Policy and Advocacy | Feature

Driving Digital Change

Several states have taken steps to make adopting digital content easier for schools. Not all have been entirely successful yet, but their early mistakes can be guideposts for others considering the same thing.

Does state policy really cause change in a school district? This may seem like a silly question--of course it does. If the state passes a law requiring students to have 24 credits to graduate, school districts must comply, and students do not graduate without 24 credits. Case closed.

But what happens when the policy's wording uses "may" instead of "shall," allowing, but not requiring, change? Do school districts take advantage of the opportunity provided by the "may" language, especially when it encourages innovation? As one might expect, it all depends, but it depends as much on the implementation of the policy by the state as it does on the district's choice.

Approximately a dozen states across the country, both adoption and non-adoption (or open territory) states, have changed laws or provided significant initiatives to encourage digital content. In some states--Texas, Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, and Georgia--new policy has changed the definition of a textbook to include digital content, and to allow textbook funds to be used to purchase technology. Other states--California, Maryland, and Maine--have undertaken significant efforts with open educational resources (OER), which are free or low-cost materials licensed under a Creative Commons agreement that allows the materials to be re used, revised, remixed, and re-distributed.

While the policy changes in many of these states are very recent, making it too early to assess the quantity or quality of change, Texas, California, Virginia, and Indiana all have a few years under their belts since implementing their changes. Each of these states' changes has been previously chronicled in T.H.E. Journal. In short:

  • The Texas legislature passed a bill in 2009 creating a commissioner's list for digital content and allowed some textbook funds to be used to purchase technology. It also passed a bill allowing the state to create OER, either through a contract or through materials created by certain institutions of higher education. This summer , Texas passed additional legislation that further modifies the textbook adoption process. Most notably it creates an instructional materials fund for districts (combining a textbook fund and technology allotment) to be used to purchase content, technology, professional development, and technical support.
  • The Virginia Department of Education called for the creation of an OER supplemental physics book to address rapidly changing areas of the field.
  • Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger implemented the Digital Textbook Initiative that called for submissions of free, OER textbooks in secondary science.
  • The Indiana State Board of Education changed the definition of textbook to include digital content and to allow textbook funds to be used to purchase technology. The Indiana Legislature has since codified these changes and changed the vetting process for textbooks to allow local school corporations greater control and choice.

Drivers of Change
The impetus for change in these states each came from different policy makers-- the legislature in Texas, the governor's office in California, the Department of Education in Virginia, and the State Board of Education in Indiana--but a common driver for the changes was a more flexible use of funds in a very tight economic climate.

A second, related driver was increased efficiency. Testimony in legislative hearings in Texas from school district technology and textbook coordinators indicated that thousands of books are sitting in warehouses still shrink-wrapped on pallets. This obvious misappropriation of state funds persuaded Texas legislators to provide greater flexibility to educators regarding textbooks and technology.

A third driver of change was the desire to tap into technology to create more engaging materials. This was particularly true in Indiana, where the State Board of Education sent a letter to school districts saying that the social studies textbooks submitted for adoption in October 2008 "…do not provide content that is interesting, engaging and supportive of effective learning. "

Despite these compelling motivations for change, with one exception, the policies themselves have not resulted in the transformations originally sought. In Virginia, very few educators have used the supplemental physics book, according to Lan Neugent, assistant superintendent of technology with the Virginia Department of Education. In California, the Department of Education does not have a comprehensive database tracking adoption of secondary instructional materials, but the records it does have show that fewer than 20 schools have adopted the OER instructional materials from the Digital Textbook Initiative, and most of those were charter schools.

In Texas, the commissioner's list for digital content has not yet been fully implemented, and few districts have yet to take advantage of any aspect of it. For the OER contract component, materials submitted did not meet the Texas standards, and OER advocates have raised questions about how the call for submissions was conducted  and the timeline provided, as well as the choice of subject area for those materials. Only in Indiana have school corporations availed themselves of the opportunity for innovation provided by a change in policy.

Lessons Learned
What can be learned from the way educational content policy was enacted in these four states? The State Educational Technology Directors Association has identified a number of lessons, four of which are highlighted here.

  • Quality is a primary concern. According to Neugent, few Virginia educators have used the supplemental book, to a large degree, because it was created by a variety of authors from various backgrounds with inconsistent editing and no common format. In California, Brian Bridges, director of the California Learning Resource Network, noted that "approximately 20 texts were submitted in the first phase, but only four met 100 percent of the standards." Failure to meet the standards is also the reason why OER submissions in Texas were not adopted.
  • Vetting of content must be flexible. As noted above, flexibility has been the one true hallmark of these changes. The supplemental physics book in Virginia did not go through the traditional vetting process. According to a Texas legislative aide who did not want to be quoted, the commissioner's list was created in part to avoid the sometimes arbitrary scrutiny of the State Board of Education. The new law in Indiana changed the vetting process from one that actually prevented some instructional materials from being adopted to one that allows districts to determine which materials to use, no matter what the vetting process determined.
  • Marketing and publicity are necessary ingredients. School district administrators in Virginia, Texas, and California all noted that the state-driven efforts didn't receive much attention within the districts. While the Digital Textbook Initiative received significant publicity in California and across the country, little sales or marketing activity occurred beyond notification of the availability of the materials. Curriculum leaders and teachers are accustomed to multiple marketing and sales pitches through different avenues when textbooks are up for adoption in their areas. If states are going to contract for or otherwise take a significantly different approach to creating and distributing instructional materials, they need to work with vendors to determine some sales and marketing venues beyond notifying school districts with a letter and posting the information online.
  • Establish a vision for instructional materials. One reason Indiana has experienced significant change in schools, as well as an accelerated shift from print to digital texts, is because all the policy leaders established a clear vision for instructional materials and communicated that vision. The State Board of Education publicly decried how non-engaging were the social studies textbooks that had been submitted and followed with a series of steps to address the problem, which included broadening the definition of textbook to include electronic materials, and providing schools with the flexibility to use textbook dollars to purchase technology. The commissioner supported the change, and the legislature followed with a law that not only codified the changes, but took it a step further to provide flexibility in the vetting process. The message was clear and broadly communicated.

Streamlining Factors
As policies change at the state level and technology creates growing demand for open content, the shift from print to digital content is accelerating. In light of this, educators and policymakers might consider three factors to streamline the process in the future.

First, instructional materials need to be seen as an integral component of a larger reform package. The shift from print to digital is occurring in assessment, online learning, professional development, and other crucial areas of the education enterprise. The same bandwidth that carries online assessment carries the district's e-mail, data packages, and digital content. All these factors can be leveraged for more efficiency.

The second consideration is that policy sometimes needs to be stretched to include implementation. As we have seen in some states, new policies that encourage innovation need a guiding vision as well as an action plan to ensure something does indeed result from the change in policy.

Finally, and closely aligned to the vision, our concept of instructional materials is in dire need of reinvention. The industrial-era vision of one book per student per subject per grade level is outmoded in the internet age, with digital content, open educational resources, and applications such as iTunes. In focus groups and interviews, superintendents and administrators of all kinds have expressed a desire to purchase and distribute smaller "chunks" of content with more flexible licensing. They also wanted augmented support and professional development to help teachers understand how to use the new approach to content, and how the nature of instruction would alter.

 The sticking point seems to be the inertia of the old, isolated vision of content. If states and districts could work with internet- and business-savvy experts to create a more modern, interconnected vision for content, then related areas , like professional development and assessment, might become more cost-effective and efficient. Then and only then will policy for instructional materials reach every district.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).