By Matthew Tungate
Benny Lile, director of Instruction and Technology for the Barren County school district, and his technology team are anxiously waiting for the virtual textbook market to mature. Districts in Kentucky have gone three years with no state money to replace textbooks, and Barren County is using some that are 10 years old.
“We are limping,” Lile said, adding that the district hasn’t done a grade-level or subject-area replacement in those three years.
Lile knows that virtual textbooks are the future, saying, “It’s going to happen. The great unknown is when and how quickly.”
Even the technologically innovative district isn’t ready to make the move to digital basal resources – ones that serve as the primary means of instruction in a content area for a grade level or course.
The market is too unsettled, he noted. Despite the advent of “bring-your-own-device” programs and schools offering 1:1 initiatives, there is no standard Internet-enabled device yet. And the market for virtual textbooks also is unstable, with payment and copyright issues of open-source and publisher-produced copy still unsettled.
But Tim Maggard, director of Instructional Technology for the Hardin County school district, thinks he may have an answer to those concerns.
Hardin County is developing online textbooks in Moodle, a free Web application that educators can use to create effective online learning sites. Maggard has developed an example of what the textbooks would look like, and he wants help from across the state building them.
“With the right people building this – and the right people are Kentucky teachers – this has the potential to address more needs than any integrated learning system that has ever been invented,” he said.
Maggard said he and two integration specialists from his district have been working on the idea for six to eight months. They picked Moodle because it works on any Internet-enabled device.
“As a child, as soon as I have that device in my hand, I have a purpose for it educationally. Now, it’s not a toy, and it’s not a technology tool I’m going to use,” he said. “It’s just the way I’m going to access my information, and it’s going to give me a lot of new ways to process that information.”
A classroom teacher for more than 20 years, Maggard said he wanted the virtual textbooks to address certain needs.
“Having taught has been a great blessing to me, but it has also been a huge point of frustration for me because I knew I missed some of those kids,” he said.
“I knew some of the ones on the lower end of the spectrum left frustrated because I could only take so much time to try to make the content understandable to them and give the rest of the class something,” he added. “And then I knew I had gifted students who probably understood the content better than me that had to endure my class because there was no alternative for me to take them a step further.”
So these virtual lessons have additional information that is two or three grades below the lesson’s grade for students who are struggling. It’s linked to an existing lesson on the same topic from the lower grade.
Another section, “Digging deeper,” is at least two grade levels ahead so students at a higher learning level can go to a section that someone has developed for the higher grades. It’s linked to an existing lesson from that grade, Maggard said.
“I’m doing it with the same tool – I’m not having to isolate them and pull them out. They can choose to click on that icon, and nobody knows which section of that book they’re in. But they’re all getting something in what they’re seeing,” he said.
The virtual textbooks include text passages, like their traditional counterparts, and audio links of the text in case a child isn’t a strong reader, he said.
The pages also include a link to Google Translator, so English as a Second Language students can translate the lesson from English to their native language and translate their responses back to English for the teacher.
“It just opens the door for working with students from all different areas of the world the very first day they walk into your school,” Maggard said.
The pages also would have interactive links to expand on the written passages, he said.
The pages are very easy to design and store, Maggard said.
“Moodle is great. It’s one of the best tools I’ve ever found as far as organizing information – not fancy, but so simple to use that you can literally learn it in minutes and start building things with it,” he said.
And that’s exactly what he wants to happen. Maggard said Hardin County is dedicating a server to storing the Moodle pages, but the district doesn’t have the capacity to build a textbook for every subject in every grade.
That’s why he wants contributions from teachers from across the state.
He hopes to have the repository server up by mid-summer, and then people can start submitting, he said.
Maggard is still working on the submission standards, but he wants each district to take ownership of what its teachers submit. So teachers likely will have to have their subject- or grade-level peers review their material, then an instructional services-level person, and possibly even get school board approval.
And while it may sound like a lot of work, Maggard said top-level teachers have already been gathering information from outside their textbook. The Moodle virtual textbooks just allow them to compile all the links and information in one place.
“I know there are absolutely incredible teachers all across this state that would be happy to contribute to this if they knew how,” he said.
Maggard said he is creating videos to show people how to create textbooks in Moodle, and he is willing to travel to other districts to help get the project going.
“I would retire and do this for free if that’s what it takes to make this happen,” he said.
Benefits of digital textbooks
Kathy Mansfield, library media/textbooks consultant with the Kentucky Department of Education, said virtual textbooks provide many advantages to their traditional print counterparts.
“One advantage I see is the ability to change and adapt the resource to meet the needs of the learning environment,” she said.
A digital version would allow teachers to move chapters or add their own content or supplement material.
“Then it truly becomes a more effective tool to meet different needs of a specific classroom or a group of students,” she said.
She also pointed out that virtual textbooks can be updated regularly, unlike the current six-year cycle for accepting textbooks in Kentucky.
“That’s a huge one. I can remember being in school and your textbook says, ‘The current president is X,’ and you’re thinking, ‘That was three presidents ago.’ But if it’s something available digitally that can be updated regularly, then students have access to current content,” Mansfield said. “Print is outdated the moment it leaves the production floor.”
David Cook, director of Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement for the Kentucky Department of Education, agreed with both of those points and added a few of his own.
Moving to virtual textbooks, an option called for in a report he presented to the Kentucky Board of Education, will allow students to replicate how they learn the other 16 hours that they’re not at school, Cook said.
When you ask children a question, their first instinct is to get online to find the answer, he said. “To a kid that’s obvious,” Cook said
“But then we take her to school and say, ‘You have to take this textbook and read a whole bunch of stuff that you really don’t need to read to get to the place that you need to read. And we aren’t going to let you go to any other resources to get the same information,’” he said.
Maggard said his Moodle-based textbooks meet those needs. He will store a version of every lesson on the common server, and then teachers can download those virtual lessons to their own district’s server and change them as they see fit.
For instance, Elizabethtown in Hardin County has a Civil War-era cannon ball wedged in the side of one of the buildings, and Gen. George Custer used another building there as an office, Maggard said.
“So we have some historical relevance that might not matter to someone in Lexington – they have their own history. But we can add those elements to our book, and it doesn’t affect the integrity of the main book for the whole state,” he said. “You can modify it and make it your own.”
And there is no way to make a paper textbook interactive, Maggard said. If a student doesn’t learn just by reading, “that is a useless resource.”
He said the Moodle virtual textbooks reach children of every learning style:
- Tactile students can do activities and simulations.
- Visual students can watch videos.
- Auditory students can be read to.
- Low- and high-achieving students have additional resources.
Maggard said districts won’t have to buy separate versions of the same textbooks, which could be one of many cost-saving factors.
He acknowledges that districts may have to supply Internet-enabled devices to supplement ones students bring on their own, but he believes districts will be able to save the money in the expenditures they can cut thanks to the free digital textbooks.
“If this will change the way children learn and help them leave our schools with more than they’re leaving with right now, then I think we just have to figure the cost out,” he said. “Textbook companies are already working on this. But I have no desire to pay them $14.99 per year per student for their books if we can build a better textbook, and I really believe Kentucky teachers can.”
Mansfield isn’t so sure that switching to digital textbooks of any kind is cost-neutral.
“That is a misnomer that if we go fully digital, we save tons of money,” she said.
Even if a school or district uses free, open-source textbooks, districts have to provide devices to access them, technical support and training for students, teachers and parents, Mansfield said.
“Technology changes so rapidly that funds have to be in place to keep up with that technology (for upgrades and replacements),” she said. “We’re not at a point yet where going digital is a zero cost. I don’t know if we would ever be.”
Lile added that even buying the devices to access the free digital content would be a huge commitment because of how rapidly technology advances.
“I don’t think that the market is anywhere nearly developed. Is there good stuff out there? Yeah, there is. But to do a broad scale implementation right now, at least where we are, would take budget resources that we could not replenish readily,” he said. “It would be like buying Apple Newtons and being stuck with them for 10 years.”
Ron Milliner, director of the Kentucky Academy of Technology Education (KATE) at Murray State University, thinks Hardin County’s Moodle virtual textbooks may help allay Lile’s and others’ concern because it is accessed via any Internet-enabled device – unlike the Kindle, Nook or iPad, which have specific formats.
“This could very well be the answer,” Milliner said.
Maggard said society is already moving away from paper reading material to digital. Textbooks are just the latest example of that change – whether using his format or some other to be determined.
“I believe that this is the future whether we want it or not,” he said. “We can embrace it or we can fight it.”