Schools confront digital textbook challenges

Schools have to navigate a maze of file formats and compatibility issues that can arise from using digital content in the classroom.

The federal Education Department has called for schools to use digital textbooks within the next five years, but what does that mean for school leaders?

For one thing, it means figuring out how to deal with a number of challenges, including—but not limited to—ensuring equitable access, overcoming budget constraints, choosing preferred device and textbook platforms, and building infrastructure and capability.

In Part 1 of our series on digital textbooks, we looked at what textbooks are available to K-12 schools in digital format. Part 2 examines how a few forward-thinking districts are using these new instructional tools—while overcoming many hurdles in the process.

Not an easy transition

As a September 2012 report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) points out, the transition to digital textbooks isn’t an easy one:

  • State laws and policies lag behind changes in technology and its use in schools.
  • Content is vetted in ways that discourage publishers from competing in the market and eliminates many potentially useful materials.
  • There is insufficient access to technology and technical support in schools and homes for a fully equitable shift to digital content in many states and districts.
  • The business model for instructional materials prevents innovation because of its age.

Textbook publishers are still working out new business models to accommodate the shift from print to digital materials. What’s more, schools have to navigate a maze of file formats and compatibility issues that can arise from using digital content in the classroom.

In choosing digital textbook content, school leaders must pay attention to compatibility with the devices that students will use to access that content; for instance, iPads can’t play Flash-based video. Most devices, including iPads and other iOS systems, support the open ePUB file format, which is quickly becoming an industry standard—but Amazon’s Kindle eReader does not.

We recently asked readers what they thought about implementing digital textbooks, and we heard a range of concerns about access issues, financial constraints, and infrastructure capabilities.

Matt Drake, principal of Michigan’s Capac Middle School, commented: “We have one district in our Regional Education Service Area that rolled out iPads to all students [in] grades 6-12 at the start of the 2012-13 school year. That district is now responsible for utilizing 40 percent of our county’s daily internet usage. Question: Where would we be if every district in our county rolled out the same initiative? Answer: We would all be using chalkboards, because our current infrastructure and support would crash and burn … but it’s fun to dream!”

Elaine Zagrodny, a third-grade teacher at Citizens Memorial Elementary School in Woonsocket, R.I., said she was most concerned about costs: “Most textbook publishers charge a yearly per-license fee for continued use. These expenses are a daunting challenge for any district.”

Despite these challenges, some schools have successfully implemented digital textbooks, SETDA’s report notes.

Arizona’s Vail School District launched “Beyond Textbooks,” an initiative that is spreading across the state. It features a repository of digital content created and shared by participating teachers. The content is vetted for copyright compliance, formatting problems, alignment with standards, and rigor. In Vail, the Beyond Textbooks approach has helped boost student math and reading achievement—passing rates are now 20 percent or more above state averages.

See also:

Publishers answering the call for digital textbooks

Education chief wants textbooks to go digital

Readers: Digital textbook implementation just a dream

In 2009, Virginia adopted a digital textbook for high school physics. “FlexBook: CK-12 Physics” is published under an open license supported by the CK-12 foundation and is free for teachers to use, share, and adapt. In August 2012, the Virginia Department of Education partnered with public and private organizations to release two more “interactive digital textbooks”—containing 2,600 pages of digital content—for teachers to consider using in required high school finance and economics courses.

‘Platform agnostic’ content helps

K-12 students in the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) are using Discovery Education’s science TechBook, with plans to use the company’s social studies TechBook once it is released and aligned with New Mexico standards. Because these TechBooks are platform-agnostic, users are not limited to a certain type of device.

“APS is based on the idea of changing to a digital learning format,” said Jami Jacobson, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

In a 90,000-student district, a transition of any kind poses challenges. Jacobson said district administrators and technology staff analyzed how many students would be online at the same time, whether bandwidth would be affected, how to accommodate testing, and how to make sure all students and teachers have access to devices and the internet.

Teachers use interactive whiteboards and digital projectors to use the TechBooks in class with students. Many classrooms have one or two desktop computers that students can use individually or in small groups; others have classroom laptop sets, or teachers can take their classes to school computer labs—although these labs can pose a challenge at times, owing to scheduling and availability. Students can access the TechBooks from home or at public libraries; this was one key reason that APS required its digital textbooks to be device-agnostic, so they would work with whatever devices students or their parents have at home, Jacobson said.

APS is still in the first year of its TechBook initiative but is working toward a one-to-one deployment of devices. “My hope is that we will eventually [enable] students who do not have access [to] check out machines that will help with their coursework,” she said.

Teacher use of the TechBooks varies, and this is one area where many ed-tech experts say digital textbook projects can fail. Jacobson said some teachers were quick to embrace the TechBooks and use them every day, while others have been slower to adapt.

“I think it’s going to take some time,” she said. “Every school will have training this year, so I think as time goes by, we will continue to see that growth.”

To that end, the district has designated Discovery Educator Network (DEN) Stars, who are “power” TechBook users available to help other educators in the district.

Pressuring teachers won’t lead to more widespread use, though, and Jacobson said she realizes that mandating TechBook use would be counterproductive.

“Getting the kids excited about it [is key,] because then the pressure’s on the teachers,” she said. “I could say, ‘You will use Discovery [TechBooks] X hours a week,’ and that’s not going to get us anywhere. But we will if we lead the teachers through it, give them the support they need, give them practice time, and provide some really good professional development.”

See also:

Publishers answering the call for digital textbooks

Education chief wants textbooks to go digital

Readers: Digital textbook implementation just a dream

A device-agnostic program is essential, Jacobson added: “We talked with publishers about the move to digital content, and that has to be one of the ways that we do this. Using an eReader, an iPad or iPhone, a laptop—we need it to be usable in every form.”

And though the district’s size presented some challenges, its efforts have paid off.

“It’s been a pretty smooth ride,” Jacobson said. “Trying to get 90,000 passwords and usernames out and making sure that everybody can log on … for a while, our phones were lighting up all the time. Now, that doesn’t happen, and everybody has access.”

Using open content

In Junction City, Kan., the Geary County Schools (GCS) USD No. 475 built on the enthusiasm of seven high school biology teachers when it began a digital textbook project using the nonprofit CK-12 Foundation’s free and customizable online FlexBook for 10th-grade biology classes. The district is in its second semester using the FlexBooks.

Facing an upcoming biology textbook adoption, some teachers presented the district’s director of secondary education and curriculum, Carol Arjona, with a printed textbook that included an online version. But Arjona asked what it was about that paper-based text that would prepare the district’s students to be globally competitive.

That’s when the high school biology teachers researched FlexBooks and presented their idea to Arjona. With the help of a grant, the district purchased classroom sets of the Samsung Series 7 Slate PC to use with the FlexBooks. Arjona praised the teachers’ “ability to think differently” and innovate.

Most students use the Slates, although GCS operates a “bring your own device” policy and lets students use their personal devices if they would like.

Because FlexBooks are customizable, GCS deleted certain units and added others to its biology FlexBook, including a unit on biotechnology, based on Kansas state standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Though the final NGSS have not yet been approved, “that is what’s coming, and we have to be forward-thinking,” Arjona said.

On the district’s intranet, teachers use Sharepoint to update their personal teaching pages with links to biology labs and lessons. This has boosted staff collaboration, Arjona said, because teachers ask one another for lessons focusing on specific topics and share their favorite labs.

Students and teachers often take field trips to the nearby Konza Prairie Biological Station, where they use the Slates, along with Vernier probeware, to conduct experiments and record observations in the field. Arjona said the devices’ portability, and their integration with Vernier’s probeware, allow students take full advantage of the tools.

Though the district faces socio-economic challenges, Arjona said most students have internet access at home. Those who don’t frequent local restaurants, the public library, town learning centers, and the high school’s library, which is open after school hours.

So far, bandwidth availability has not been a problem. Kansas has operated online assessments for a number of years, and district IT staff are used to accommodating large numbers of students online at a time. The district plans to expand its FlexBook program to ninth-grade physical science classes next year.

“It’s much more interactive and engaging,” Arjona said. “We have to treat our 21st-century learners differently—we cannot expect them to operate in the same manner that older generations did in the classroom.”

Follow Managing Editor Laura Devaney on Twitter at @eSN_Laura.

See also:

Publishers answering the call for digital textbooks

Education chief wants textbooks to go digital

Readers: Digital textbook implementation just a dream

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