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The e-textbook transformation

Digital interactivity, multimedia and adaptability drive student engagement
  • Teacher Lora Sprigings’ (center) AP geography classes are part of the gradual adoption of e-textbooks by Community Unit School District 300 in the Chicago suburbs.
  • Collier County Schools in Florida saw science scores increase after adopting Discovery Education’s K8 Science Techbook.
  • Interactivity is a key feature of the latest digital platforms, including Collections,” an ELA textbook by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Discovery Education, with products like its digital Math techbook, is a newcomer to the textbook market.

A new wave of e-textbooks is giving students more than just words and a few hotlinks on a digital page. Publishers over the last few years have been adding video, interactive maps and gamified quizzes designed to engage students more deeply in their learning.

“Think of it as making the textbook a hands-on activity,” says Andrew Miller, an ASCD faculty member and technology expert. “It’s making the content come to life in a way that meets the needs of different learners—auditory learners, visual leaders, text-based learners.”

The latest e-textbooks, developed by traditional publishers as well as new players like Discovery Education, are powered by a host of adaptive features, such as adjustable levels of difficulty and instant translation into other languages. And in some districts, teachers are using platforms like Apple’s iBooks to create their own digital course materials.

A continued advantage is that digital content can be updated continuously as historic events transform the world and new scientific discoveries are made—meaning e-textbooks are at less risk of becoming outdated.

“The goals aren’t simply to replace traditional textbooks with e-books,” says Benjamin Churchill, an assistant superintendent in a suburban Chicago district that’s transitioning to e-textbooks. “It’s to fundamentally change teaching and learning on a day-to-day basis.”

Here’s how three districts use e-textbooks to tailor instruction to various learning styles and empower students to do in-depth, multi-media research with simple swipes of their fingers.

Boosting test scores

Science assessment scores increased after Collier County Schools began using Discovery Education’s K8 Science Techbook in 2011-12—though not all teachers were required to use the digital textbook that school year, says Traci Kohler, the district’s director of STEM resources, instructional technology and media services.

In the southwest Florida district—which has 48 schools and more than 44,000 students—fifth- and eighth-grade students whose teachers used the techbook improved their state rankings on the 2012 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, and passed the exam at moderately higher rates.

In eighth grade, students using the techbook scored nearly 17 points higher than students who didn’t. Fifth graders with techbooks scored more than 4 points higher and fifth-grade English language learners scored 14 points higher.

Kohler says it is the features of the techbook that engage students and are driving this achievement. Among these features are videos and animations that demonstrate concepts like photosynthesis; simulations where students can, for example, test how light creates color when it reflects off objects; and interactive glossaries that define scientific terms.

“What we traditionally know as the best learning strategy is the multi-modal approach—you can hear it, you can see it, you can manipulate and interact with scientific concepts,” she says. “That gets the learning deep into a student’s cognition, and that’s where I think the techbook rises above traditional textbooks.”

The district also uses Discovery’s biology and social studies techbooks. Collier County’s adoption has been successful in part because it started with a small pilot group of teacher early-adopters—a “coalition of the willing,” as Kohler put it. The district has since offered regular professional development to teach educators to use the techbooks.

Teachers often start a lesson by, for example, playing a techbook video for the whole class. Students will then break into groups to work on techbook projects, such as virtual experiments or creating a short science video. They can then use a tool called “board builder” to import charts, graphs and other data they’ve created to enhance their project.

“It’s all in a beautiful electronic bulletin board that is a more authentic assessment of their learning than a multiple-choice test,” Kohler says. “It gives students the opportunities to exceed expectations because they can go above and beyond when all of the resources are at hand.”

All of the online work with the techbooks is accomplished during the school day, which means students don’t need to have internet access at home, though they may have offline writing assignments, Kohler adds.

Seeking equity and uniformity

Keeping in mind student access to the internet and digital devices, equity can be an issue for other schools. Windham High School, part of a southern New Hampshire district of the same name, opened five years ago fully equipped with Wi-Fi and MacBooks for its entire student population, which has now grown to 800.

“The technology was really integrated from day one, which removes the issue of equity that a lot of schools face when they want to assign things like e-textbooks,” says Bethany Bernasconi, the dean of science and engineering at Windham High. “We know that all of our students have access to the technology.”

When the school opened, administrators purchased e-textbooks and printed textbooks. Students get to choose which type of textbook they want to use. The district isn’t closely tracking to what degree students are choosing e-textbooks over printed books. But Bernasconi says students have been returning hard copies of biology textbooks in “pristine condition.” The e-textbooks that the students are using most are those that combine the core text with ancillary materials—like videos and glossaries—that provide extra enrichment, she says.

“The texts that can link those two pieces together in a very logical and close-knit way, those are the texts and resources students are using more and more,” she says, adding that optimization for mobile devices is crucial. “All of our students have laptops but a lot of them want to be reading on a tablet or a mobile interface like their phone.”

A downside to adopting a range of e-textbooks is the lack of uniformity between products, Bernasconi says.

“There isn’t a whole of consistency from publisher to publisher, and even from textbook to textbook as to what the e-text looks like, the format that it’s in and the ancillaries that go with it,” she says. “You may have a student who is in four or five courses using e-textbooks, but they have different log-ins and different interfaces. For students it can be a little bit cumbersome just trying to learn to navigate all different platforms and where you find things.”

On the other hand, the external sites e-textbooks link to give students examples of reliable sources of information. This can help them distinguish whether other sites they encounter on the web are trustworthy. “We’re teaching students to be curators of information and they have to be able to evaluate those sources, but before they can fully evaluate, e-textbooks are a great place to see examples that they know they can trust and the information is reliable,” Bernasconi says.

Paid content vs. free resources

Community Unit School District 300 in Chicago’s outer suburbs bought e-textbooks this school year at the same time it launched its 1-to-1 program. A few hundred students in new AP geography and AP economics courses at the district’s three high schools received iPads loaded with e-textbooks.

The 1-to-1 program will extend next year to AP biology, AP Spanish, physics and 11th grade English. For some of those courses, the district—which has 26 schools and about 21,000 students—plans to tap a free online library called CK12 for textbooks and other educational content, says Churchill, the assistant superintendent for high school teaching and learning.

For example, the district’s curriculum leaders decided not to buy a physics e-textbook that was nothing more than a digital version of the printed product. Therefore, three physics teachers—with help from a department head and an instructional tech specialist—will be paid this summer to create a curriculum.

They’ll break the course down unit by unit—or even concept by concept—and find web-based resources for each, Churchill says.

“For some units, we’ll determine there’s really nothing out there that fully captures what we’re trying to teach, so in using iBooks we intend that our teachers will design some of the course materials for a particular unit,” he says.

A crucial part of the transition is training teachers to use the iPads and find or create digital materials. Before launching 1-to-1, the district developed a 30-hour training course that teachers take over a six-month period. Churchill’s staff also provides ongoing classroom coaching.

“One of our program goals is to transform from teacher-centered to student-centered spaces,” he says. “We believe the use of iPads can help us fundamentally change what we do in classrooms, so students become the center of their own learning. And we can individualize and differentiate for every kid in the classroom because of the wide array of resources available once you’re connected to internet.”

Does digital save money?

The shift to digital textbooks and materials isn’t saving Community Unit School District 300 money in the short-term, Churchill says. Along with e-textbooks, the district is purchasing iPads at $400 to $500 apiece, spending time and money on training teachers in the new technologies, and still buying print textbooks for many classes.

“Once we get to all classes using e-books, we do believe there are going to be some cost savings,” he says. “It’s not going to be as expensive as some of our textbook adoptions.”

The district expected to find discounts on digital textbooks but many publishers are charging full-price for online equivalents of textbooks along with yearly licensing fees, Churchill says.

Paul Murphy, the vice president who heads the new markets studio at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, says the costs of developing e-textbooks are different from the fixed costs of producing printed texts. “You’ve got costs that relate to content engineering that you didn’t have before—because you want to make your content smart and adaptive,” Murphy says. “Then you may have ongoing costs around maintenance and upkeep. If you have a platform or service that hundreds of thousands or millions of people use, you have to make sure it works and have to continually improve it and maintain it.”

Publishers can more easily adapt e-textbooks to different states’ education standards, particularly as the Common Core is implemented. States like California and Texas that make huge print textbook purchases may have less influence over content, says Larry Singer, managing director of Pearson North America.

“In the digital world, we’re able, at very low-cost, to modify to accommodate standards as they are addressed in different jurisdictions, without substantial underlying costs and without jurisdictions paying massive customization fees,” Singer says.

Churchill says he hopes to see publishers revamp pricing structures and come up with different ways to deliver content. “Until that happens, it’s not going to be a major cost savings to us,” he says. “But if we’re successful in transforming the way our classrooms look and transforming the way teaching and learning occurs, then it’s absolutely worth it.” DA

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

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