There are a lot of misconceptions around the transition from textbooks into the world of digital content delivery. The biggest mistake schools can make is simply changing out one medium of delivery for another without ever assessing or changing the content or method of delivery. Simply, let's take a 19th-century tool and place it on a 21st-century device. This is not the way to leverage the power of an iPad or, for that matter, any device you integrate in your classroom.
The Power of Open Educational Resources
I've been looking for ways to shake up the textbook model for several years. It started when I came to work at Burlington Public Schools in 2011 and, with Dennis Villano and Patrick Larkin, developed the Massachusetts Digital Publication Collaborative. The idea was bringing school districts together for three days to collaborate around curating and organizing digital content that could be used in various content areas. For three years, we held this free conference, and each year we faced challenges in getting this concept to take off. One of the biggest hurdles was time: for teaching, collecting, organizing, and delivering digital content.
The second hurdle was shifting teachers' mindset from "I need this textbook and structure" to leveraging Open Educational Resources (OER) that were readily available and accessible. Additionally, OER are free and, in most cases, vetted for credibility and accuracy of information. Plus, teachers have full autonomy over their content and can update it from year to year.
While some may argue that this creates more work for educators, it should actually become a practice that all life-long learners or lead learners engage in regularly. At the core, educators are hired as content experts who will stay abreast of the changing landscape in their area of expertise. When I taught English literature, I constantly sought ways to connect the content and themes I was teaching to my students' lives and time. As digital resources became more readily available and accessible, I charted new courses in leveraging social networks that not only connected my students to content, but also connected them with other classrooms around the globe. We now find ourselves in a time that provides personalized devices where students can do more than author and share their learning -- they can discover it all in one place. This is a powerful time to be a student or teacher.
3 Steps Toward Transition
What I have learned is that this transition is possible, but cannot happen overnight. Here are three steps that I suggest to begin implementing digital resources and delivering content.
1. Open Educational Resource PLC
Schools must make an effort to first organize professional learning communities (PLCs) around content and levels so that a sixth-grade English teacher can see the entire scope and sequence of skills from K-12. The next phase in this process is creating built-in OER to supplement the standard and the skills being assessed. District leaders must also allow teachers time together and provide classroom coverage when they are engaged in their curriculum design PLC. In addition, there should also be one or more digital content experts in each curriculum design PLC. This role should help bridge the gap between standards, curriculum, and digital content delivery.
2. Content Delivery Tool
Once your curriculum is set and organized across K-12, you will want to suggest a content delivery tool. While at first you may seek to streamline this process, I suggest allowing your teachers autonomy. Personally, I've found iTunesU to be not only a tremendous resource for accessing OER, but also a great place to organize your course outline and content. Now, some would argue that the structure used within iTunesU looks too much like a textbook structure and is not really changing the process. While this might be true aesthetically, the capabilities are vastly different. Plus, at some point you want to organize and align your content in a place that will be convenient for students to access.
iTunesU is great for this process because, along with building in course materials and content, teachers can include iPad apps for projects right within the module. Additionally, teachers can integrate video, external web links, and content from other courses found within iTunesU. This medium supports student discussion and allows teachers to share the entire course with parents or substitutes -- something that Google Classroom, another decent content delivery tool, fails to support at the moment. If you are not an iPad school, I would suggest either Google Sites or Edmodo. Both can function similarly, but lack the existing content that's provided and accessible in iTunesU.
Of these three steps, this is the most important in shifting your district or school from textbooks toward OER. Districts should support and pay PLC leaders to help move this type of initiative ahead. These leaders should be a part of each curriculum design PLC, well versed in the content delivery tool and in discovering, vetting, and organizing digital content. Additionally, district leaders should plan time each year to evaluate the content being used and give teachers time within their PLCs to rethink and remix that content.
Student leaders are another resource that can be leveraged in this process. In my previous post, I shared the student help desk, a course that I designed four years ago at Burlington Public Schools which has since grown into a movement across many schools. Students in this type of course can support their teachers in curating and designing content that they'll eventually access in their respective classrooms.
Ultimately, this process takes time and the effort of district leaders and teachers. Planning the change doesn't need to occupy an entire year, but it should begin with a scope and sequence, and then segue into aligning digital content to replace the static information provided in a textbook. And this transition should not focus on technology or applications. Rather, it should focus on new ways of bringing engaging content to students so that we can connect them with the world around them.