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From Gathering Information to Taking Action

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Four new projects herald the bold next phase of our Congress on the Future of Content.

From Gathering Information to Taking ActionI SEEM LATELY to be suffering from a bout of what Icall the "Volkswagen Bus syndrome." The name dates backto the time I bought a Volkswagen Bus, and soon afterbegan to notice that every other driver on the road seemedto own one as well. It knocks you back when you thinkyou're ahead of the curve, only to find out you're actually inthe midst of it.

The symptoms have now returned, but in the form of digital content. In January, T.H.E. Journal introduced an initiative we named the Congress on the Future of Content (see "Discontent Over Content," January). We appointed a task force constituted of various types of content publishers as well as the executive directors of ed tech organizations and groups from both the print and software industries. In March, the task force heard from educators and state department of education officials in hearings held in Texas and Florida, and then gathered again in Washington, DC, in early May to discuss at length its findings and conclusions. (For more information, see "How Would You Like Your Content?" April, or go here.)

Since our effort was launched, everywhere I look, I see an article, study, or webinar about digital content, as it relates to either K-12 or higher education. More and more I believe this is not a case of noticing something that had already been there, but instead identifying a real trend and helping to lead it forward.

Most recently, I came upon a survey from The Big Deal Book, a guidebook of educational resources, entitled "Ed Tech From the Trenches (ETFT): Second Annual Survey of Shifting Media and Materials Use in K-12 Education." ETFT is a dense survey filled with rich data that is impossible to completely report and interpret in this limited space, but much of it echoes the findings from our own hearings.

For example, the authors of the report state, "The data give[s] a picture of a more blended curriculum with a more diversified mix of resources (including high use of newer and emerging online resources along with textbooks) over the next couple of years."

Virtually all of the educators and state officials who testified at our hearings expressed that same desire: to keep students engaged in their learning through the use of a variety of teaching materials. A further illustration of the wish for a greater blend of materials is this ETFT discovery: "Fee-based, online resources such as streaming video subscriptions and web resource subscriptions are among the most popular supplemental resources."

Many educators expressed a desire for an iTunes model-- in other words, they said, let us buy discrete chunksof material rather than the entire curriculum.

The subscription model, while familiar to media specialists, is new to many administrators used to purchasing traditional printed textbooks. Unfortunately, many state and local adoption policies do not allow subscriptions. As we found during our hearings, the lack of a viable alternative business model for purchasing instructional materials is hindering publishers' efforts to provide those materials while also keeping districts from buying them. In March, many educators expressed to us a desire for an iTunes model-- in other words, they said, let us buy discrete chunks of material rather than the entire curriculum. Given that flexibility, the all-or-nothing adoption model could be smoothed out some. Publishers may not win an entire adoption of a school district for K-5 math, for example, but neither would they be completely shut out.

The key points brought out in the ETFT survey support our conclusion that we need to take specific actions to ensure educators get the materials they need to create the 21stcentury classroom. To that end, we have generated ideas for four projects to extend the Congress on the Future of Content initiative that are intended to address both the vision that was conveyed to us by educators and publishers as well as the barriers they cited. Additional projects will no doubt emerge over time, but for now, we believe these four cover a range of issues that are especially relevant to publishers and school districts. What follows is a brief description of each project-- naturally, the specifics of all four will evolve as the work on them progresses.

From Gathering Information to Taking ActionCharting usage. Few school districts use printed text or digital content exclusively. Instead, they use a variety of materials in different ways and for different purposes. We will attempt to determine what those different ways and purposes are. This effort will produce a chart that depicts the different usages for a range of materials. Once the chart is developed, we intend to conduct research to determine where individual school districts around the country fit on it. The intent is to help publishers and policymakers better understand educators' future needs for instructional materials.

Obtaining case histories. We will identify school districts that are at various stages in implementing digital content and ask them to write case histories detailing how they have gotten to that stage, and their plans for moving ahead. After gathering a number of these case histories, we plan to publish them in T.H.E. Journal or on our website, in addition to developing a toolkit for schools with practical tips on how to move from one stage of implementation to another.

Launching a campaign. The most popular idea in the closing session of the Congress on the Future of Content in May was the creation of a campaign to inform policymakers at all levels-- and the public-- of the need to establish 21st-century classrooms for students and teachers. We will work with appropriate organizations to develop this campaign, which may include public service announcements or a toolkit of materials that states and school districts could use for creating PSAs, whether by way of print advertisements, school websites, logos, or the like. As a starting point, many of our readers have put their energies behind getting bond issues passed by making short videos or presentations about the need for 21st-century classrooms. We will create a place on our website to highlight these efforts.

Offering recommendations. Most everyone at every stage of our initiative thus far has agreed that an antiquated adoption process has created significant barriers to school districts' efforts to procure the instructional materials they want. We will focus on two states: one that adopts and purchases instructional materials for all of its schools, and one that leaves that process entirely in the hands of the individual local school districts. We will examine laws, rules, policy, and culture, and then offer recommendations to the policymakers. You can help by visiting our website to tell us about how your school district or state acquires instructional materials.

This Policy and Advocacy column began as a way of informing the K-12 audience of key initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels, and to strengthen awareness of the importance of advocating for various policies. The Congress on the Future of Content initiative represents our move from the role of information providers to active creators of efforts that will-- we hope-- positively affect schools and organizations serving schools, and help both publishers and policymakers make it easy for educators to get and use the instructional materials they want and need. You can help shape this effort by contributing ideas, suggestions, case histories, and other insights to our forum on the Congress on the Future at Content website.

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

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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