wall of school art with "I heart digital" painting


The Internet is the best source of content that’s ever been. The challenge for schools and districts and parents and families and municipalities is getting that information into the hands of our students.

It made sense to hand them a book when the experts were far away and the libraries were scarce and only had a few copies of everything. But it doesn’t have to be that way now. In fact, in many ways, it’s not.

We must solve the problem of access to the Internet for every student most of the time in order to fundamentally change the relationship between schools and their textbooks. And we can do it. If we don’t, then the rest of what I’m writing here pretty much won’t matter.

But what devices? Laptops? Mobile phones? Desktops? Tablets? The answer, of course, is yes. The type of device shouldn’t matter. Which is why the Internet can be our friend. It’s designed to connect different kinds of computers to each other. And I can type a note on my phone that can be read on my desktop and/or edited later on my tablet. Heck, at CES this year, I heard about an oven that is able to download recipes.1

Publishers will be eager to sell us digital texts that are limited to particular devices. We should not buy those texts. We should make our own that can be accessed via any device that can browse the Internet.2 And the tools exist that can allow us to do so.3

It’s pretty simple, really. The textbook is dead. Long live the textbook.

Clearly, textbooks have outlived their usefulness. Three main reasons:

Too much.

Both the physical weight of the tomes that our students lug from place A to place B, and the piles of examples and text for every possible topic in the subject the book addresses, mean that our texts are too dense. When they manage to be interesting to read, they’re often watered down by the whims of markets that are bigger than our local market – so serving too many masters results in a text that isn’t juicy enough for anyone.

Too much text.

Words, words everywhere. While I’m a language arts teacher, and love the power of words, I also know that there’s more than one way to skin the cat of learning.4 Our pictures and graphs and diagrams should also include audio5 and video examples and resources. But a codex can’t offer that. The Web can. That’s what it’s built to distribute and display.

Too much outside control.

Someone who’s an expert in the subject — but not in my geographical area or in the lives and needs of the students in my community — put together the information in our textbooks. They might’ve done a fine job of sequencing for the subject, but not for the students. We shouldn’t have to live by their ordering.

It makes a great deal of sense to me that we should think about our textbooks like we think about our food supply. Both should be locally grown, from the best of what’s available, and be sustainable in their development and impact on the school environment. I think we can pretty simply build, maintain, and distribute textbooks that meet the needs of 21st Century classrooms in multiple modes and means — without breaking the 21st Century budget.

In my own work, I’m thinking about, and pushing for, three simple shifts to accommodate 21st Century textbooks.

Shift #1  – Let’s make the curriculum map the curriculum map. That’s not a textbook’s job.

If we have a plan for how we’re going to help our students move through the standards and content they face from year to year, might it make sense that the learning resources we use follow that same map? Better yet, can we build our curriculum maps to be digital frameworks, on which we can hang the additional digital resources that we use to help teach our students, standards and content? For too long, we’ve given away our own curricula in favor of whatever the lowest bidder from the textbook publishers’ pool has to offer. That’s not the right way to do things. Building a curriculum map and then mapping our resources to it is a better way, and it’s never been easier to get started. District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has a fine example of such an approach, one that I visit frequently.

Shift #2 – Let’s flip the way that we do textbook adoption.

In my school district, when we pilot new curricular materials, it’s a big deal. We convene a group of teachers and staff who work thoughtfully with the new resources to see if they make sense to use and are sound. Once the review is complete, they give a thumbs up and move on to other work. Those committees are formed and unformed every seven or so years, whenever it’s time to buy a new book. We’re doing it wrong. Resources are created and remixed much faster than our books are purchased and wear out. With a digital curriculum and digital textbooks, we need to (and can) always be in a position of reviewing and modifying our curriculum and the resources that support it. Those once-every-seven-years committees? They should be meeting continuously, always adding and taking away. In short, they should be ongoing curation committees, rather than book adoption committees.

Shift #3 – Let’s make sure our curriculum staffs have expertise in both instruction and resource development.

If committees are always curating, then our coordinators need to be good at more than just instructional implementation. They also need expertise in publishing on the Web and in resource development and distribution. Traditionally in school districts, the IT department or communications offices have been the places where Web resources are developed and maintained. With digital textbooks, our curriculum department also needs to have a robust web presence, one that should serve as the core of the school district’s curriculum enterprise. Parents, students, teachers and interested members of the community should always be able to refer to an accurate curriculum map that shows what’s being learning, where it is in the sequence of learning, and how to engage resources that relate to that particular learning goal.

There’s plenty more to say about digital textbooks, and I’ll get to that in future posts. But it is clear to me, and to many others, that it’s time to be thinking about teaching and learning differently.  The era of the textbook, as we’ve known it, may well be behind us. How are you preparing for the shift?

  1. Just what the oven will do with them, I’m not sure. An oven is for cooking, but it does not cook. Or read. []
  2. That’s not to say that what we make won’t contain intellectual property from publishers that we will purchase. But it shouldn’t be the only thing that we put into the hands of our students. []
  3. Here’s one. []
  4. Man, there’s an awful metaphor. []
  5. the words can and should be read to students who need help []
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Bud Hunt

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