Most schools today, despite all of the potential technological enhancements and research that has been done over the last century, look very much like schools did fifty years ago. Students are generally homogeneously grouped and take math, science, history, English and a foreign language, in addition to some electives. When it comes to their textbooks, they tend to lug around a 50-chapter history text, despite the fact that they could not possibly be engaged in all 50 chapters at once, and they have paid roughly $70 for the privilege. Additionally, with the rate of change and pace of history, the same textbook was inaccurate as soon as they received it. For middle schoolers, and bright middle schoolers, in particular, they tend to use high school texts, as textbooks written for middle school students nationally would be well beneath their interest or capabilities.
When it comes to helping a student to understand a concept independently of class time, the text often contains strategies such as having sample problems, having the answers to the odd problems in the back of the book or highlighting key vocabulary words in bold. These are not advanced concepts for understanding, especially when we generally ask students not to interact with their text by writing in it as they will likely be turning it in at the end of the year.
Having looked at hundreds of online texts over the past several years we piloted a couple of them this year. The advantages are many--the texts do not need to constantly be carried with students, there are ancillary and engaging activities that students can use, students can take notes with an electronic 'sticky note' as they engage with the text, and many others. In one math text, for example, after each concept there are practice quizzes for students to access online to measure their understanding and if they are struggling, instead or reading the same sample problems they originally used, they click on a link that shows a brief Khan Academy clip where Salman Khan explains the concept first-hand.
The challenges we found in implementation were due to every family having different computer set-ups and internet connections and that there were times when students needed the text, but could not access the internet--at a weekend swim meet or on a bus ride, for example. Consequently, we provided areas online where chapters could be downloaded one at a time, if necessary.
To navigate the technological issues we are looking at a one-to-one laptop program for the coming year, at least for our middle school students. Closing this digital divide would allow all students to keep one laptop, with the same platform, with all of their texts. Further, with the successful implementation of GoogleDocs over this past year, students would have all of their materials with them, all of the time.
For this to work we will need to be able to successfully utilize the online texts. Far too many high school students report that while they have a required laptop, they still have all of the same texts they always had, but now they have one thing more. I think we would all agree that our students have enough happening in their lives and that the role of technology should be to facilitate learning, engage students, provide the most accurate and up-to date materials and to solve some of the challenges inherent in using traditional textbooks.