I continue to be impressed and informed by the fine work happening at SETDA, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and the above is a useful report on a topic which nearly all of us in K-12 are working hard to get our arms around: making the leap from print to digital texts.

It is a report written more for state level educational administrators and to some extent district officials than for individual school leaders, but the latter can still plenty of useful information.

Highlights and observations: 

1.  SETA lays out the key benefits for going digital, and provides elaboration and examples for each:

SETDA sees four primary interrelated advantages to increasing the use of digital content in today’sschools. Over time and with good implementation, a shift to digital content will:

    • • Increase student learning and engagement
    • • Accommodate the special learning needs ofstudents
    • • Facilitate the search and discovery of unbundled resources
    • • Support educators in personalizing learning

These all make sense to me, and I especially appreciate the open-ended nature of the third,

“unbundled resources: The ability of educators to locate just the right resource, lesson, or chapter as they need it is an important consideration with digital content. There may be hundreds of potential resources to use for any given lesson when the teacher has the entire World Wide Web to choose from.”

There are many I, and I am sure readers here, would add quickly to this list, including supporting the development of connected learners, improving the opportunity for teachers as curators and authors, and the potential of significant cost savings.

What’s missing in this discussion is any exploration of the question of what might be lost in digital reading.   They make a nice point, that students are actually relatively more able to “mark up” a digital text than they are a school-owned, “permanent” textbook, which does facilitate reading for understanding.

But I think there might be value in acknowledging we are all still groping our way toward understanding the advantages and disadvantages of digital device situated reading, and if it is SETDA’s confident opinion that digital texts are equal to print as educational resources, to state that and defend that position.


On the one hand, as TIME magazine reported in a 2012 article entitled Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?    “different media have different strengths — and it may be that physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory.”   Frankly, as much as a enthusiast as I am for digital tools, I fear this is my own experience.

However, the Atlantic has reported this month (June 2013) in a piece entitled “Study: Reading in Print, Versus on a Computer or Kindle, Doesn’t Change Comprehension” that researchers at one New York university found “Readers scored the same on comprehension tests regardless of the medium.”   Hardly conclusive, this research: to my mind the jury is still out.

2.  The  state case studies provided by SETDA are illuminating, especially, I found, the Utah example.

SETDA calls Utah the exemplar nationally at leveraging OER, Open educational resources, making state-wide recommendations to districts and schools but allowing local choice.

The state of Utah sets statewide technology goals, such as a 1-to-1 ratio of computer/tablet/handheld device to student and “adequate bandwidth and network connections for reliable student and educator access,” to guide policymakers and educators.

Utah’s Instructional Materials Center recommends textbooks and other forms of curriculum to the Utah State Office of Education. The result of that work appears in an online state database that educators can sort by publisher, subject,category, course, and adoption action, such as“Recommended Teacher Resource.”

Going beyond curation, Utah has also launched an Open Textbook program:

The decision to promote OER on such a broad scale comes after two years of a pilot project in creation and use of OER textbooks for science.  The content of the textbooks will be produced by Utah educators and will be housed on the CK-12 platform.

The CK-12 Foundation is a nonprofit specifically founded to produce and support free and open source K-12 materials aligned to state standards. All textbooks—called “flexbooks”— available through CK-12 are free, available online, and customizable.

The Open Textbook Project envisions a district paying its best teachers to work together revising and adapting the initial open textbook to meet specific needs. This custom book would contain a teacher’s edition, instructional supports, explanations, text, practice sets, and assessments.

This is exciting work, as described, and clearly can be a template for every school and district.   Rather than paying for textbooks, let’s pay our teachers to work summers, collaboratively, to develop custom textbooks on the CK-12 or similar platforms.

The Utah Open Textbook Project website, including a blog about their work, provides a cost calculator to help schools and districts see how much they can save when they do this work the right way.

What about quality?

Could a $5 textbook really compare to an $80 one? Wiley and his fellow researchers found in a limited experiment that Utah high school students learned the same amount of science in classes using the open textbooks as they did in classes using the traditional textbooks.

Beyond cost considerations, the research team noted that “OER [allows] teachers and students to remix content in locally meaningful ways, to share a variety of types of learning resources, and to enable the best resources for teaching a specific topic to be more easily found.”

digital books

3.   The “Success Factors for Making the Shift to Digital Content” may be relatively self-evident (and isn’t it funny how often these reports provide fairly obvious recommendations, and isn’t it funny how even fairly obvious recommendations are still fairly helpful?), but they provide a reasonable checklist and roadmap for schools and districts headed this direction.

“While the factors and their individual importance may vary depending upon where states and districts currently are on the path to digital instructional materials, the following are integral to success:

• Sustainable funding for devices
• Robust internet connectivity
• Up-to-date policies
• Prepared educators
• Intellectual property and reuse rights
• Quality control and usability
• State and local leadership buy-in

Quality devices, on a 1:1 basis and strong bandwidths are a must– and what enormous advantages accrue when schools establish these baselines.   But we can’t leave educators struggling to catch up.

Some districts have implemented a large amount of technology and digital content with the“learn-by-doing” approach, believing that teachers will discover the best uses of the technology by experimenting and learning from students.

Most programs that have made the successful move to the use of digital content, however, have done so after giving their teachers a school year’s worth of preparation. Let educators become comfortable using the computing devices themselves, learn how to integrate digital content into their lessons,and work with cohorts to begin restructuring lesson plans and teaching materials.

Most important of all is ensuring quality control.   The report notes that the ability within digital texts to correct, revise, and update in real time, as frequently as necessary, offers great advantages over the way print textbooks can carry forward inaccuracies or outdated reports for years upon years.   Crowdsourcing material rating has its advantages, allowing the most favored texts to rise to the top of various archives, though as is noted, there are downsides to this as well.   Another resource for evaluating quality of digital and OER content are the rubrics developed for this purpose by Achieve.

Of additional assistance on the issue of quality control are these questions from the index:

• Is the content static or does the content provider offer updates and enhancements to the digital content on an ongoing or periodic basis? How are those made available to users? If the digital content contains errors, what is the process for having those errors identified and corrected?

• How is alignment to content standards accomplished and validated? Can users search by standard?

• How easily navigable is the digital content and how robust is the search functionality?

• How is the digital content tagged, and can users add additional tags? Must you use a special search tool or website or can digital content objects be found via the major internet search engines?

•How reliable is the source that’s hosting the content? Is the content likely to be “findable” in the future?

I like the almost philosophical way they address the issue of content quality:  Ultimately, it does come down to the question of whom do you trust?

Discussions of quality control for digital content ultimately must ask, whom do you trust to approve the material—a state commission or agency, a consortium of educators from around the country,local teachers, a for-profit company that hires subject matter experts, or some other configuration?

Whatever it turns out to be for a given school or district, the advantage of digital content continues to be its changeability.

It has to be added that there has to be strong, visionary, continuous and hands-on leadership to make this happen.

“Some initially successful conversions have failed after their leaders moved on. While individual leadership is important, collaborative leadership provides the opportunity to build a collective vision and commitment that enhances continuity.”

4.   The report concludes with a set of higher level recommendations, and are worthy of review by every school and district undertaking this journey.

  • Commit to a timeline (SETDA recommends five years, by 2017-18),
  • make a road-map to this destination,
  • ensure school and district policies and regulations are aligned with this shift,
  • invest in the infrastructure– devices and bandwidth– necessary.  

Clearly, the teacher PD needs to be a critical element as well.

5.    Among the highlights of the report are key resources for this ongoing work.

LRMI: Learning Resource MetaData Initiative.  “The Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) is working to make it easier to publish, discover, and deliver quality educational resources on the web.”

The Learning Registry.  “The learning registry is a new approach to capturing, connecting and sharing data about learning resources available online with the goal of making it easier for educators and students to access the rich content available in our ever-expanding digital universe.  The Learning Registry makes all of these activities easier by acting as an aggregator of metadata—data about the learning resources available online—including the publisher, location, content area, standards alignment, ratings, reviews, and more.”

CK-12.  “Services like CK-12 make it easy for teachers to assemble their own textbooks. Content is mapped to a variety of levels and standards including common core. You can start from scratch or build from anything the the FlexBooks library.”   I wrote a bit about the use of CK12 at Burlington High School (MA), under Patrick Larkin’s leadership, here

Utah Open Textbook Project

Beyond Textbooks:  This is an outstanding platform, established and managed by the extraordinary educators of Vail, Arizona (my neighbors here in Tucson).

From the SETDA report about Beyond Textbooks:

This is the case at Vail School District in Arizona, which has an initiative called “Beyond Textbooks”that’s growing statewide as other districts adopt the program, and features a quickly expanding repository of digital content created and shared by the teachers who participate in the program.

Content is vetted by Beyond Textbooks staff for potential copyright issues, formatting problems, congruency to standards, and level of rigor.19 Vail has used the Beyond Textbooks approach to increase student achievement in math and reading from levels near or below state averages prior to the start of the program to pass rates that are now consistently 20 percent or more above state
averages and greater than 90 percent year after year at most grade levels.