Challenges Seen in Moving to Multimedia Textbooks

By Katie Ash — October 15, 2010 7 min read
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Most school districts have the technical infrastructure to support the basic digital textbooks of today. But as far as supporting the kinds of textbooks tech-savvy educators would like to see—multimedia-rich, interactive, Web-based materials—schools have some serious catching up to do in increasing network speed and connectivity, providing professional development for teachers, and persuading lawmakers to revisit state textbook-adoption policies.

“Right now, as long as all we’re doing is PDF files, the bandwidth and infrastructure in Virginia isn’t going to be a problem,” says Lan W. Neugent, the assistant superintendent of technology, career, and adult education for the Virginia Department of Education.

“But we’re going to see books become multimedia extravaganzas,” he says, “and the minute that happens, then suddenly the bandwidth is going to be pitiful.”

In 2000, the state began a push toward online standardized testing, says Neugent, which laid the groundwork for digital textbooks by beefing up bandwidth and computer access in the classroom.

Last year, in collaboration with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based CK-12 Foundation, a nonprofit group that is creating Web-based, open-content textbooks for precollegiate education, the Virginia department released a physics “flexbook” written by 13 physics teachers and other experts.

The Web-based, open-content compilation of supplemental materials is available to any teacher in the state and is published under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license, which is an alternative to copyright that means it can be used by anyone who gives credit to the creators and retains the same license for the material.

But adopting digital textbooks on a wide scale has yet to be accomplished by most school districts.

Even in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a widely discussed digital-textbook initiative in 2009, there is much progress to be made, says Neeru Khosla, a co-founder and the executive director of the CK-12 Foundation.

“It’s quite a daunting process,” she says. The fiscal situation of California schools, in particular, makes it difficult to embrace innovations, says Khosla, and at this point, digital textbooks are still new territory.

“We have to think about things that people haven’t thought about before,” she says, such as what kind of Internet speed and connectivity schools need, the amount of professional development teachers should undergo, what platform and format digital textbooks should be created for, and how to provide the teaching materials that accompany most textbooks.

Spotlight on California

John Magneson, the coordinator of media and technology for California’s Merced County Office of Education, which oversees 20 school districts and 55,000 students in the area, echoes Khosla’s budget concerns.

“Our districts don’t have the funding to maintain the paper-textbook environment and invest in the technology to allow students to use the digital textbooks, even if they’re free,” he says.

In addition, California’s digital-textbook initiative is only for high schoolers, says Magneson, and if it is to be expanded to all of K-12, state textbook-adoption policies for the lower grades need to be revised.

“The state needs to provide enough flexibility for districts to update their textbooks in a more timely fashion, and in a way that is more affordable to districts,” he says.

For now, textbooks for K-8 students in California undergo a statewide adoption process every four to eight years, says Magneson, while high schools have more control over which textbooks they adopt and when.

Rick Miller, the superintendent of California’s 44,000-student Riverside Unified School District, encourages education leaders to take digital-textbook adoption one step at a time.

“If you think about this over a five-year period, it fits into the realm of do-ability,” he says.

For instance, he says, his district started by conducting a survey of students that found about 75 percent had computer access at home—a finding that helped officials get a better idea of students’ technological resources.

“It wasn’t nearly as big of a problem as we thought,” Miller says of computer access.

Then, by tapping early adopters, or teachers who wanted to pilot digital textbooks in their classrooms, says Miller, the Riverside district was able to experiment with digital curriculum materials on CDs and flash drives, as well as through low-cost laptops called netbooks and iTouches, which are iPods with touch screens.

The district also made sure classrooms were equipped with interactive whiteboards and projectors so all students could view the materials during class.

Moving Ahead in Texas

This school year, in the 55,000-student Plano Independent School District in Texas, English and language arts textbooks for all grade levels are digital, says Jim Hirsch, the associate superintendent for academic and technological services for the district.

Because the Plano district made technology a priority several years ago, teachers have been quick to embrace digital textbooks, he says.

“Our teachers are still adapting to a different way of providing learning opportunities to our students,” says Hirsch. “But we had the advantage of teachers being comfortable ... already accessing a lot of digital materials, so it’s a very small step forward for them.”

The district provides a classroom set of physical textbooks, he says, but individual textbooks for students are provided either on a CD or through the Web.

“Our wireless infrastructure can actually support students’ bringing their own devices,” such as laptops and other Web-enabled devices, says Hirsch. And to make sure all students can access the materials at home, he says, the district donates surplus computers to families who can’t afford them.

One of the advantages of having students bring their own devices is that they’re already comfortable using them, Hirsch points out.

But as more instructional materials are created in a digital format, it is important, he argues, that publishers use open standards, rather than proprietary formats and platforms that may not be supported by the wide variety of Web-enabled devices students bring.

“I’m continually saying you need to produce for the open standard,” says Hirsch. “Don’t produce for a closed proprietary standard,” or you run the risk of creating a digital resource that only a segment of students can access.

Glimpse of the Future

The 10,000-student Vail Unified School District in Arizona may offer a glimpse of what the future of textbooks holds for many other districts.

“Long ago, we actually sort of abandoned the textbook as the source of our scope and sequence” for curriculum, says Andrew Chlup, the director of Beyond Textbooks, a districtwide instructional framework that requires teachers to identify resources that correspond with state standards, in lieu of a textbook. Sometimes that may be a section of a textbook, a resource they’ve created, or something culled from the Internet, he says.

'Beyond Textbooks' Charts a Course

Beyond Textbooks, an initiative of the Vail Unified School District in Arizona, has crafted an instructional framework to move away from traditional textbooks.

1. Teachers carefully select “essential” or “power” standards from the Arizona academic standards.

2. Teachers unwrap the standards to determine big ideas, key vocabulary, student-friendly language, essential questions, and performance tasks that prove mastery.

3. Teachers add classroom-tested lesson plans, supplemental materials, and objective accommodations/interventions to the Beyond Textbooks website.

4. Teachers sequence the essential standards in a curriculum calendar that is linked to the Beyond Textbooks wiki.

5. Teachers create formative assessments that can determine if a student has mastered an objective.

6. Teachers download and share curriculum and resources from the Beyond Textbooks website that suit their instructional styles.

7. Classroom instruction is more effective because teachers can easily access a variety of materials anytime, anywhere.

SOURCE: Beyond Textbooks

“It’s allowing people to build an effective curriculum that’s interesting and varied without a textbook,” says Chlup.

The Beyond Textbooks initiative is in its third year in the Vail district, he says, and about five years went into the development of the curriculum before the program was launched.

To pull it off, the district upgraded its computers, equipped them with the software they needed to help teachers build the curriculum and collaborate with one another, and put LCD projectors, audio equipment, interactive whiteboards, and document cameras in classrooms.

Taking the process one step at a time and including teachers, curriculum experts, IT staff members, and administrators in the conversation was essential, says Chlup.

“All those folks working together structured the vision and decided how to move forward,” he says. “It does require some flexible leadership, and teacher buy-in is the most critical piece.”

Another key to the program’s success has been the open-source software it’s built on, says Chlup. Although it requires just as much maintenance and upkeep as proprietary platforms, open-source software has allowed the Vail district to scale up without breaking the bank.

But although many educators see digital textbooks as inevitable, they’re still waiting for textbook policies to catch up.

“We suspect that the textbooks in their current form are kind of like the dinosaurs, making their last migration across the country,” says Magneson, of Merced County in California. “At some point in time, the technology will catch up with them, and they’ll fade out and disappear.

“It’s just a question of whether or not we’ll see policies change that will create the environment where this technology can flourish.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as Textbooks in Transition


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