You are here

Digital Classrooms Take Flight

Innovative alternatives are giving the traditional textbook a run for its money.

No textbooks are to be found in this honors biology class at Empire High School in Vail (Ariz.) School District.

Five-year-old Empire High School, a low-slung, seven-building complex in the foothills east of Tucson, has plenty of new technology, including a one-to-one laptop program for all 850 students and a completely wireless infrastructure powered in part by rooftop solar panels.

What it does not have are textbooks, a bold omission designed to focus on Arizona’s learning standards, tap the resourcefulness of the school’s teachers, and—according to educators here—fulfill the promise of the new digital environment.

It used to be that anyone who made it through the semester without cracking a textbook was supposed to be very brilliant or very lazy. But schools across the country—driven by concerns ranging from the financial to the pedagogical—are changing that stereotype, as they switch from conventional textbooks to electronic versions of the same or online creations of their own.

California, acting on a mandate this summer by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to save hundreds of millions of dollars on instructional materials, will offer free, downloadable science and math textbooks to schools around the state under what is called the Digital Textbook Initiative. Virginia is in the final stages of producing an online physics textbook. Even major educational publishers like Pearson are beginning to sell digital copies of their standard texts at a discount.

Schools such as Empire, part of the Vail (Ariz.) School District, are taking matters into their own hands, replacing traditional textbooks for all classes with a combination of computer-based, teacher-generated materials; online subscriptions; and links to free information and activities on the Web.

In Jeremy Gypton’s American government class, there’s no turning of pages when he tells the assembled seniors, “Take a look in Article II under ‘Powers and Responsibilities’ and find me a rationale for President Obama’s appointing all of these ‘czars.’”

Instead the students turn to their MacBook G4s, the only objects on their desks, and dig into the Web site—just one of a large array of digital resources that have allowed them to leave textbook learning behind.

“I never really relied on textbooks that much anyway. They provide only the thinnest veneer of what we’re studying,” says Gypton, who steers his classes to the ABC-CLIO social studies database for the background and biographies of famous historical figures traditionally available in textbooks.

In another class, AP biology students take their cues from their teacher’s blog, which posts assignments, background materials, lecture outlines, and PowerPoint presentations. Today it also asks them, “Why can changing pH affect how well an enzyme works?” while linking them to an online enzyme activity lab to search for the answer. As required by the College Board, Empire does own a few copies of the AP textbook, but they’re kept on reserve in the school library.

Teacher-Driven Textbooks

Juniors and seniors at Bolton Digital High School in the Rapides Parish (La.) School Board are learning how to receive assignments, how to use Gaggle e-mail and learning how to turn in assignments with

The idea for Empire’s “textbookless” curriculum took root six years ago during the school’s planning stages, which included visits to schools with one-to-one laptop programs. “We saw that kids were really engaged with these laptops, but we also saw that what was happening in classrooms was really separate from the classrooms,” says Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker, noting that having teachers create what amounted to online textbooks would more fully use the technology in which the district was investing. Instead of using laptops to perform corollary activities, such as conducting Web site searches or creating PowerPoint presentations, students now would access and work with an exclusively digital curriculum for all of their courses.

Baker also explains that instead of traversing the ever-expanding pages of textbooks aimed at the standards of multiple states, Empire teachers dig down to produce or find the digital materials that best match Arizona’s. “It challenges them to be on top of their game, to know the curriculum, and to work together,” says Empire High School Principal Matt Donaldson.

“Initially, teachers may view a digital curriculum as more work, but eventually it frees them up to be the best teachers they can be and to choose the best resources,” agrees Dan Morrison, the technology director for the Rapides Parish (La.) School Board, which eschewed textbooks when it opened the Bolton Digital High School three years ago. “It really is a change of paradigm.” Morrison is expanding the digital curriculum this year to include collaborative wikis and a subscription to VoiceThreads, which allows students and teachers to record their comments inside and outside of class.

Morrison presented the nuts and bolts of Bolton’s program to last summer’s participants at the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington, D.C., while over the past year, Vail launched its “Beyond Textbooks” initiative, which offers its digital classroom content and training to other Arizona districts. So far 12 districts have signed on, for a fee of $8 per student, which helps fund the new program.

"This is really driven from the top down, which is one of the fastest ways to make changes." -Brian Bridges, manager, Digital Textbook Initiative, California Learning Resource Network


But the engine driving more widespread use of an all-digital curriculum is the California-based foundation CK-12, which has invented the FlexBook, an online, collaborative and free tool that is emerging, on a more modest scale, as the Linux of textbook publishing.

Those creating content for these FlexBooks, mainly college professors or high school teachers, do so on a template that resembles typical document creation programs. Besides text, writers can insert pictures, graphs, tables and links to external Web sites.

So far the three-year-old nonprofit has electronically published more than a dozen FlexBook titles, ranging from 984-page biology to 457-page calculus tomes, all of them available to users at no cost and in PDF format. Users can read them online or print out sections, an option for those without online access. There is also a tool for assembling customized books from the chapters and other materials available on the site. And while these electronic versions have not been reviewed by state adoption panels, they have been vetted by teachers, domain experts, technical editors and copy editors.

One physics project in development is an electronic textbook commissioned by Virginia to cover modern discoveries, among them that liquid crystal and plasma displays have replaced the cathode tube in most television sets. “[Many of] the textbooks were Sputnik-era,” says Jim Batterson, a former NASA engineer who is directing Virginia’s project. “They had protons and neutrons but not quarks.”

Batterson coordinates with almost a dozen high school physics teachers around the state who have developed the new FlexBook’s individual chapters and lab experiments based on their expertise in areas such as biophysics and quantum mechanics. The content that they produce is reviewed by a physics professor at the College of William and Mary and then by a three-teacher panel.

Sophomores in this biology lab at Empire High School in Arizoma conduct research without using conventional textbooks

The finished product will be posted online along with a wiki for any physics teacher in the state to comment further or catch any mistakes. While that may not be the usual practice of textbook publishers, Batterson thinks that the ongoing comments made by other teachers will root out inaccuracies. “If I put the curriculum I create onto a wiki, it would self-improve as time went on. It may not be 100 percent, but a teacher is bound to be 90 to 95 percent right, and it will get better and better,” he predicts.

The physics e-textbook is scheduled for release next spring, and one of its earliest adopters will be the Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Va. The district is already issuing netbooks to physics students at the district’s four high schools. “If this physics FlexBook really works for us,” says Superintendent Pam Moran of the Albemarle district, “every time we’re able to bring an open source book online, we’re putting money in the pockets of capable, very qualified educators who are customizing materials to state standards.”

The next opportunity may be just around the corner, Moran adds, noting that the neighboring University of Virginia has recently received a Teaching American History grant that will allow high school teachers to write a U.S. history text available on a public online site.

The California Learning Resource Network (CLRN), meanwhile, has been working with CK-12 to produce the free online textbooks in high school math and science demanded by the governor’s Digital Textbook Initiative. “This is really driven from the top down, which is one of the fastest ways to make changes,” observes Brian Bridges, who manages the project for CLRN. Bridges and his staff spent the summer reviewing 16 e-textbooks submitted for the new program and found that 10 met 90 percent and four met 100 percent of the state’s standards. Some publishers are submitting revisions, and CLRN has also itemized the standards for which teachers will have to find additional materials.

Looking to the Future

Both Virginia’s Batterson and California’s Bridges agree that their forays into e-textbooks have a long way to go, particularly in adding interactive learning components—from allowing students to analyze data to having them take online quizzes. Batterson says that the prospect of adding links to the physics book will bring it only to the level of “Web 1.5.” Bridges envisions adding videoclips and interactivity by embedding miniature software programs in the new California electronic curriculum that would allow for experimenting, linking to additional materials, and taking self-assessments.

Despite these developments, larger textbook publishers have not been left out in the cold. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt already features interactive, multimedia versions of some of its recent titles in science, social studies and math. This fall, Pearson launched a “digital only” catalogue that costs on average 15 to 20 percent less than the company’s paper versions, with an eye to adding interactivity as well. “There are a number of states that have come to us and said, ‘We have budget challenges. How do we solve our problem?” explains Emily Swenson, Pearson’s executive vice president for product management.

The discount should come as good news to the Forney (Texas) Independent School District, which over the past five years had made use of full-price, CD-versions of conventional textbooks as it piloted an elementary digital learning program that has expanded to the middle and high school grades. While those versions have not been particularly interactive, Charlie Jackson, Forney’s executive director of technology, sees pedagogical and practical advantages nevertheless. “When you’re trying to look up information in a digital format, it’s faster than thumbing through the pages,” he points out. “And students are not having to lug around all of those textbooks.”

Swenson notes that the interactive route advocated by many K12 experts is just where the digital line of Pearson’s textbooks is heading. “The greater ambition we have is trying to provide personalized learning,” she adds, noting that the cheaper electronic versions will eventually integrate the digital assessment, teacher tools and student activities that have been developed as supplements to the paper textbook.

With states such as West Virginia poised to revise the adoption process to include e-textbooks and Texas mulling the use of traditional textbook funds for digital learning content, the opportunities have increased as well for educational software publishers, especially as school districts pay more attention to their state standards than to the trajectories of their textbooks. “Over the past three years, there’s been an explosion of interactive programs that meet large numbers of standards,” Bridges points out.

Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of educational policy for the Software and Information Industry Association, cites a 2006 survey of district curriculum directors in which 80 percent agreed that textbooks—both print and electronic—will give way to a digital core curriculum.

“The stage is set for a more interactive, multimedia, adaptive resource that fundamentally redefines what a textbook could be,” Schneiderman says. “There are still a number of challenging factors, from state regulation to professional development to equal access, but there’s an inevitability to where we are going.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer at District Administration.