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Making 'E-Textbooks' Real -- and Really Accessible -- in Public Schools

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This post was co-written with James Losey, program associate for the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation.

Last year Melanie Manuel, a high school Spanish teacher, decided to reinforce vocabulary by requiring her advanced students to study human rights. She sent them to the Web to analyze the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and asked them to watch films about Latin America with the Declaration in mind. They created an annotated archive of video clips about human rights' abuses to be used in classrooms around the world.

"The joy of teaching is about making it personal for the kids and for the person teaching it as well," said Manuel, who teaches at the Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet school in Philadelphia. "I was teaching, and I was loving it."

These are the virtues of digital materials -- they can empower teachers to move beyond cookie-cutter lessons and encourage shared learning. Last month, as back-to-school season hit a crescendo, stories about the potential of digital learning via iPads and e-textbooks ricocheted through cyberspace and the airwaves.

But despite the hype, these kinds of organic learning opportunities are still more the exception than the rule in pre-K-12 schools. Copyright restrictions scare teachers away. High quality content is often the most inaccessible. High speed connected computers are not ubiquitous. Teachers need training in how to use digital tools to make use of free online materials, and many feel alienated by the tech-driven culture. It's no wonder school-age students are still lugging home pounds of textbooks.

Over the past several months at the New America Foundation, in both the Early Education Initiative and the Open Technology Initiative, we've been looking for ways out of this dark tunnel. What we've found are some signs that public education is ready to turn a corner. For example, in its new ed-tech plan, the United States Department of Education has signaled a desire for more accessible digital content in schools. California introduced the Free Digital Textbook Initiative, creating a process for approving free digital supplementary teaching materials. Virginia recently formed a committee that developed a physics e-textbook with chapters that can be downloaded, a la carte, to form customized books. And this June, Texas passed two bills allowing districts to purchase e-textbooks in place of print editions, one of which enables the state's education commissioner to approve free, "open source" content that is aligned with state standards.

"Next year will be a benchmark year," says John Lopez, managing director for the Texas Educational Agency's educational technology division, which approved 13 e-textbooks in August.

One of the biggest boosts for open electronic materials, however, has come from a project that has nothing to do with technology at all -- the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a project initiated by state governors and chief school officers as part of a push for education reform. This spring the group released a set of common standards for grades K-12 that provides a roadmap for what students should know in math and language arts by the end of each grade. At least 35 states and the District of Columbia are adopting them.

Until now, these kinds of standards differed across all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Teachers in different states could not easily share lessons because they could not be sure that "foreign" material would help students learn what would show up on state tests. Now, just as a standardized computer protocols like HTML and HTTP allowed for the flowering of the Web, standardization of grade-by-grade expectations could foment a new exchange of information, like the creation of electronic "bookshelves" that can be shared across the nation.

In fact, Common Core, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. (and unaffiliated with the state standards initiative), just launched such a tool at commoncore.org/maps, which provides ideas for using literature and non-fiction in class lessons. Fifth-grade teachers, for example, can find lists of children's books on Leonardo Da Vinci to teach a unit on inventions that aligns with 12 standards in language arts curriculum. They can also suggest adaptations. "We're creating a living document that will be getting better over time," says Lynne Munson, Common Core's president and executive director.

The common standards may also invigorate other vetted-but-open sources of teaching materials, like the Curriki project, which invites educators to submit adaptable materials to be reviewed by paid master reviewers and rated by teachers. Another project, CK-12, reviews, compiles, and packages materials into "flex-books" that can be created for a range of subjects. Creative Commons, a group that fosters the exchange of digital resources, enables teachers to find free educational content. Traditional textbook giants like Pearson and McGraw-Hill have digital offerings that allow for the purchase of individual chapters.

Difficult conversations lie ahead about copyrights and other limitations on the ability to adapt and republish. The aforementioned barriers -- the need for better broadband, cheaper devices, and teacher training -- still apply. And educators need better ways to evaluate and reuse the content that already exists in some digital form, with experts keeping a keen eye open for high-quality digital materials that should be easily accessible to students and teachers.

But clearly the momentum for open educational resources is building, along with the potential for more empowered teaching and engaged students. It sure wouldn't hurt to see more teachers exclaiming, "I am teaching, and I am loving it."