are virtual, the school regularly receives parental plaudits for the strong connections between students and teachers, forged through individual or small-group digital alternatives like daily office hours via video conference, Google hangouts, and screen shares, as well as biweekly in-person service and social activities. "The kids feel like they're important, they matter, their teachers know who they are," Tonks says."If they're not doing their work, they get phone calls and chats and texts and e-mails."

Of course, digitalization is not without its critics, among them parents concerned that their children are already too wired, or who don't recognize in their children's newfangled education the materials and methods they feel led to their own success.

However, according to Karen Cator, these concerns are actually an opportunity. "I think we have a professional requirement to continue to help parents understand the best uses of screen time and technology," says the former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and the new president and CEO of Digital Promise, a bipartisan nonprofit organization authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education. "What kinds of things are helpful for students' learning and what kinds of things might we want to recommend limiting, both in and out of school. But there are many, many students who will benefit from being introduced to a digital environment in school. And I think that's where we need to get as a system."

Most kids have already met the electronic world and are well versed in it, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are ready to use it to learn. "What we find is kids are digital natives at doing the things that kids like to do, such as gaming and Facebook," says Mountain Heights' Tonks. "A lot of times, they don't actually know how to get in and do a Google doc and share it with the teacher."

All the more reason to make sure teachers have been trained properly and are not constrained by "one-size-fits-all textbooks," as Cator calls them.

Farewell to Textbooks
Textbooks' time is passing. "Even four years ago, I would say the companies that create textbooks and have large businesses associated with them were really hanging on to the textbook concept and specifically to the print concept, and they were saying, ‘We are simply making and selling what schools and districts want,'â??" Cator says. "That has shifted and those companies are now transitioning their models. They're trying hard to stay afloat as they cannibalize or change their own business model to a more digital and interactive and evolving environment."

Doug McCollum, senior vice president at Pearson and a veteran of more than 28 years in the business, remembers when digitization was being predicted based on laser discs, CD-ROMs, and QuickTime. But now, he says, the change truly seems to be happening, and fast. And Pearson is responding.

"Everything we develop for the K-12 market is developed as digital first, and really has been for the last eight to ten years," explains McCollum. "Ultimately, the goal is to be able to develop and take advantage of the capabilities of personalized learning and adaptivity on the digital side and whole-class presentation whiteboards and such. And now, more recently, of the capabilities of mobile delivery."

At Plainedge, that could be welcome news. The district will not be buying any new textbook series that don't have a digital component, says Salina.

At Roslyn, Brenner is still waiting for digital textbooks to catch up. "We're not overwhelmed by what we have seen. After we made the commitment to iPads in 2010, we were forced to explore options with textbooks, which at the time were lagging behind," he says. "Instead, we decided to invest in teacher-created materials. The result has been great teacher-driven materials combined with more traditional digital textbooks."

At Mountain Heights, however, it's a brave new world. At the end of every week, teachers check to see how many hits each "learning object" received throughout the week and can simply remove those they conclude are not effective. "It's not like you can rip a chapter out of a textbook and toss it," Tonks says. "But you can [with open source digital]."There's one problem. "You would think that that would give us perfect content," Tonks says. "But the kids change. Once you think you have it all set for your group of students, they go on to their next classes. And then you get a new group of students with new strengths and weaknesses. So you're never done."   


Late Fall 2013— 

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