Open courseware gains momentum

Open-source courseware could change the way students learn.

Open courseware could change the way students learn, proponents say.

For years, tech-savvy educators and product developers have pushed for more open educational resources in classrooms as a way not only to engage students through technology, but also to save money in a time of tighter budgets. But does using open courseware really make a difference in spending?

Texas State Representative Scott Hochberg thinks so. He sponsored a bill that provides for the adoption and use of open-source textbooks in the state, beginning Sept. 1, 2010, by creating a digital repository of textbook content that will be managed by the Texas Education Association. This move, he says, will save the state at least $250 million a year.

“We were due to spend about $225 million to replace the grades six through 12 literature books in the state. We can buy the content for under $20 million,” he said. “Someplace between $20 million and $225 million, there’s a cost savings.”

Hochberg said using open textbooks is not only cheaper, but also more efficient and faster when it comes time to purchase new editions.

“In the long haul, it means for us that once we buy Shakespeare we don’t have to do it again when the binding wears out. It also means that if we get into a math curriculum and figure out that kids are failing at acute angles, we can patch that curriculum instantly without waiting for the next purchase of textbooks,” he said.

Hochberg explained that the state is in charge of supplying books to local school districts, so while the districts might not see the cash savings in using digital textbooks, they will see an increase in materials or equipment they will be able to buy.

“It gives us an opportunity to get more for our money while saving money as well,” Hochberg said.

He said Texas teachers already are using digital textbooks, though as of now there’s no way for the state to know the rate at which the digital texts are being used.

“Whenever we talk about this at a meeting of teachers or at a meeting of superintendents, or just anecdotally talking to parents in the area, the number of times I hear, ‘We get the books but we don’t open those, all the stuff we use is on computer,’ is a pretty constant drumbeat,” Hochberg said.

Last July, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) published a paper, “A Kindle in Every Backpack: A proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools,” which proposed that the government supply each student in the country with an electronic reading device, allowing textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated. The move also would allow teachers to use an interactive curriculum that engages digital-age learners, the paper argued.

“This proposal is just a concept, an idea to be refined and improved with more dialogue and input,” said the proposal’s author, Thomas Z. Freedman, a senior fellow at the DLC who served as a member of the 2008 Obama-Biden Transition Project on the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group.

Although a rapid-scale plan initially would cost $9 billion more than providing traditional textbooks during the first four years of implementation, wrote Freedman, school districts nationwide would save about $700 million in the fifth year and $500 million annually thereafter. (See “Experts split on ‘Kindle in Every Backpack.’“)


Do we need more male teachers?

Ronald Maggiano is somewhat unusual in the teaching profession, the Washington Post reports. That is because he is male. Maggiano is an award-winning teacher in the Social Studies Department at West Springfield High School in Virginia. He has taught in public and private schools for 25 years. In a piece on his blog called “The Classroom Post,” he calls for more males to enter the profession. Here’s why: Men Teach, a non-profit organization that encourages men to enter teaching, reports that in 2008, 18.8 percent of all elementary and middle school teachers were men. At the high school level during the same year, men comprised 44 percent of the work force. Why are there so few men in teaching? Men Teach cites low pay and lack of prestige, as well as a perception in our culture that teaching is for women. As a result, there is no organized effort across the country to recruit men into the teaching profession.

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Foreign language teaching is becoming just Spanish

The Washington Post reports that a survey by Nancy C. Rhodes and Ingrid Pufahl of the Center for Applied Linguistics, entitled “Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools,” has a clear message, part good, part bad. The good news: Spanish language instruction is growing, something to cheer because we share this hemisphere mostly with people who speak that language. Two of my children are fluent in Spanish and use it in their jobs, which makes me proud and hopeful for the future. The bad news: all the other languages important to the future of the planet are either losing popularity in our schools, or making only tiny gains from very low levels. The only language in which I have any facility is Mandarin Chinese, certainly a biggie in international affairs but a pygmy in American education. It is taught in only 3 percent of elementary schools and 4 percent of high schools with foreign language programs. The report does not cover college language programs, where most of us who have tried to learn less popular languages took courses. But it would be nice if we could find a way to build more fluent speakers in the K-12 grades.

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Top 10 ed-tech stories of 2009: No. 1

The Kindle has game-changing implications for education.

The Kindle has game-changing implications for education.

Schools’ use of digital textbooks began long before 2009, but it was a watershed year for this emerging trend in education.

At the K-12 level, California and Texas–two bellwether states for textbook purchasing–opened the door for local school systems to adopt digital texts. In higher education, inspired by the introduction of a Kindle electronic reader designed specifically for textbooks, several colleges and universities announced pilot projects to see how well the technology meets students’ needs.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this past spring launched an ambitious initiative to see if the state’s 6 million public school students could use more online learning materials, including open courseware–perhaps saving millions of dollars a year in textbook purchases. Now, other states are watching to see how the initiative fares.

“California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers, and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press,” Schwarzenegger wrote in an op-ed piece published in the San Jose Mercury News in June.

In a state with a projected $24 billion budget deficit over the next five years, Schwarzenegger asked education officials to review a wealth of sources that already are on the internet, many of which are free, and determine whether they meet California’s curriculum standards. In response, state education leaders in August released a list of resources they have determined meet state-approved standards for high school math and science classes.

In Texas, legislation passed last spring could put up-to-the-minute instructional content at students’ fingertips, either online or in customized printed form–eliminating the mass-market hardback textbook. The sea change could happen sooner rather than later, beginning as early as the 2010-11 school year.

“This is one of the few times we can do things cheaper, faster, and better all at the same time,” said the measure’s author, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. The legislation is one of two recent bills that allow the Texas Education Agency to create its own repository of digital textbook content.

By switching to online content, Texas schools could save money, customize materials to fit students’ needs, and more easily integrate textbooks with video, software, or other technology, advocates of the legislation said.

In November, the Texas Education Agency took the first step toward such a vision by calling for bids for online material from both traditional publishers and online content providers. Texas officials expect to have the first online materials available for students in fall 2010.

The move toward online content in both California and Texas will affect other states, too, because publishers tailor their products to conform to the needs of states with the most students.

Cushing Academy, a private boarding school in Ashburnham, Mass., this past summer began getting rid of most of its library’s books. In their place is a fully digital collection of books, available for reading on students’ computers or a collection of Kindle eBook readers that students can check out. Library watchers say it could be the first school library, public or private, to forsake ink and paper in favor of eBooks entirely.

They might not be as revolutionary as Cushing Academy, but this fall at least five colleges and universities began piloting Amazon’s Kindle DX electronic reading device, which is designed specifically for reading textbooks.

The Kindle DX, unveiled during a May 6 press conference at Pace University in New York, sports a 9.7-inch screen, compared to the 6-inch screen on the original Kindle. It also features a built-in QWERTY keyboard for note taking. The handheld reader will let users read magazines, newspapers, and textbooks complete with images and graphics. Users also can read PDF files on the Kindle DX–a selling point for faculty members whose courses regularly assign class readings on PDF files.

Officials at colleges and universities piloting the new device said they would carefully track how the Kindle DX affects learning for students accustomed to lugging heavy textbooks from building to building throughout their academic careers.
“Is this the watershed device of electronic text readers we’ve been waiting for?” asked Marty Ringle, chief technology officer at Reed College in Portland, Ore., which gave Kindles to students in three courses this fall. “Or is it a just another evolutionary step on the way to that revolutionary device? We’ll see if it’s a viable alternative to print media.”

Inspired by the launch of the Kindle DX, a controversial proposal published by some influential members of the Democratic Party suggested that the government should consider providing electronic reading devices to every student in the United States in lieu of traditional textbooks.

The New Democratic Leadership Council’s paper, “A Kindle in Every Backpack: A proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools,” published July 14, suggested that federal officials should supply each student in the country with an electronic reading device, allowing textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated. This also would allow teachers to tailor an interactive curriculum that engages digital age learners, the paper argued.

“This proposal is just a concept, an idea to be refined and improved with more dialogue and input,” said the proposal’s author, Thomas Z. Freedman, a senior fellow at the DLC who served as a member of the 2008 presidential Obama-Biden Transition Project on the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group.

Although a rapid-scale plan initially would cost $9 billion more than providing traditional textbooks during the first four years of implementation, wrote Freedman, school districts would save $700 million in the fifth year and $500 million annually thereafter.
“While the upfront hardware cost of providing a Kindle-like device to every child would necessitate a high front-end investment, costs for eTextbooks themselves would quickly produce a savings compared with print textbooks,” Freedman wrote. “If we create savings in one category, the funds can be reassigned to others, like improving teacher pay.”

Digital books might represent the future of textbooks, but Amazon and other e-reader companies still have a long way to go to make it happen–even for a technology-saturated generation that should be more receptive to the shift: Early responses from students at the campuses piloting the Kindle DX have been lukewarm so far.

Most said they liked the prospect of having anytime access to a semester’s worth of reading on the Kindle, which can wirelessly download books or get material by being plugged into a PC. But several students said they disliked taking notes on a keyboard with Tic-Tac-sized keys that sits under a 9.7-inch screen.
“I like the aspect of writing something down on paper and having it be so easy and just kind of writing whatever comes to my mind,” said Claire Becerra, a freshman at Arizona State University.
Becerra tried typing notes on the Kindle’s small keyboard, but when she went back to reread them she found they were laden with typos and didn’t make sense. After a month, she said she takes far fewer notes and relies on the Kindle’s highlighter tool instead.

Students also have an increasing number of options for reading electronic books beyond just Amazon’s Kindle–and one commenter to a recent story at eSN Online wondered what all the hype about the Kindle DX was about.

“There are eBooks available for every major textbook through CourseSmart and VitalSource,” the reader observed. “They can be downloaded or accessed online to [a] desktop, laptop, netbook, [or] even an iPhone. There are lots of other eBook [options] out there that have better features than the Kindle.”

Related links:

Text-to-speech reversal kindles disappointment

New Kindle is textbook-friendly

Students are skeptical whether Kindle DX can replace textbooks

California considers open digital textbooks

Schwarzenegger: Printed texts are old school

Experts split on ‘Kindle in Every Backpack’

The rise of digital textbooks

California lists state-approved digital textbooks

Phones, PCs put eBooks within easy reach

Florida college students get free online books

Kindle lightens textbook load, but flaws remain

School’s Kindle conversion sparks controversy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt enters new chapter in textbooks

Texas textbook politics meet the digital revolution

Schools protest Kindle’s setup for the blind

Amazon’s Kindle to get audible menus, bigger font

Authors, publishers spar over digital rights to older books


Top 10 ed-tech stories of 2009: No. 2

Duncan has said he wants stimulus funds to transform education.

Duncan has said he wants stimulus funds to transform education.

Using student data to help inform instruction is one of the Obama administration’s four key focal points in its efforts to reform education–and technology is an important tool for facilitating this process.

To avoid being caught short when the stimulus money runs out, school officials should use the short-term federal funding to upgrade their technology infrastructure and improve their tracking of student data, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told eSchool News in a wide-ranging interview earlier this year.

“There are a number of one-time technology investments that make tremendous sense,” Duncan said. Using technology to improve student achievement makes teachers feel almost as if “they’re cracking a code,” he explained. With adequate student data, teachers come to realize that effective instruction is not based on “just a guess or an assumption or a hunch, and all that is being driven by technology.”

On his recent “listening tour” of school systems nationwide, Duncan said, he spoke with young teachers who were able to adjust lesson plans for students after electronically tracking classroom progress.

“In a real-time way, [teachers] know what’s going on,” he said. “That only happens with technology.”

Spurred on by the availability of federal stimulus funding, every state is on track to have a longitudinal data system that follows the progress of individual students from preschool through college by 2011, according to a report issued by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) in November.

Not only has every governor and chief state school officer committed to building a longitudinal data system by 2011 as a condition of receiving State Fiscal Stabilization funds, but the requirements for qualifying for “Race to the Top” funding and State Longitudinal Data Grants also are promoting the effective use of data, the DQC says. These kinds of systems make it possible to follow individual students’ academic growth, determine the value that specific programs add to this growth, and identify consistently high-performing classrooms, schools, and systems.

Better use of data also underlies Duncan’s efforts to transform schools of education so they prepare future educators to teach in the 21st century more effectively.

Among the changes proposed by Duncan: overhauling education schools’ curricula to ensure that future teachers learn how to use data to improve their instruction, and linking the performance of teachers with the schools where they received their training, so policy makers can see which education schools are most effective.

Better data use is one of four key priorities for the Obama administration in its efforts to reform the nation’s schools; the others are rewarding effective teaching, improving academic standards, and transforming underperforming high schools. And the $106 billion for education in the stimulus package has brought unprecedented power for the education secretary to use federal funding to spur local change.

The $5 billion “Race to the Top” discretionary fund, for example, has many states working on reforms that are unpopular with teachers unions, such as performance pay for educators and more charter schools. And a $650 million “Investing in Innovation” (I3) fund rewards districts that have designed and tested effective, scalable systems for boosting student achievement, improving failing schools, retaining top-notch teachers, and increasing graduation rates.

In announcing the I3 fund, Duncan pointed to virtual schools as one tool that can help students succeed where they otherwise might have fallen behind.

“Online courses and supplementation are catching on fast, but we’ve made only limited investments in understanding online instruction,” he said.

Related links:

Duncan wants stimulus to transform schools

Duncan outlines school reform agenda

Increasing class time fraught with controversy

Duncan: Use tech to leverage change

Stimulus funds to advance national standards

ED to fund unified student data systems

$5 billion carrot for schools overhaul

Teacher quality under the microscope

$650M in new grants target innovation

Duncan floats school turnaround plan

Duncan calls for overhaul of education schools

Educators focus on dropout prevention

$5 billion ‘Race to the Top’ begins

More states have education data systems

Duncan: Schools ‘need to be more creative’


Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s legacy as Chicago schools chief questioned

The Washington Post reports that soon after Arne Duncan left his job as schools chief in Chicago to become one of the most powerful U.S. education secretaries ever, his former students sat for federal achievement tests. This month, the mathematics report card was delivered: Chicago trailed several cities in performance and progress made over six years. Miami, Houston and New York had higher scores than Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Boston, San Diego and Atlanta had bigger gains. Even fourth-graders in the much-maligned D.C. schools improved nearly twice as much since 2003. The federal readout is just one measure of Duncan’s record as chief executive of the nation’s third-largest system. Others show advances on various fronts. But the new math scores signal that Chicago is nowhere near the head of the pack in urban school improvement, even though Duncan often cites the successes of his tenure as he crusades to fix public education.

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Franken wants federal money spent to train school principals

U.S. Senator Al Franken says next year’s re-writing of the No Child Left Behind education law should include more money to train school principals, Minnesota Public Radio reports. The DFL-er has introduced legislation that would establish federal grants to pay for an apprentice program that places aspiring or current principals in high-need schools. “The effectiveness of principals in high-risk or high-need schools is one of the primary determinants of whether these schools are able to attract and retain effective teachers,” he said, in an interview. Franken’s bill doesn’t specify how much money would be spent on the training, but he argues federal money should be used because states don’t typically fund these kinds of programs.

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Broadcasters’ woes could spell trouble for free TV

For more than 60 years, TV stations have broadcast news, sports and entertainment for free and made their money by showing commercials, the Associated Press reports. That might not work much longer. The business model is unraveling at ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the local stations that carry the networks’ programming. Cable TV and the web have fractured the audience for free TV and siphoned its ad dollars. The recession has squeezed advertising further, forcing broadcasters to accelerate their push for new revenue to pay for programming. That will play out in living rooms across the country. The changes could mean higher cable or satellite TV bills, as the networks and local stations squeeze more fees from pay-TV providers such as Comcast and DirecTV for the right to show broadcast TV channels in their lineups. The networks might even ditch free broadcast signals in the next few years. Instead, they could operate as cable channels–a move that could spell the end of free TV as Americans have known it since the 1940s.

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Google faces China lawsuit over book scanning

The Associated Press reports that a Chinese novelist is suing Google Inc. for scanning her work into its online library. Mian Mian, a counterculture writer known for her lurid tales of sex, drugs and nightlife, filed suit in October after the U.S. search giant scanned her latest book, “Acid House.” After a two-hour hearing Tuesday, a Beijing judge told the two sides to hold talks on a settlement and report back, said her lawyer, Sun Jingwei. He said Mian Mian, who was not at the hearing, wants damages of 61,000 yuan ($8,950) and a public apology. A Google spokeswoman in Beijing, Marsha Wang, said the company removed Mian Mian’s works from its library as soon as it learned of the lawsuit. Wang said Google had no further comment on the suit or Tuesday’s hearing. “We think even if they remove Mian Mian’s work, their previous behavior is a violation of her rights,” Sun said. “We demand a public apology.”

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How the Amazon Kindle may evolve in 2010

The eReader market is likely to change dramatically next year, PC World reports. A new slate of competitors–most notably Apple’s rumored tablet device–are expected to ship within months, and some may bring innovations that make the Kindle seem downright dowdy by comparison. To stay on top, Amazon may need to reinvent the Kindle–or at least tweak it a bit. The growing number of eBook readers may prefer a multi-use device similar to the iPod touch (only larger).

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