Learning Management Systems

Can Teachers Author Their Own Textbooks on the Fly?

What happens when a school throws out the textbooks and tells teachers that they are going to become authors themselves by creating curriculum in real time as the semester progresses? That’s what the String Theory School, a charter school in Philadelphia and one of only 37 Apple Distinguished schools in the country, is discovering.

In fall 2013, String Theory opened a performing arts charter high school on Vine Street in Center City Philadelphia that featured a 1-to-1 iPad deployment from day one. Christine DiPaulo, the school’s director of innovation, remembers starting to work with the curriculum coordinator on choosing textbooks for the new high school, when they had a radical idea: Why use textbooks at all? They knew that each teacher and student was going to have an iPad. Why not eliminate those bulky backpacks full of books and instead send teachers straight to iTunes U to find, customize or create their own lessons aligned to standards as they go?

“The teachers themselves could expertly design it, align it with standards and have it be personalized for the students,” said DiPaulo, speaking at an ISTE conference presentation in Philadelphia in late June.

When Matt Murray, who was then a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at the school, heard that he he would be creating his own virtual textbook, he said, “I was anxious. It was a scary notion that we were going to create all this content. But it also was exciting. We realized we didn’t have to go by a playbook. We would get to build the pathways we wanted the students to take.”

Building a course together in real time created an opportunity to foster a new culture among faculty and students, DiPaulo said. “We wanted our English department to come together and build this as a team, and provide them with professional development and instant and constant feedback.”

Murray added, “We were reminded that if we expect students to collaborate, then we should model that for them.” Teachers, relying on their individual strengths, worked through what activities they wanted to do and ways they wanted to assess student performance. “Textbooks can be dry and dated,” he added. “ITunes U allowed us to include things happening in students’ lives and make the contents more relevant.” (For instance, one assignment asked students to re-imagine Romeo and Juliet in a social media setting.)

When the students came in on the first day of school and opened their iTunes U courses, there was nothing in them, DiPaulo said. They were a blank canvas that teachers filled in, live, in front of the students that first year. “I could see the challenges they faced in September and how scary it was,” she said, “but by January and February, they were already totally into it. They would say, ‘I already know what I want to change next year.’ ”

Because every administrator could enroll in every course, they could easily see the content being created. That replaced formally typed teacher lesson plans, she said.  “I could walk into a class and know where they are and what students are experiencing,” DiPaulo said. Parents are enrolled in the courses as well.

Teachers also learned to respond to student feedback. Students could comment on what was clear or unclear to them, and the teacher could go into iTunes U and make a change — and the students in the very next class could benefit from that, she said. “Or the teacher could come up with a new idea in the middle of the day and see how the afternoon class does with it,” she said.

To reward their efforts, the school held a red carpet event for the 22 teachers who published their material on iTunes U. “I had been working my butt off to create it, and there was a real sense of accomplishment to see it on iTunes U,” said Murray of his ninth-grade English Language Arts course text. Now the technology integrator at the private Philadelphia School, he added, “It was a good feeling to have it recognized.”

DiPaulo noted that String Theory’s algebra course was one of the most featured courses on iTunes U, garnering 2,000 subscribers to it in just a few weeks. “People aren’t taking our courses and teaching them front to back. But there are great resources, and people can download those resources.”

Another advantage over traditional textbooks, DiPaulo said, is that once the students are enrolled, the course goes with them. “They can always have that content with them and refer back to it.” She admitted that of course there have been some failures along the way. “Things go wrong,” she said. “But nothing is punitive. We appreciate the efforts teachers are making. This is a great start. We say, ‘Let’s iterate and make it better.’ ”

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.