Policy & Advocacy
A Revolution on Hold
As policymakers move to broaden the availability of digital content in education, barriers of funding, bandwidth, training, and bureaucracy are making it a slow go.
- By Geoffrey H. Fletcher
Whoever brought into the vernacular the principle of “Go big or go home” didn’t account for the K-12 community, where action tends to come little by little. Consider the status of the digital revolution. In their push toward using digital content in the classroom, many schools are stuck in second gear until basic changes to both infrastructure and entrenched habits are made. But even as school districts grapple with making those changes, policymakers have begun to move forward.
Across the country, legislators and boards of education are changing state textbook policies to allow for greater availability of digital content and open education resources, and to provide districts more ways to use funds for electronic textbook and instructional materials. Some of these efforts are directed at saving money, but some are a reflection of policymakers’ understanding that students of today need, and in some cases are demanding, more engaging content.
Texas passed two laws to make the way in which districts acquire instructional resources more flexible. HB 4294 creates a list of digital materials approved by the state’s commissioner of education, effectively bypassing the politically charged, not easily traversed State Board of Education process. In addition, districts can use some of their textbook money to purchase technology. The second law, HB 2488, encourages the use of open educational resources that match up with the state’s curriculum standards. The bill also creates an avenue for the state to develop and own materials that it can provide to districts at no charge. When the law is fully implemented, districts in Texas will have many more options for acquiring textbooks and digital content. In addition, the business model for creating, selling, and distributing textbooks and digital content may be altered depending upon the extent to which the state chooses to create its own materials.
West Virginia passed Senate Bill 631, which lumps textbooks, instructional materials, and learning technologies under the umbrella of instructional resources; allows new instructional resources to be added to the state-approved list outside the normal adoption cycle; and permits districts to seek a waiver to the adoption cycle to purchase off-cycle materials.
In California, according to the governor’s office, the Digital Textbook Initiative has resulted in “30 free digital texts available for use in the classroom that can provide a more interactive experience for students and cost districts less.” The “interactive experience” is hardly interactive. It’s a PDF of content that must be frozen for two years unless the publisher wishes to resubmit the materials again; still, it is an improvement over a traditional textbook. The content, as the governor’s office notes, is “downloadable and can be projected on a screen or viewed on a computer or handheld device. [It] can also be printed chapter by chapter, bound for use in the classroom, and taken home by students.” And above all, it doesn’t cost the state a cent.
Indiana changed its formal definition of textbooks to include electronic materials. “Essentially,” says Marvin Bailey of the Indiana Department of Education, “this interpretation permits school corporations to utilize digital resources, including the computer, to provide instructional curriculum.”
Virginia created its own FlexBook, a free, open-content, custom textbook introduced by the nonprofit organization CK-12. The state put out a call for teachers to write chapters or develop lab experiments related to emerging fields in physics—including biophysics, quantum mechanics, and relativity. The FlexBook is maintained online for instructor use, and teachers are able to post updates, corrections, and suggestions.
Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana are all currently considering laws that would add more flexibility to the adoption process.
Policy changes, however, are not the only tremors chipping away at traditional approaches to textbooks. At least two states, Maine and Maryland, are using technology funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to create open education resources that can be used for free by educators throughout their states. In September the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) held “Rethinking the State Role in Instructional Materials Adoption: Opportunities for Innovation and Cost Savings,” a forum aimed at examining how well policies governing state instructional materials are serving students; how cost-effective is the nearly $9 billion-a-year taxpayer investment in textbooks and instructional materials; what innovations to consider; and what larger societal trends are changing expectations for the use of instructional materials in schools. Nine state teams attended the forum, which was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
In addition, the federal government is hopping on the open educational resources bandwagon in a big way. Its newly released National Broadband Plan puts the provision and distribution of OER high on its list of recommendations. For example, the plan states, “The [Department of Education] should consider investing in open licensed and public domain software alongside traditionally licensed solutions for online learning solutions, while taking into account the long-term effects on the marketplace.” At least three grant programs—Ready to Teach, Teaching American History, and Arts in Education—give additional points to “applications that provide for the development and dissemination of grant products and results through open educational resources.”
Finally, the National Educational Technology Plan suggests OER as a way for K-12 school districts to save money: “For example, high-quality digital textbooks for standard courses such as algebra can be created by experts and funded by consortia arrangements, and then made freely available as a public good. Open textbooks could significantly reduce the cost of education in primary and secondary as well as higher education.”
These are all welcome developments to IT leaders, who stress the interactive power of digital content and its appeal to 21st century students. Alice Owen, director of technology at Texas’ Irving Independent School District, names more benefits.
“It’s more functional,” she says. “That is, the same content can be used in different classes at different grade levels. One other advantage is that management issues—warehousing, tracking individual books to students, dealing with and paying for lost books—all would be much less of a problem with digital resources.”
The table seems set for a huge influx of digital content, both free and fee-based. Are school districts ready to take advantage of it? Not entirely—not until impediments to a full implementation are removed.
Funding remains an obstacle. “Not a lot of folks will be moving to electronic content, because they need the technology to run it, and no one has the money to get enough technology to ensure equitable access,” says Brian Squyres, textbook manager for Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. “Even with open source, if a kid doesn’t have the technology at home you would have to print it out, and that just transfers the cost from the state to the district. And then there is the added problem of support for the technology within the district.”
But even more pressing than funding is finding time for teacher professional development. Deb Sixel, director of student learning at Kiel Area School District in Wisconsin, says new and veteran teachers alike need training. “[The issue] is not the age of the teacher,” Sixel says. “Students coming directly out of college don’t necessarily know the technology, and they certainly don’t know how to use it in a classroom with students. They need to be taught that.”
Guy Ballard, CTO of Niles Township High School District 219 outside Chicago, adds that teachers are still entrenched in the conventions of a 20th century education. “Right now,” he says, “textbooks are the lowest common denominator and teachers are comfortable with them.”
A key barrier is internet access. “And that access has to be high-quality access,” Owen says. Ballard agrees: “You need good broadband access, and that’s different in downstate Illinois than it is in the Chicago area. Teachers and students need the infrastructure and the tools for access to the content.”
Bureaucracy is also getting in the way. The major policy changes established in some states have not yet worked their way through the necessary red tape to where school districts can take advantage of them, Squyres says. He knows of no school district in Texas that is contemplating using the state commissioner of education’s list of approved, available electronic content.
“There isn’t enough information to make good choices in ordering textbooks in time for next school year,” he says. He is keeping the status quo and advises others to do the same.
Owen is equally frustrated. “Irving would like to be one of the first to use the commissioner’s list for our high schools,” she says. “We have had a 1-to-1 laptop program in our high schools for years. However, the information about the commissioner’s list is not available yet, so we will have to go with traditional textbooks again.”
Even with all the policy and legislative changes, some believe the adherence to out-of-date educational models is causing the full power of digital content to be lost.
“Rules from state departments of education for new content, digital or open, still tend to be based on an old way of doing things,” says Coni Rechner, vice president of digital sales for Discovery Education. “For example, the content is still categorical, such as ‘seventh-grade science,’ when digital content can be used across multiple grade levels and subject areas as easily as it can be used in the designated area. This tends to make things cost more than they should.”
Yet in spite of the barriers of funding, culture, bandwidth, professional development, and slow-moving bureaucracies, some school districts are implementing digital content in a big way. Rechner is optimistic.
“While the states may make it easier to purchase digital content through some changes in policy, forward-looking districts are finding ways to purchase what they need in spite of what the state is doing. For example, districts are getting away from the distinction between basal and supplemental, which can provide more flexibility in how they spend their instructional materials dollars. When these new policies get ramped up, I think you will see districts rushing to more flexible options.”
This article originally appeared in the June / July 2010 issue of THE Journal.