In 2005, The Vail School District in Vail, AZ substituted laptops for textbooks in Vail's first 1-to-1 high school (link). Superintendent Calvin Baker oversaw the change and his district now had the freedom to purchase digital content the way he purchased digital music. The 1-to-1 program allowed teachers to surf the Internet, find interesting content, and only download what they need. Teachers found it easy to adapt their "playlists" to state standards. This more malleable content has great potential for individualzied learning and will work well with curriculum design methodologies like Understanding by Design (UbD) .
The move away from textbooks has put the district back into control of its curriculum. Baker noted that there is more creativity and collaboration, "I thought that when we implemented Beyond Textbooks, teachers would go out and find the 'music', so to speak, that they needed and share it with their peers," he says. "The phenomenon that has occurred is that a significant amount of teachers are saying, 'All that stuff that's already out there is pretty good, but I'm going to write my own.' They're actually creating their own music. They're writing it, they're uploading it, and teachers all over the district now can use it." This blog discusses some creative ways to have a paperless classroom (link)
The ability to work together has inspired teachers to take more ownership of the curriculum. The district built curriculum guides in Apple iCal and each unit has a link to a wiki page. Both are dynamic and support RSS subscriptions for change notification. Kelly Creasy, a fifth grade teacher at Vail's Ocotillo Ridge Elementary School has seen her peer network grow since she began posting. "Normally you just have the other teachers here at your site, and occasionally if you're on a committee or if you're at a meeting at the district office, you might touch base with other teachers in your grade level, but that's such a rare occurrence," she says. "Now you're finding out names; I know other teachers because of what they've posted on the Beyond Textbooks site. I've gotten e-mails from other teachers saying that they liked what I posted and wondering if I had anything else. I've started to form partnerships with other teachers, sending materials back and forth."
Inverting the Curriculum
Before the 1-to-1 and digital textbooks programs, Vail was like most other school districts in that they tried to shoehorn textbooks and supplemental materials into state standards. Now, Vail inverts the curriculum by starting with the desired outcome and working backwards. Vail CIO Matt Federoff says, "We were working backward. We started with what we had and then tried to make it work. We realized that what we should do is start with the standards, and use the standards to then select our content."
Textbooks are squarely in the cross hairs of educational reform. Students dislike them because of their weight. Teachers realize that new editions are slow to evolve - other than a few new pictures. The notion of the textbook is outdated. Their manufacture is rooted in ideas from the industrial revolution. Why does a student need to carry around a whole year of content? Teachers should be leveraging the incredible amount of educational content on the web. This is a great opportunity to find deeper, more conceptual material and real world application. Moreover, teachers should be starting to create their own content or mashups of other sources.
There is a groundswell of movement towards open source textbooks. At the very least, textbooks written using web2.0 technologies can be updated frequently and incorporate ideas from diverse sources - including teachers and students. This would be a boon for Creative Commons (link), who seek to foster orderly sharing of ideas when profit is not the motive. Smarthistory.org (link) built a whole website because, "we are dissatisfied with the large expensive art history textbook. We find that they are difficult for many students, contain too many images, and just are not particularly engaging". FLexr (link) provides a content repository where teachers can customize their own textbook with open source content from multiple sources. See my Delicious bookmarks for related links (link)
California recently gave a boost to the open source movement when it formed the California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) to combat their spending of $400 million on textbooks annually. COSTP is a collaborative, public/private undertaking that is trying to create broad distribution of existing K-12 "open source" resources. This takes social networking and brings it to the textbook industry. Why should textbooks be immune to a Web2.0-type movement?
Open source textbooks could pave the way for collaboration between teachers and eventually allow students into the design of their own curriculum (key aspect of lifelong learning). It has the potential to lower expenses, reduce back problems, and foster better content. I believe that teachers working together - across schools - will produce higher quality content and more thoughtful lesson plans. Kelly Creasey underscores this point, "I know other teachers because of what they've posted on the Beyond Textbooks site. I've gotten e-mails from other teachers saying that they liked what I posted and wondering if I had anything else. I've started to form partnerships with other teachers, sending materials back and forth." If teachers are able to design their own content - every year - then they will likely avoid the trap of marching through the year to the "content coverage" drum beat.
Image used under CC license (link)