In the not so distant past, students dragged home backpacks that could easily match half their own body weight. Textbooks have traditionally been dense and comprehensive, expected to last several years or even decades due to the exorbitant costs of providing districts with comprehensive curriculum.
Enter the Kindle, Nook, iPad and free or inexpensive digital information. Textbook publishing has always been big business, and the “big three” publishers (Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill) have been scrambling to stay ahead of the digital curve. The accessibility of technology and availability of educational curriculum on the Internet has caused these publishers to rethink their approaches to textbooks.
“The Digital Textbook Playbook”
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, released a report entitled “The Digital Textbook Playbook.” The playbook served as a guide for districts to increase access to broadband connections for students while assisting teachers in more seamlessly integrating technology into regular instruction both in and out of the classroom.
With the hope that all districts will transition to solely digital textbooks over the next decade, some districts have already made dramatic shifts. Education Week reports that the Arizona Vail District ditched traditional textbooks back in 2006, opting for digital content from a variety of sources, while Florida is requiring all of its districts to use a minimum of half of their curriculum budgets on digital materials by 2015. Then, there are the Common Core Standards, which most states have adopted and call for media-rich environments that support computer literacy. It is not surprising that textbook publishers are adopting more virtual platforms to make their materials more 21st-century friendly.
“The Big Three” Strategies
Education News explains that schools desire materials that are both current and compact. Traditional textbooks take up enormous amounts of shelf space and quickly become obsolete with changing trends and values. Pearson has partnered with Nook, one of the most popular e-reader devices. In addition to providing curriculum materials through the Nook, they will soon be piloting Common Core Curriculum for tablets. According to Luyen Chou, head of Pearson, the curriculum will be “born digital” in the sense that it will be completely created on e-reader platforms. Pearson will also incorporate game-based learning and collaborative tools.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is aiming for more multimodal materials that appeal to many student learning styles. Content is chunked, students are given an array of learning experiences, and progress can be monitored and tracked. Currently, they offer The Americans and World History: Patterns of Interaction on the iPad, which have diagrams, maps, videos and materials for several content areas. English and social studies teachers can both find history materials and better collaborate with each other.
McGraw-Hill is not completely ditching paper texts, as a number of states are working towards a 50/50 approach. Instead, they are maintaining production of traditional materials that have complimentary digital materials, such as games and progress tracking tools. They also offer “iBook textbooks,” that include simulations and adapt to individual learning styles.
Encouraging Quality Curriculum
The explosion of Internet-based curriculum resources can certainly cause the “big three” to lose some of their leverage over the textbook industry. In Education Week, Mary Jane Tappen, from the Florida Department of Education, states, "We're moving away from one book per content area per grade per student.”
Teachers have the capability of filtering through an abundance of readily available materials and isolating what they consider to be the best. If the publishers want to stay in business, they need to work with teachers and administrators to identify what they really need and want. While students are drawn to apps at the moment, that can drastically change in several years. Thus, publishers also need to be receptive to students’ preferences and flexible enough to meet them.
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