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Beyond Textbooks – Andy Chlup Discusses Digital Learning Models

There was a large touch of irony in an August NY Times post discussing the demise of a fixture in the world of education, the school textbook. The article, In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History, predicts the death of an industry that is becoming “antiquated” with each passing tech innovation.

Though always considered exceedingly expensive, textbooks were once deemed as fundamental to the classroom learning experience as the teacher. These tombs were the source of knowledge, the drivers of curriculum, and the teacher’s most important resource.

But all that has changed in the digital world. According to experts, there are two critical factors.

First, there is the assessment of the value (learning produced per dollar) of these texts:

Dollars in the books, isolated on white background, business tra“They are expensive,” writes Seth Godin. “$50 is the low end, $200 is more typical.”


“Textbooks have very little narrative,” writes Godin. “They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best … textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.”

And of course, in today’s lightening-fast world, they are out of date before the ink is even dry.

Second, while the books are essentially considered less than ideal, we are seeing an enormous change in students based on the fact they have grown up with technology. From the NY Times:

“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.

“They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote,” Dr. Abshire continued. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

Beyond Textbooks

Today we offer a Q & A with Andy Chlup of the Vail School District. With experience as a classroom teacher and technology coordinator, Andy is a perfect choice to head up one of the digital learning movements cited in the aforementioned NY Times article, Beyond Textbooks.

Andy notes he has been passionate about utilizing technology in the classroom from the first day he walked into a classroom. His interest in digital learning was spurred on by the wide-spread availability of open-source web-based tools such as WordPressMU, Moodle, DekiWiki, and many more.

Below, Andy discusses the move to a digital learning model, one that actually transcends any discussion of textbooks.

What would you categorize as the three biggest advantages to moving away from textbooks and replacing that tradition with a digital learning model?

* Instant updates. Our superintendent, Calvin Baker, proudly sent out an email message to the school board when Pluto was demoted. In the message he said, we are one of the only districts in the country who’s textbooks are not obsolete.

* Collaboration. At this phase the primary collaboration is happening between teachers but as the tools become more familiar students will be working with each other, their teachers, and the community more and more.

* Costs. While the technology that enables digital learning still costs slightly more than a set of textbooks, it can do so much more. A digital device provides access to content and gives students a platform to create, share, and work.

Do you share the view that the digital world will be the real driver of educational innovations moving forward (as opposed to the concept of vouchers and charter schools)? Why or why not?

iStock_000007128193XSmallI’m sure that I see technology as an alternative to these on-going debates. What I’ve learned is that technology is an accelerant. If you use it on a system that isn’t very good it just allows you to do a bad job faster and more efficiently. I believe that technology should be used to accelerate things that are already working well. For example portfolio assessment is great, unless you’re the teacher trying to keep it all organized. Take that content and put it on a blog server and you’ve not only got an organized structure built into the system but a way to add pictures, videos, and audio to the portfolio.

The same can be said of digital instruction. If the instruction/pedagogy is poor then you are just being better at teaching badly. However, if the instruction is about understanding and connecting then technology can enable and accelerate that process by orders of magnitude.

While everyone has some sense of what is meant by a digital textbook, can you explain to readers the fundamental differences between a traditional book format and a digital text? And can you explain what is meant by a flexbook?

I’m not familiar with flex books. Alternatively, we aren’t even using a true digital text. Our teachers are connecting and/or creating their own content to meet the learning needs of their students. In my opinion, the major differences between a traditional text and digital text are:

* It is easier to copy/distribute digital texts. There are virtually no transactional costs beyond appropriate copyright compensation.

* Digital texts can be living documents with video and sounds plus hyperlinks to outside supporting materials.

* Digital texts can be more easily appended and modified either by students taking notes or teachers choosing exactly the right resource for a given lesson.

It seems that folks today have begun truly questioning the concept of a textbook, that such a resource is finite and linear yet real learning is infinite and multi-pronged. Are today’s tech-savvy kids the driving force behind the digital move or are educators finally seeing the light?

For me it is about economics. The simple fact is that it will soon be cheaper to buy a device that can be used to access digital content freely available on the web than it will be to purchase a set of textbooks. This fact has driven our Beyond Textbooks program. We want to be ready to fully embrace this dream.

Beyond TextbooksWe are going about it in two ways. The first is identifying subscription resources that meet our instructional needs and begin categorizing them so that they are more accessible to teachers and students. The second is to begin creating the instructional resources that will be needed to teach with these devices. That means Moodle courses, portfolio blogs, wiki projects, etc…

As schools head into the digital age, what will this new digital format do to the fundamental structures of school: grade levels, subjects, and the units of time (class periods)?

I think that as long as there is standardized testing and traditional schools it will be hard to escape these boundaries. Unless we get to a point that students no longer attend their school, I just don’t see there being much change. The systemic changes necessary to bring down these boundaries is well beyond the power of one public school district.

That being said, there is a glimmer of hope. As the instructional tools continue to develop and students become more adept at academic learning with technology tools, I think the relatively arbitrary distinctions we currently use in education will fade away.

The key is finding transformative technologies and pedagogies. At this point, it seems that teachers and students are still utilizing many web 2.0 tools in superficial ways. It is like the PowerPoint phase all over again. What I mean is teachers are impressed by the technologies that students demonstrate, not what students actually do with the technology. We’ve got to make sure that the technologies adopted positively affect student learning outcomes.

I know a lot is made of teachers making the adjustment to the digital age but how are you finding parents adapting? The idea of a course without a textbook must be troubling to parents who attended schools where the text formed the framework of every course?

It can be very difficult because parents may not be particularly computer savvy. A teacher can post their entire day as a podcast, but if a parent doesn’t understand how to access the content then they are frustrated. For the most part, parents just want to be able to help their child with school work so you have to be sure that those resources are still available.

The teachers that teach without textbooks all have course blogs that contain the content they use to teach during the day. These are run on WordPressMU and have a wide variety of access controls depending on the grade level and teacher preferences. Parents have access viewer access to these blogs, so they can see the materials their children are using.

One major concern for many is the number of students who may not have access to computers at home. Do you share the concern that the digital model could further widen the gap between the children of affluent families and those who are not able to afford such technology?

I do. The bright side is that personal computing devices are quickly dropping below the $300 mark.

iStock_000003852273XSmallWhat we see is a future where every student has a minimum spec device that is provided by the district. As one of my co-workers said, “It is like the bus….if you don’t have a car or your parents won’t let you drive you ride the bus.” We’d like to get to the point where all students have the option to either use the district minimum spec machine or bring their own. We feel this gives the best opportunity to both underprivileged students and those who have the means to have more.

The content and applications that we are developing as our standard are all wrapped around the web, so it doesn’t really matter if you access those application via a netbook running linux or a hot-rod Macbook pro. Obviously, those that bring their own computers still have an advantage, but to realize the potential benefits of a digital curriculum you don’t need a super fast machine.

The move towards Opensource materials has folks insisting that educational costs should drop considerably – is that so? Will there not be significant technology costs as schools attempt to stay up-to-date on the tech side?

While I’m a huge fan and proponent of open-source, it isn’t necessarily cheaper to run. For example, while Linux if free, finding somebody that understands how to set it up and keep it running is not. I think regardless of the approach you take, be it Windows, OS X, or Linux an organization needs to determine the TOC before making any big decisions.

If you have the talent to tap into open-source projects then I say go for it. Just realize there are research and development costs that cannot be ignored.

As for refresh, I have two thoughts.

First, this is where having a technology team that doesn’t understand education can be detrimental. The Tech industry is on a 12-24 month cycle and education is on a 36-60 month cycle – this causes more problems than any other tech issue I can think of. Just when a teacher is finally comfortable with a program something new comes down the pipeline.

So, if your tech department is pushing out updates every 24 months, teachers haven’t had time to fully integrate the technology into their teaching. This can eventually lead to teachers being frustrated with technology.

Basically, I encourage other ed tech professionals to start thinking about the educational cycle and not get wrapped in the technology cycle. Sometimes, it pays off. Just compare Vista to Windows 7.

Next, districts have to accept that tech costs money. I do believe that these costs will be offset when you stop buying textbooks.

While much is being made of the move away from traditional textbooks, the program you are involved with, Beyond Textbooks, seems to be far more sophisticated than simply removing a text from the equation. Can you briefly discuss the initiative?

To start with it is about moving away from the textbook as a metaphor or schema, whether paper or digital.

Beyond Textbooks is really about looking at learning objectives independent of a text. The whole approach involves using the learning objective as your starting point, then choosing the most effective resource to teach that objective to your current class.

Teachers are able to focus on what is the best way to creatively teach the learning objectives. So, often teachers are limited to teaching with the resources they have. We aim to leverage the nearly unlimited potential of the Internet to give teachers access to virtually any resource they can dream up. This includes materials created by other teachers, subscription services, and many incredible free resources out on the web.

The key is organizing these resources in a way that allows teachers to connect them to their learning objectives.

Is there anything I did not touch on that you think is a key element to the digital learning or Beyond Textbooks movement?

I think the most important thing is that BT is a grassroots, “For Teachers, By Teachers,” approach to school reform. Each of the steps involved have required input and guidance by teachers. One of the biggest problems with many educational resources is that they are written by academics or professional writers instead of professional educators.


1 Aaron Fulkerson { 09.20.09 at 8:14 pm }

Good read. This is a topic I’m very passionate about too.

Thanks for mentioning DekiWiki; however, DekiWiki is a deprecated brand. It is just MindTouch these days. :-)

2 Joseph Thibault { 09.22.09 at 1:29 am }

I understand the draw to digital resources, and you clearly outlined how they’ll be integrated into the digital infrastructure that will organize and modularize the content for other teachers, but Andy never mentioned or talked about his plans to roll this out to other teachers and districts. Their legwork is the foundation for a great innovation in educational resources, but I’m left wondering how the method/platform created by Vail can be pushed out to other districts or if they should create their own…(which I think would be a shame).

Note, the website does a good job explaining how to do it, but I think there could be some great database of information shared as well…just think about all the links created for those curriculum calendars (that’s a helluvalota links that could be indexed and culled).

3 Andy Chlup { 09.22.09 at 9:36 pm }

Hi Joseph,

We actually are sharing access to our site and resources with 11 other Arizona school districts at this point. We’ve built a consortium to help spread not only the resources and curricular work we’ve done, but the professional development and strategies that help us move our entire school district from good to excelling.

For the service and coordination of the technical resources, participating school districts pay a modest subscription fee via an intergovernmental agreement.

We are looking forward to helping more districts by either allowing them into the consortium or by setting up and hosting a digital framework, which mirrors our own.


4 Bobby { 10.12.09 at 2:41 pm }

Welcome to the 21st century. Not only are we doing business with social media, but now texbooks are becoming obsolete in favor of digital documents. Either we have to embrace the technology or get left behind. There are many advantages of digital texts, not excluding the fact that using digital is much cheaper than expensive textbooks. It is also easier to access and personalize the lessons on digital texts. However, there is somthing comforting about the process of publishing a textbook. How much labor was put into it. Will the quality of content suffer with the transition from text to digital? Only time will tell.

5 Tucson Teacher { 11.28.09 at 6:53 pm }

Many districts have adopted the Beyond Textbooks model from Vail School District.

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