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The Importance of Delivering Classroom Content Via Technology

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"Using Technology to Deliver Content," our theme of this issue, seems to be a logical thing to do. Easy access to a vast array of information is as persuasive an intellectual argument as the physical argument that carrying around 30 lbs. of books in a backpack is not good for maturing spines. Yet, the idea of using technology to deliver content historically has been met with a cool, if not frigid, response from educators. Why? For some answers, we can look to Texas, a leader in this area - at least from the policy perspective - and the home of the Texas Computer Education Association Conference, which takes place Feb. 2-6 in Austin (see Page 10):

1987. The Texas Legislature amended the definition of a textbook to include "computer software."

1988. The State Board of Education adopted the "Long-Range Plan for Technology," which encouraged modifications to textbook laws, processes and procedures to support the adoption and electronic delivery of an Electronic Instructional Media Systems (EIMS).

1990. The State Board of Education adopted the first-ever EIMS with "Windows on Science," a videodisc-based elementary science program from Optical Data.

1992. The State Board of Education adopted EIMS for computer literacy, as well as for seventh-grade science and chemistry; additional changes were made to textbook rules and procedures to encourage EIMS.

Mid-1990s. Jack Christie, then chair of the State Board of Education, stated that all students should have laptops instead of textbooks, with the implication that all content could be delivered through the laptop, primarily via the Internet.

2001. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) issued a call for textbooks for K-12 technology applications. Staff at TEA strongly suggested the content be available via technology, and TEA and the State Board of Education created a new pricing structure for technology applications that was based on a subscription model typically used for online content.

2004. A committee made up of people from the textbook, testing and technology industries has been putting together a proposal to ensure that students can access a substantial portion of all their content and testing via technology. At press time, this proposal was still being formulated. It is an enormously ambitious, but possible, project if done in the context of a potential special session to overhaul school finance.

During the 1990s, more than a dozen states requested information from Texas to change their laws and rules regarding textbooks and the delivery of content. More recently, laptop initiatives in Maine and Michigan, as well as other statewide efforts, have blossomed, but too little time has elapsed to determine the effect on student achievement, teaching and learning, or efficiency and equity.

How have schools responded to these efforts by policy-makers? The first EIMS adoption in 1989 garnered Optical Data 32% of the market for elementary science. Since then, hundreds of electronic products have been adopted by Texas. While it is extremely difficult to determine market share, a perusal of TEA's Web site showing sales reports (see www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/sales/index.html for this year) indicates that few, if any, EIMS received more than 5% of the market.

This is due to a giant feedback loop: Schools have not shown much interest, so traditional textbook publishers are unwilling to take the risk of creating a very different - and possibly more expensive - product. Traditional technology publishers are much less likely to cover an entire yearlong curriculum, or, if they offer a comprehensive curriculum (i.e., an integrated learning system), they are able to sell their product without going through the arduous process of textbook adoption. They are content remaining only supplemental publishers. Yet, publishers now feel they have to include technology as a part of the package they offer for adoption. One publisher said that if you didn't include Web sites and online tools as a part of recent adoptions, your success was hampered. However, while this inclusion of technology is done at no charge to school districts, it is certainly not free to the publishers. This devalues the technology, both in the eyes of the school districts and in the eyes of the publishers.

Can K-12 learn from higher education? This issue provides two very different examples of delivering content via technology. One, "Content Delivery in the 'Blogosphere' " (see article on Page 12), builds upon the relatively recent phenomenon of Weblogs, or blogs, and how they can enhance teaching and learning. The other, "The Law Catches Up With Distance Education: Voice-Recognition Software Makes Online Legal Instruction More Efficient, Effective", adds another piece of technology (i.e., voice-recognition software) to facilitate the use of the Web to deliver content. Examples such as these are rampant throughout higher education as professors look for ways to attract and retain both traditional and nontraditional students.

Why hasn't the delivery of content via technology taken off in K-12? Are schools afraid of jeopardizing the amazing success they are having by using materials delivered solely by text? Is the infrastructure insufficient for massive delivery of content in a fair and equitable way for all students? Is the bureaucracy governing instructional materials at the state and district levels too cumbersome to accommodate an inherently flexible delivery system? Is there an inadequate pricing structure to accommodate this inherently flexible delivery system?

The stage has been set for delivery of content by technology for more than 10 years; the seeds for change are in the ground in states like Texas. What will it take to change this, to get the content into the hearts and minds - and off the backs - of students? I think two aspects are missing: First is the demonstration of a viable market. Textbook publishers and technology-based content providers are market-driven and they react to what the market wants. The second aspect is the encouragement of some risk-taking in the schools. To quote Sir Winston Churchill, who saw experimenting as a truly American trait, "The American people will, in the end, do the right thing - after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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