Calling “archaic” those textbook adoption policies that preclude schools and districts from spending state funds on digital-only resources, the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) is urging state officials to get up to date.

From content revisions to pricing structure and distribution, state rules governing approved textbooks often conflict with the very nature of continuously updated, subscription-based, online curriculum materials, SIIA pointed out.

While textbook adoption policies have posed a barrier for some time, SIIA believes now is an opportune time to raise awareness of the issue.

“The environment is shifting, and we would like state adoption standards to change so schools can at least have the option of using digital media,” said Mark Schneiderman, SIIA’s director of education policy.

“We are looking for states to update their textbook review processes so that schools that want to use software-based textbooks as the core material can do so,” he said. “It’s about giving them choice.”

Some 22 states reportedly have textbook adoption systems in place. Of these, only about 12 are in various stages of revising their policies to accommodate the unique characteristics of digital-only resources, said Mark Tullis, vice president of business development for Learning.com, a company that provides a complete online technology education curriculum called Easy Tech.

Easy Tech was one of the first digital-only curricula approved by a handful of states, including Texas, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah, and Mississippi. “We’ve been through 12 textbooks adoptions so far,” Tullis said.

The standard approval process for textbooks is lengthy–typically a state-convened committee reviews hundreds of books for one subject per year. Approved textbooks for each subject remain in use for about six years, and then the approval process repeats.

Many electronic curriculum publishers have steered clear of textbook adoption procedures, but “the advantage of going through state adoption procedures is to qualify for full funding” from state textbook monies, Tullis said.

In states with textbook adoption policies, schools and districts that buy approved textbooks get full state funding for those items–but they typically receive only from 30 to 50 percent of the cost of unapproved curricula, he said.

Tight education budgets make full state funding an attractive goal for both schools and digital content providers, but with the way textbook adoption guidelines are currently written, getting digital-only resources approved is a challenge.

SIIA outlines these difficulties in detail in a policy brief called “State Instructional Materials Review and Adoption Reform: Rules and Processes to Support Electronic Learning Resources.” The brief was released in October to schools, states, policy makers, and SIIA members.

A common problem, for example, is that some state laws require textbooks to be purchased and distributed from a textbook depository, a physical building that houses a state’s textbooks. “That process doesn’t make sense for digital content,” Schneiderman said. “How do you distribute online content though a textbook depository?”

When Mississippi approved Learning.com’s Easy Tech as its core curriculum resource for technology education, officials had to do some fancy maneuvering to abide by the state’s rules for distributing materials through the state depository.

The state now keeps one set of logins–and where possible, a copy of each software title–in the depository, and its schools and districts must purchase their software and receive their logins and passwords through the state depository.

“We tried to take the path of least resistance to get to the end result. We negotiated with our state depository, and they were very good about it,” said Kameron Ball, director of federal programs for the Rankin County School District in Brandon, Miss., and formerly the educational technology director for the Mississippi Department of Education.

In Florida, Learning.com became an approved depository so it could distribute its curriculum there. “We did it that way because we could not reach an agreement with the Florida depository,” said Ileana Rowe, vice president of marketing for Learning.com. “It was less expensive for us to set up our own depository and accept orders online.”

State policies that specify what paper weight and type of binding approved textbooks and curriculum resources must have also restrict digital-only materials from getting approved.

Pricing and payment guidelines have become obstacles as well. For instance, some guidelines prescribe a one-time cost, whereas many digital resources charge an annual subscription fee, Schneiderman said.

Mississippi’s bonding requirement also made approval difficult to overcome. Publishers are required to take out a state bond as a way to guarantee the delivery of materials, but the bonding companies were not used to working with a technology company, Tullis said.

Another problem is that the committees of experts who review textbooks often have little or no background in educational technology.

SIIA members who have tracked how long reviewers spent accessing their products report that in many instances, reviewers never logged in–or they spent 20 minutes or less reviewing the product, Schneiderman said.

States should establish processes and provide training, he said, for how reviewers should evaluate digital curriculum resources to determine if they meet state standards.

Ball said it was a frustrating and lengthy process when Mississippi adopted its first digital-only textbook. “Going through that process really opened my eyes to how important it is to keep the policy that directs what material children use up to date,” she said.

Besides ensuring that reviewers have computer access to evaluate electronic resources, Mississippi also reworded its guidelines for textbook vendors and reviewers to make sure these didn’t exclude anyone.

For example, the state changed how textbook publishers must get approval to update their content and how they identify first-edition textbooks. Mississippi required that a hole be drilled through first-edition textbooks so teachers could easily identify them. “You can’t drill a hole through a computer, so we had to make some changes there,” Ball said.

Some policy makers who are focused on getting enough computers into classrooms might be reluctant to change policies concerning textbooks. But “we can’t continue to wait for the infrastructure to be there to give kids the resources they need to learn,” Ball said.

Gloria Bush is the coordinator of instructional technology for the Mobile County School District in Alabama, which was one of the first states to adopt an online textbook.

“I think it makes wonderful sense for our children,” she said of SIIA’s initiative. “We want to provide the most up-to-date information and reach all different learning types.”

Action needs to come soon, she added: “It’s just crucial. We can’t wait six or seven years for new materials to be issued.”

Links:

“State Instructional Materials Review and Adoption Reform: Rules and Processes to Support Electronic Learning Resources”
http://www.siia.net/govt/docs/pub/SIIAAdoptionLtrBrf.pdf

Learning.com Florida State Depository
http://depository.learning.com/FL