Not by the Book

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Most experts say districts should think carefully before dropping their textbooks, if they decide to do so at all.

Laredo, Texas

A few years ago, middle school students here who were starting a unit in science might have reached first for their textbooks. Today, they gather around computer screens in groups of four and five. Instead of looking at illustrations on a printed page, they watch video clips of scientific phenomena in motion. And rather than toting home a heavy book to study, they carry worksheets on their class activities.

These students are learning science this way because they go to school in one of the few districts in the country that are closing their textbooks in an entire course of study and replacing them with computer-based multimedia materials. Seventh and 8th graders here use a software program called Science 2000, made by Decision Development Corp., and 5th and 6th graders use one called Windows on Science, made by Optical Data School Media, a subsidiary of SRA/McGraw-Hill Inc.

The video and audio clips and computer simulations that are part of these programs help liven up a subject that many children find boring when taught in a traditional way, says Elaine Rodriguez, a curriculum-support specialist for the United Independent School District in this poor, largely Hispanic city of 180,000 just north of the Mexican border.

Science 2000 in particular focuses on student discovery of information in ways that textbooks typically do not, Rodriguez adds. "A textbook gives you material that someone looked up, and the material is there for you to read and digest. In [Science 2000], the answer is not always given to you. You have to find the clue."

The door is open for other districts to replace their textbooks as well. Most of the 22 "textbook adoption" states, which draw up official lists of instructional materials that are approved for purchase with state money, have already sanctioned the use of multimedia products as core texts. Eleven states, for example, have approved Science 2000 as a core text. Three schools in Houston, meanwhile, are piloting a software program for algebra, and the West Palm Beach, Fla., schools are using Social Science 2000 as a textbook replacement in several grades.

Such developments have some experts wondering if the age of the traditional textbook is coming to a close.

"The textbook will fade, and maybe blissfully," says Peter W. Cookson Jr., the director of the Center for Education Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University. "The idea that books are passé‚ and everything is going to be multimedia--it's penetrating the education publishing field tremendously, and it's going to transform it."

But whether schools should embrace such a transformation is another question. Most experts--including many who strongly advocate technology in schools--say districts should think carefully before dropping their textbooks, if they decide to do so at all.

"It's not clear even if it's a good idea," says Elliot Soloway, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan.

Technology is already having a huge influence on textbook publishing, but mostly in the area of supplemental materials rather than core texts.

"The textbook will fade, and maybe blissfully."

Peter W. Cookson Jr.
Center for Education Outreach and Innovation,
Teachers College, Columbia University

Almost every printed textbook now comes with ancillary multimedia materials, including links to the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs, videos, or databases full of sample test questions.

"I think we'll continue to see a surge in the supplemental area," says Sue Kamp, the director of the education-market section of the Software Publishers' Association in Washington.

Fifteen thousand elementary and middle schools, for example, subscribe to Scholastic Network, an Internet network that provides Web-based classroom activities. The Illinois Department of Education pays the full cost of subscriptions to the network for all elementary and middle schools in the state; Indiana's education department heavily subsidizes its schools' subscriptions.

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, based in Boise, Idaho, has paid for most of the kindergarten classes in Idaho to use the Waterford Early Reading Program, a computer-based program that also comes with books. The program was approved by California in 1996 as a core text, but schools there so far have only purchased it as a supplementary program.

Even in Texas, which in 1990 became the first of the textbook-adoption states to approve a multimedia product as a core text, it is far more common for districts to use such materials to supplement printed textbooks rather than in lieu of them.

"I don't think we're seeing a complete jump in that direction--to do without textbooks," says Connie Stout, the former director of the Internet-based Texas Education Network, who is now an educational consultant in Texas. "You need the interactivity that multimedia gives you, but that doesn't replace something in your hand going home. People need something to take home."

Some experts predict that rather than replacing core texts on a wide scale, multimedia materials will make teachers less willing to rely heavily on any single instructional tool, printed or otherwise.

The Internet is "breaking apart the idea that there is a core text," says Jan Hawkins, a professor of practice in Harvard University's graduate school of education. "There's more a choreography of materials, instead of thinking we can get all of mathematics stuffed into one book or software package."

But here in Laredo, administrators had to get rid of traditional textbooks because otherwise teachers would not have tried to use technology as an integral part of lessons, says Dolores Davila-Medrano, the 24,000-student district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"They'd rely on the books totally, rather than giving technology a chance," Davila-Medrano contends. "That's within their comfort zone."

One clear advantage to multimedia materials over textbooks is that they can provide video and audio clips, databases with extensive amounts of information, simulations with computer graphics, and convenient links from one set of information to another. Multimedia materials can also deliver a voluminous amount of information in a small amount of space.

Some educators worry that educational content provided through multimedia sources or the Internet is superficial.

"A kid would need a wheelbarrow to take home the data in books and images," says Robert McClintock, a co-director of the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College. "Ultimately, multimedia resources for education are going to allow for a fuller or richer curriculum than textbooks are."

Multimedia "can put kids in touch with the world. It creates a visual understanding of the world that never existed before," agrees Cookson, also of Teachers College. He contrasts that capability with what he sees as the limits of the textbook, which "gives the kid the impression the world is a fixed place."

There are also drawbacks to multimedia, Cookson acknowledges. He worries that educational content provided through multimedia sources or the Internet is superficial.

"It doesn't answer the question 'Why?'" he says.

Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit New York City group that reviews printed textbooks and curricula, says multimedia products may be better suited to the sciences than the humanities, because the reading material in technology-based texts tends to be dumbed down. "The multimedia systems I know in history, I've looked at with great skepticism," Sewall says. "I worry about the depth and rigor of these programs."

Sewall says he also worries about the subtle influence that multimedia publishing is now having on traditional textbooks. "There's print in textbooks today, but it's cut up in short takes. It's extended caption writing, and it doesn't serve the purpose of exposition."

A lack of equipment is one of several difficulties that the Laredo district has encountered in making the switch to multimedia core texts.

But the greatest limitation on the use of multimedia is that many schools don't have the infrastructure to support it, McClintock says. "Learning materials are something that all children need to have dependable access to," he says.

Indeed, a lack of equipment is one of several difficulties that the Laredo district has encountered in making the switch to multimedia core texts.

When the district adopted Science 2000 in 1994, it provided one computer, a television, a laserdisc player, and a link between the television and the laserdisc player for every 7th and 8th grade science classroom. The cost was roughly equal to what the district would have paid for new science textbooks for all 7th and 8th graders.

The district asked schools to start implementing the program in the 1995-96 school year.

With one computer per classroom, "you can start--you can make it go," says Rodriguez, who taught with the program for two years and now spends a third of her time as a district support specialist for it.

Some educators in the district disagree. Delores W. Barrera, the principal at Clark Middle School, says her teachers are struggling with Science 2000 even with seven computers per classroom.

"We can't wait until we can adopt another program," Barrera says. "We don't have the proper tools to run [Science 2000] correctly."

The idea behind Science 2000 is to teach students about science while engaging them in "investigations." "Science 2000 offers students the opportunity to learn science concepts in the ways that scientists actually apply their trade," says Larry Nelson, the president and chief executive officer of Decision Development Corp., the San Ramon, Calif., company that made the product.

For example, 7th graders learn about bacteria and viruses while following a story line about how a particular virus caused a disease among a tribe in Papua New Guinea.

At Clark Middle School, teacher Angela G. Abdallah has her students gather around computers in groups and take turns reading aloud information from the screen about the differences between viruses and bacteria. Every paragraph or so, the students stop reading and Abdallah shows them a video on a laserdisc player. When the students get to the words "bacterial cells," for instance, Abdallah shows a clip of the three kinds of living bacteria, magnified under a microscope.

The lesson ends in a traditional way, with children writing down vocabulary words and definitions for further study.

In 8th grade teacher Jessica Fulgham's class at United South Middle School, students work with construction paper, magazine photos, crayons, and scissors to make posters categorizing creatures of the earth according to whether they dwell primarily on land, in the water, or in the air. To introduce the activity, Fulgham shows the students video clips of various animals from the Science 2000 laserdisc.

Marcos adds that the one computer in her classroom has been down for two weeks, and that she'd be "spinning her wheels" if she were teaching with Science 2000.

"Through the use of this technology, we're able to provide greater exposure to the world," says Davila-Medrano, the assistant superintendent. "We're not dealing with a population whose family takes them on ski vacations or to fancy restaurants. Many of our students don't even go to other areas of the city."

Abdallah and Fulgham both say they've spent hours scrounging up background material and planning lab activities to fill out the lessons offered by the multimedia program.

"If you're a true science person, you know this cannot be your bible," Abdallah says.

But she praises Science 2000 for urging students to use the scientific method. And Fulgham says the program encourages students to work cooperatively.

"I definitely like it better than a textbook," Fulgham says.

A recent visit to three classes actively using Science 2000 here found that every student interviewed was excited about the program.

"It has all the information we need. We click a few times and we get what we need," 7th grader Robby Rangel says. "With a book, we wouldn't get as much--the movies, the pictures. This is much more up-to-date."

Learning science with Science 2000 is "better than a textbook," adds Veronica Jaime, an 8th grader in Fulgham's class. "It's interesting. It gives you more information. The textbook doesn't give you a lot of information."

Most of the students use one word to describe Science 2000: "cool."

But students using Science 2000 aren't the only ones here who use that word to describe science. "We do a lot of cool stuff," says Ricky Carrillo, an 8th grader in Diana Marcos' science class at George Washington Middle School. "In 6th and 7th [grades], we just did chapters of books. Here we do activities."

Marcos and her colleague Guillermo Pro so far have resisted using Science 2000. Marcos hasn't used it at all, and Pro tried one unit for 2« weeks and then abandoned it. They rely instead on a mix of other materials such as slide shows, clay modeling materials, popsicle sticks, straws, and photocopied units of science textbooks that have been approved by the state.

They fault Science 2000 as being too advanced for their students, lacking background information, and using activities that aren't engaging. Their resistance isn't about a phobia toward technology, Marcos and Pro say, noting that they both are computer literate. Neither is it about a desire to go back to a traditional printed textbook.

This year the district is stepping up to efforts to make sure Science 2000 is used.

Science 2000 is "a good program if you're an extremely bright 8th grader with a 10th grade reading level," Marcos says. "There's a terrible lack of science in general in our community and low reading levels. ... How can I teach genetics if they don't know what a cell is?"

Marcos adds that the one computer in her classroom has been down for two weeks, and that she'd be "spinning her wheels" if she were teaching with Science 2000.

Pro feels the program is too passive for his students. "They need to touch things and put them together," he says.

Both say they intend to teach at least one unit of Science 2000 this year because of pressure from their administrators, but they're looking for jobs elsewhere, to be able to teach the way they would like.

Persuading teachers to use Science 2000 has been a slow process throughout the Laredo district. Four years after the district officially adopted Science 2000, only two of the seven middle schools are really going full-strength with the program. Overall, a third of the 7th and 8th grade science teachers are using it fully, estimates Rodriguez, the district support specialist.

"The principals haven't enforced it," she says.

This year, however, the district is stepping up efforts to make sure Science 2000 is used. Davila-Medrano sent out a memo to principals clarifying what equipment is needed to run the program and asking them to report if teachers didn't have what they needed, thus eliminating opportunities for excuses.

"If for some reason this is not being used, they are responsible," she says.

Rodriguez believes the district's new resolve is warranted because 8th grade science scores on standardized state tests for the two schools that have used Science 2000 consistently--Clark and Trautmann middle schools--are higher than at the other middle schools and have improved significantly between 1996 and 1998. (She plays down the fact that science scores also increased at four of the five other middle schools over the same period.)

Davila-Medrano is less willing to draw conclusions about the scores, but she adds that requiring Science 2000 isn't about test scores anyway.

"It's about providing quality instruction in the classroom," she says. "We feel this is a very good program."

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 30-34

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Not by the Book
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