Policy and Advocacy | Feature
Making the Big Shift
Districts in Indiana have created innovative alternatives to textbooks, thanks in part to a change in state policy.
- By Geoffrey H. Fletcher
There's a lot of talk from schools about moving away from--or, at least, weaning themselves off of--textbooks as the primary content delivery platform. But that's easier said than done if you live in a state that limits how you can spend your "textbook" money. And even if your state has liberalized its regulations around instructional materials spending, some districts are still caught in an all-textbook-all-the-time mindset.
Policymakers and educators who are struggling to bring about this shift might look to Indiana to see what districts can do once they are given freedom to spend their instructional materials dollars not to just deliver content, but to usher in profound educational change.
In November 2009, the Indiana State Board of Education changed the definition of a textbook to include digital content and the devices necessary to deliver or experience the digital content. This change set in motion a number of innovative initiatives at the district level that are having a seismic impact on how teaching and learning take place in the classroom.
Indiana has a unique business model for the acquisition and use of textbooks--parental rental. School corporations, as districts are called in Indiana, charge parents a rental fee for textbooks based on the cost of the books. With the change in definition, school corporations can use the rental fee to charge parents for textbooks, digital content, and/or laptops or other devices required to access the content. School corporations are aggregating funds from a variety of sources, including textbook rental fees, to implement 1-to-1 programs so that all students have access to high-quality digital content.
Some corporations have gotten very clever with the math. North Daviess Community School Corp. in Elnora, a small town southwest of Indianapolis, provides students with a $500 netbook from HP or Lenovo loaded with productivity software such as Microsoft School and Adobe applications. Half the cost of the device is covered by the North Daviess capital projects funds and half by parental textbook rental fees. The $250 from textbook fees is amortized over the four years a student is in high school at a $62.50-per-year hardware rental rate. The corporation then prorates a set of classroom textbooks over a typical six-year lifespan and purchases additional digital content. The total textbook rental fee per student, which covers hardware, digital content, and textbooks, comes to less than $100 a year--a deal compared to neighboring school corporations that charge up to $180 per student. Parents save money and students have a netbook and access to digital content as well as a textbook.
(At press time, a new law passed the Indiana legislature that would ensure equity in the "textbook" funding for students on free and reduced lunch. Complete details were not available.)
Setting a Vision
But of course, districts are not moving in this direction simply to buy a bunch of hardware and save money. Dan Tyree, superintendent of Plymouth Community School Corp., says of its digital content initiative: "Digital content and curriculum should change so that when the status of Pluto changes, our students know that immediately. It should be low cost, but the real purpose of digital content and curriculum is less to save money and more to help teachers differentiate lessons, assignments, and assessments."
Todd Whitlock, North Daviess' director of curriculum and technology, agrees that the goal is to transform how his district delivers teaching and learning. "We are changing instruction to authentic, real-world learning and getting beyond questions that Google can answer," he says. "We had a vision of moving from textbooks as the sole source of content to teacher- and student-created [content] and other free materials. We call it The Living Textbook."
Like North Daviess, Danville Community School Corp. sees the delivery mechanism for content evolving. Lyle Messenger, coordinator of special projects, wants dynamic, flexible content. "We are looking at a combination of open educational resources, teacher-designed materials, and traditional content." Messenger has been working with textbook publishers, which he believes will be content partners in the long term. But right now, he says, they are in a transition. "They just haven't been able to make a complete switch yet."
Having digital content and devices is a necessary but insufficient condition to bringing about the kind of reform these Indiana school corporations aim to achieve. Teachers are a crucial part of the puzzle.
So when the State Board of Education changed the definition of textbooks, Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. immediately began to look at approaches to teacher support. According to Jason Bailey, director of e-learning, the corporation already had some e-learning coaches for their teachers. They used ARRA funding to add data coaches and additional e-learning coaches so they had one e-learning coach per school. In addition, they created their own conference, a one-week boot camp during the summer where they paid nationally known consultants to come in and work with teachers. Three hundred of the 400 teachers at the high school level attended the first year. For the year two boot camp, the school corporation's own teachers had developed sufficient expertise that there was no need to go outside the corporation for content.
North Daviess boasts a 21st century high school with a problem-based learning approach where teachers create the curriculum. "It is hard for teachers, but we have a dedicated bunch here who is willing to take it on," says Whitlock. Before they focused on the problem-based learning approach, there always had been a lesson plan for each day, and "the teacher could be a day or even just a class period ahead of the kids," according to Whitlock. "Now teachers create PBL projects a semester at a time with rubrics and everything else they need for a successful and deep learning experience." When the corporation started in this direction, they dedicated one day a week in the summer, with pay, and built lessons and projects that are revised as teachers gain experience. The school corporation also received a classroom integration grant that will result in more professional development with the data and instructional technology coaches.
Danville Community Schools has decided to take a totally student-centered approach, not just for learning but also for support. A "student support class" will assist other students with the mechanics and operations of using the iPad, which they are distributing to students to promote "collaboration, interactivity, convenience, immediacy, mobility, and convergence," says Brad Fischer, director of technology.
Fischer explains: "Although we will offer our teachers opportunities to learn the basics of using an iPad, ultimately it is a student device. Students will naturally become the experts on how to use the device, so it only makes sense for students to help support other students. A teacher should be able to focus on instructional strategies rather than running around the room telling students what button to push next." Messenger adds, "We are trying to develop a learning model, not a teaching model."
Fischer said he realizes that some teachers may only see the iPad as an e-reader the first month or so, but many will start to leverage the iPad more in the classroom over time. "A biology teacher may begin the year by simply saying it's okay to use the iPad to read their textbook or to take notes, transition to using a few interactive apps to study the human body or virtually dissect a frog, and arrive at students coming up with their own ways to demonstrate their understanding of photosynthesis."
But Fischer and others don't see teachers lagging too far behind their students. After all, the world they live in is increasingly customizable, with an iTunes-like disaggregation of content becoming the norm. They are going to expect nothing less for their curriculum. "Textbooks used to be the only source, like ordering a meal off a limited menu. We want a buffet with a lot of choices," says Fischer. "Teachers want chapter 1 from here, chapter 2 from there and chapter 3 from there."
But in order for schools to get to this place of options and innovation, there needs to be a change at the top. Plymouth Superintendent Tyree may have said it best: "Without the change in the definition of a textbook from the State Board of Education, we could not have thought about the flexibility that kids and teachers crave."