K–12’s Curricular Transition from Atoms to Bits is a Work in Progress

In his now classic book, "Being Digital," Nicholas Negroponte observed that: “The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable.” Say what? "Being Digital" means moving from atoms to bits … moving from hardback books to e-books, moving from music CDs to streaming music, moving from videotapes to video streaming. And, if VR/AR have their way, maybe that comfy sofa in your TV room will move from atoms to bits in the near future. (Yes, yes … try "sitting" on a virtual sofa … kaBOOOOM!)

While taking Negroponte’s observation to its logical conclusion is good sport, that isn’t the focus of this week’s blog post. Rather, let’s focus on the impact of Negroponte’s observation on K–12.

When hardback books and their cousins, paperback books, became digital, the digital versions weren’t free. Just because duplication costs, distribution costs, and all sorts of other costs (e.g., returning unsold inventory to the publisher) are no longer relevant, e-books still have a serious price tag. No surprise: Writing a book — whether cast in atoms or in bits — is a challenging activity and the author of the book — and, sigh, the publisher — need to be remunerated for their creative work.

Remember when Apple Computer (Apple Computer didn’t change its name to Apple until 2007) killed the atom-based, music CD industry in 2003, when it started selling single songs — in bit form — for 99 cents? Music was not free just because it was being distributed in bit form. Again the creative act demanded remuneration.

Closer to home, we know only too well that when textbooks went digital, they were most definitely not free, e.g., a publisher would only provide one bit-based version of the textbook if the district purchased an atom-based textbook.

(Buckle your safety belt, please; reading and understanding the next few paragraphs may well feel like your brain is on a giant roller-coaster, hurtling around curves and plunging down inclines at extreme speeds! Indeed, if you are prone to mental motion sickness, you might want to stop reading now.)  

Generally speaking, while composed of bits, books, music, video and textbooks must still be purchased, just like their atom-based versions. But, while atom-based curricula tend to also command a price, what about bit-based curricula — digital curricula — which are made up of OER — open educational resources? OER are, by definition, free. (While there is a nuanced distinction between openly-licensed OER and free OER, for the argument in this blog post, we can ignore that subtle distinction.) So, in contrast to their atom-based cousins, why should digital curricula command a price?  

K–12 certainly expects that apps should be free — and apps are an integral component of digital curricula. Apps are just another type of OER — right? And educational apps should be just a type of open-source software — and everyone knows that open-source software, by definition, is free.

On the other hand, transforming all those free OER into an effective (digital) curriculum is a creative act of mighty proportions! The curriculum developer must take scope-and-sequence and standards into consideration, and must take cognitive, social, and emotional issues into consideration, and must take teacher, classroom, school, district and state issues into consideration. Put that way, in fact, the free OER are actually just a small piece of the puzzle; the lion’s share of the creative act is putting the OER together into a coherent, cohesive, engaging and aligned way. So, yes, bit-based curricula should command a price, just like their atom-based cousins! OMG!

Head spinning? We warned you …

So, let’s complicate the issue further. The United States Department of Education, clearly trying to help K–12 and feeling that OER can make a positive impact on education, has pointed out:

  • "Openly licensed educational resources [from the Internet] can increase equity by providing all students, regardless of zip code, access to high-quality learning materials that have the most up-to-date and relevant content."

And on the Department of Education website, there are instructions on how districts can build OER-based curricula and it awards designations for doing so:

  • "A #GoOpen District is a school district committed to providing high-quality, openly licensed educational resources for students and teachers."

And to help districts in their digital construction efforts, the Department of Education provides a #GoOpen Goal Tracker spreadsheet.

So, according to the U.S. Department of Education then, in the 15,000-plus school districts in America, each district should be creating its own digital curricula. Interestingly, though, while the website exhorts districts to "share strategies," the Department of Education provides precious little guidance as to how to do such sharing. Now, since the observation of a classroom teacher on creating digital curricula that we posted in a previous blog post is very relevant to this discussion, we feel it appropriate to repeat that quote here:

  • "In the absence of textbooks, individual teachers are forced to spend hours searching the internet for resources. The process is not only time consuming, but much of the material online has little to no editorial oversight. With no textbooks, every teacher becomes an improvisational curriculum designer, which they try to do on the fly while also teaching their classes every day. When this amount of effort is multiplied by all the teachers doing the same thing around the country, it is clear that we are reinventing the wheel, nightly, to the detriment of both the students and the teachers."

So, on the one hand, according to the Department of Education, one of the benefits of using OER is to "save money":

  • "Switching to educational materials that are openly licensed enables schools to repurpose funding spent on static textbooks for other pressing needs, such as investing in the transition to digital learning."

But, on the other hand, according to the teacher quoted above — and to a study conducted recently by the Learning Counsel that corroborates that teacher’s observations — there are significant costs being incurred by teachers and districts in the movement to bit- and OER-based curricula.

While the "irrevocable and unstoppable" transition from atoms to bits in the book publishing business, the music publishing business and the video publishing business has been disruptive, stable business models have arisen and commerce in those bit-based artifacts is moving along nicely. The same can’t be said for K–12, however. With the demise of atom-based textbooks and the movement to bit-based curricula, no stable business model has arisen: "all the teachers [developing digital curricula and/or searching for digital curricula] around the country … are reinventing the wheel, nightly ..."  

Like we said, we warned you — the second half of this blog has been a wild roller-coaster ride! Spinning heads notwithstanding, as techies, we are eternal optimists. K–12 will emerge from this disruption; K–12 will adopt bit-based, digital curricula; and stable business models will arise. You can take those predictions to the bank!