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Digital textbooks add complexity to debates over content

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:16 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012

This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.

COLUMBIA — The content of children’s textbooks has long been fodder for debate. While parents challenge books on school reading lists within school districts, entire states have clashed over how texts should portray history, religion, creation and other topics.

In Texas, where public money can buy only books pre-approved by the state board of education, controversy lasted for more than a year over issues ranging from how to teach evolution to the portrayal of Hispanic Americans.

Because of Texas’ purchasing power and influence on publishers, its textbook standard revisions in 2010 carried national implications for how mainstream publishing presented history.

Missouri, a state that leaves textbook selection up to individual school districts, hasn’t avoided controversy: Just this year, a state House bill was proposed that would require equal treatment of evolution and intelligent design. And a look at book challenges across the state reveals several involving textbooks.

Debates over textbooks have predominantly focused on the past and how best to portray it. Now, those debates are about the future — and what platforms bring the content to students.

On Jan. 19, Apple unveiled its plans for digital learning with the interactive pages of "Life on Earth," a vibrant, multimedia biology e-book for the iPad. McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the three publishers responsible for 90 percent of all K-12 textbooks, have since formed a partnership with Apple. Weeks after the company’s announcement, the federal government released the Digital Textbook Playbook for K-12 educators, establishing a plan to get all students using electronic textbooks within the next five years.

Experts expect digital textbooks to add yet another dimension to debates over textbooks, which in secondary and elementary schools are the true mechanism of content control for religion, politics, sexuality and the other sensitive topics that cause parents to ban books.

"The salient issue is presentation, or format," said Gilbert Sewall, a former textbook author and director of the American Textbook Council, a New York-based organization that researches the use of K-12 textbooks.

"Right now, in history and social studies, the issue is not content wars," Sewall said. "There have been plenty of content wars."

Although digital textbooks today represent only a fraction of all learning material, several states and some Missouri school districts have begun developing ways to implement the technology.

In Missouri, no state plan exists for directing schools toward digital textbooks, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said. Missouri adopts textbooks at the district level, not the state level, and a digital shift will not increase state oversight.

"Ensuring that materials meet state content standards has always been the responsibility of the individual district," Potter said.

The Columbia Public School District is in the midst of that digital shift.

Last year, the district adopted a bring-your-own device program, in which high school students could bring and use their own devices in the classroom at certain times.

Next year, the district plans to test the use of iPads in selected classrooms with the aim of eventually reaching a one-to-one ratio, said Julie Nichols, district manager for instructional technology. That would mean students in elementary through high school would have their own devices they take to school, home or wherever else they go.

"Anything that’s interactive is going to be better for the student," Nichols said.

She offered the example of students learning about the human body. Rather than reading about the cardiovascular system and seeing stagnant cross-sections of the human heart, students with digital textbooks could see the heart beating and watch the different chambers of the heart in action, selecting each part to see its purpose.

"Right now," she added, "if a kid doesn’t have a computer at home, they’re limited to what they can access. If you had a device that every kid had, they would have 24-7 learning opportunities all the time."

Questions remain as to how teachers will make sure students use the devices properly. The iPad, for instance, is most schools’ top choice for digital textbooks and also provides the opportunity for Internet browsing, movies and games that students can access outside of school hours, yet on a device provided by their school.

"The way that we’ve got it set up at school, everything is filtered," said Craig Adams, coordinator for practical arts in Columbia Public Schools, which will launch two iPad-based economics classes in the fall.

"But, when you take that home, it's not filtered. That's where the parents come back into play. It's one of those things we haven't really looked at everything yet. It's going to take education on our part, education for the parents, education for the students."

Adams said his department will experiment using iBooks Author software to create its own course materials. The use of iPads in the classroom also allows for more collaboration, more online tools and the use of open-source content developed by fellow teachers rather than relying solely on mainstream publishing.

School districts will face the challenge of assessing more material to ensure it meets content standards if teachers expand their pool of teaching materials.

"As districts choose to use digital content, additional criteria for materials selection will be needed," Potter, of the state education department, said. Online resources need to be vetted by district curriculum committees, and schools have to continue to make use of resources such as online content filters.

"As digital allows more people to use open source, that's going to be an even bigger issue," Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States said. "It only stands to reason that if you have more people developing open source, then there is a higher chance for more errors. This is the next generation of policy."

Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Charles Davis.


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