4 digital alternatives to textbooks
Digital texts offer new instructional possibilities, but finding the best fit can be tricky
The move from print to digital textbooks can be complicated and costly. Districts have to grapple with difficult questions such as how to ensure there’s adequate broadband for teachers and students to access the material in class, and how to address Internet and device access inequities between poor students and their more affluent peers.
Digital is more common at the college level, but K-12 districts now also have a mandate to make the move. In 2012, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on school districts to make the textbook obsolete. In North Carolina, school districts will soon be required to buy only digital textbooks and classroom materials, thanks to a law passed last year. And a new survey commissioned by educational publisher McGraw-Hill found that districts have support to make big moves from a key group: parents.
The survey found 73% of K-12 parents believe traditional textbooks move too slowly to stay relevant in today's rapidly changing environment, while 80% believe digital learning can make it easier for students to get their heads around difficult concepts.
The shift can also offer districts an opportunity to rethink their entire educational approach. Digital curriculum and textbooks must do more than simply transfer the contents of the print version onto a digital page. They can be interactive and multimedia, and can offer differentiated instruction, even with their coursework. Many offer new ways for teachers to incorporate them into instruction, with audio snippets and video allowing more flipped instruction.
But picking what works is a challenge. Here are examples of how three major education publishers and one open-source provider are helping classrooms make the shift to digital.
Discovery is one of the biggest players in the digital textbook realm. Over a million students in 50 states currently use its digital Techbooks, and the company has partnered with districts like North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg to use the Techbooks as part of district-wide math and science initiatives. Discovery’s latest science Techbook is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and is supposed to help teachers align instruction to the new standards. Likewise, its math Techbook, the latest version of which was released earlier this year, is focused on real world problems and interactive instruction.
Also a giant in the field, McGraw-Hill has focused on adaptive learning approaches that adapt the difficulty of questions based on students' progress. Its digital products allow students to review the material and then answer questions based on what they have read. The company has seen big increases in the number of digital textbooks it sells. Recently, it partnered with Ohio's Columbus City Schools to help the district adapt to the Common Core standards. Interestingly, it will be producing a bit of a hybrid model, supplying copies of its math textbooks to homework help centers in the city’s public library system.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s strategy is still developing, but it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on what's produced. The company exited bankruptcy in 2012 and has since bought up smaller entities focused on a number of digital learning approaches. In April, it acquired most of Scholastic’s education technology division. For its classroom materials, the company has focused on ebooks, which mean its textbooks are available for Kindle, iPad, and most e-readers. That may be useful for districts using a patchwork of devices. Last winter, Hillsboro School District, one of the largest in Oregon, opted to use the company’s digital math textbooks as part of its alignment to Common Core.
CK-12, a nonprofit foundation, curates and aggregates open-source "Flexbooks" made by teachers and experts. Its products have the advantage of being free and completely customizable. The STEM products in particular are popular with districts, and CK-12 works with districts to help assemble content in a way that works for their needs. Its textbooks were vetted as part of California’s free digital textbooks initiative, and other states have given the official nod, as well.
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