How Would You Like Your Content?

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Textbooks? Digital? Web-based? Perhaps a bit of each? The Congress on the Futureof Content brings publishers and educators together in hopes of settling the issue.

How Would You Like Your Content?"WE ARE TRYING to build 21st-century learning environmentsbased on 20th-century processes and tools," saidMicha Villarreal, director of instructional technology for YsletaIndependent School District (TX), capturing the sentiments ofmany who met last month for the preliminary hearings of theCongress on the Future of Content, an initiative spearheadedby T.H.E. Journal that aims to examine what lies ahead in thearea of educational content-its creation and its delivery.

The hearings, held in Austin, TX, brought together a task force of publishers of all types-basal textbook, digital video, gaming, web-based-as well as professional organizations concerned with content and technology. Educators from the departments of education in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, along with superintendents, textbook coordinators, and technology and curriculum directors, were asked to respond to two questions:

  1. What is your vision for content and how it should be delivered over the next five years?
  2. What barriers could impede your vision from becoming a reality?

With such a diverse group, one might not expect unanimity on either a vision or a set of barriers. Yet common themes emerged. Both the educators who testified and the task force members look forward to instructional materials that:

  • engage students raised in the digital age
  • are on-demand, flexible, and adaptable
  • are interactive and interdisciplinary
  • embrace 21st-century skills
  • support project-based learning
  • provide professional development for content use

Clearly, this is not your father's textbook. Nor, as some educators noted, is it today's textbook. But today's textbook must merge old and new. We heard time and again from the panelists that some teachers still want the prescribed scope, sequence, and content that comes with traditional textbooks. Others are happy with the digital-only approach, while others prefer to cherry-pick from both. Both basal and non-basal publishers claimed to be accommodating all wishes. Basal publishers pointed out that in addition to the printed textbook, they provide CD and PDF versions and a host of digital and web-based ancillary materials that satisfy all the items on our panelists' wish lists. And, importantly, they provide a scope and sequence-a curriculum-for all that content, which helps teachers use it more easily and effectively.

Non-basal publishers as well claim that their products satisfy educators' desire for engaging, flexible, interactive materials that support project-based learning-and some provide a scope and sequence along with those materials. All the content is standards-aligned, so teachers can easily try an à la carte approach if they prefer.

With their vision identified, educators then cited the biggest barriers to having that vision manifested in the next five years:

  • Lack of funding for content, technology, and sufficient bandwidth to access the digital elements of the content
  • Lack of professional development for content use
  • Outdated systems and business models in the 22 adoption states; equally outdated district-level systems in states where government doesn't get involved
  • A fearful educational culture, including parents, that prefers the status quo-printed textbooks

Each of these barriers provides enormous fuel for discussion, but-no surprise-funding commands the most attention. The annual market for instructional materials is more than $8 billion. According to Anita Givens of the Texas Education Agency, the next funding request for instructional materials that the TEA makes may well be for $500 million a year. That is a lot of money, but according to our panelists, it still isn't enough. And if you consider what is being asked of publishers, what publishers feel compelled to produce, and the business models we're operating under, indeed it probably isn't enough.

According to Jennifer Bergland, CTO at Bryan Independent School District in Texas, and Villarreal, both of whom have 1-to-1 pilots operating in their districts, teachers in 1-to-1 classrooms are much more likely to use digital content and to want to mix and match materials than follow a prescribed curriculum. Yet there is no common, accepted business model for providing content à la carte. How would publishers charge for that? By the page? By the lesson? By the video? By the minute?

To this business-model quagmire add professional development, which educators include as both a piece of their vision and as a barrier to it. Sharnell Jackson, chief e-learning officer for Chicago Public Schools, told the task force that publishers should provide professional development and embed that cost into the cost of their overall product. Bergland agreed, noting, "[Vendors] are our allies. Having a good vendor who understands the need for professional development and is upfront about the cost is a fundamental piece to making digital content successful."

The old professional development model is a plain one, consisting of a two-hour session provided by the publisher concerning what ancillary materials are available, how the teacher's edition textbook differs from the students', and how to align standards from the curriculum to activities in the textbook. The educators at our hearings were suggesting something more: ongoing, embedded professional development and 24/7 support-and that model costs a lot of money.

The Congress on the Future of Content will take place May 8-9 in Washington, DC. For more information about the initiative, visit here.

Here's the environment we're now facing: publishers trying to address every type of teacher with a vast array of materials; districts with varying levels of technology access and expertise, the more advanced of them demanding materials that do not fit an old model; and a 50-year-old business model for the purchase and use of instructional materials. So how can a state or district save money when such a costly item like professional development is added to the package? What will districts and states decide not to request from publishers? Or what will publishers choose not to provide in order to hold costs down?

Our task force, as diverse as it is, agrees that the vision espoused by the educators who joined the Austin hearings is a good one for preparing students to flourish in the 21st century. What's more difficult to imagine is transitioning from a half-century-old model to this new vision while still serving students, teachers, and parents well and allowing publishers to make a profit.

We need to create business models that will move us forward, and think about whether or not we need to treat all school districts as if they are the same. Bryan ISD's Bergland said that publishers will deliver what educators expect to buy: "Until most kids have laptops or handhelds, both districts and publishers can't focus primarily on digital content."

But a response to that comes from William Kelly, CEO and cofounder of Learning.com, who told an audience at the Association of American Publishers School Division's annual meeting in February, "I don't want anyone to tell me I can't develop a high-quality digital product just because everyone does not have the equipment necessary to use it. Don't punish those who can until those who can't catch up. We will never make any progress."

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the editorial director of T.H.E. Journal.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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