Textbooks – and Their Publishers – Are Evolving

Textbooks as games? Textbooks that create a digital database of student progress? Or just text modules to mix and match? Michelle R. Davis, writing in Education Week, describes how the top three publishers are planning to bring their catalogs into the future. School administrators and education officials have decided that investing in paper textbooks is [...]

Textbooks as games? Textbooks that create a digital database of student progress? Or just text modules to mix and match? Michelle R. Davis, writing in Education Week, describes how the top three publishers are planning to bring their catalogs into the future.

School administrators and education officials have decided that investing in paper textbooks is no longer a wise use of budget money. Some teachers have shifted to using open-source or publicly available materials with, or even entirely replacing, textbooks. Digital licensing will not produce the same reliable sales as traditional textbook stockpiles; some states, like Florida, are mandating that textbook purchases shift over to digital formats that won’t take up space or wear out. Additionally, curriculum standards are shifting:

In this atmosphere, big textbook publishers must change their strategies and they must do it quickly, educators say, to provide schools with the innovative digital material they’re seeking. This flux is also occurring as districts in nearly all the states must consider their textbook needs in light of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and math.

Luyen Chou of Pearson Education says that his company has already invested in digital format, including a large stake in Nook, the digital reader offered by Barnes & Noble. They are beginning with a focus on the platform that delivers content.

The platform will be content-neutral so the digital curricula it will share with Pearson customers may not necessarily have been created by Pearson content specialists, and it may even be free. Chou says there’s a new role for Pearson in curating and organizing electronic content and using its own experts to vouch for quality, particularly when it comes to open, or free, educational resources.

Additionally, Pearson is developing a Common Core curriculum for tablet computers, planned to come out in pilot form this year. “It will be born digital,” says Chou. The curriculum may never be created in paper form; it may be impossible to capture it that way. Pearson plans to include game strategies, interactivity and student collaboration.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is taking a different approach: breaking content into smaller pieces. Bethlam Forsa, a company spokesman and VP, says that the key word is “modular.” HMH aims also to adapt for student learning styles:

That means that if a student is more of a visual learner, he or she can access the curricular material in better ways through video or graphics. If gaming seems to resonate with a student, those techniques will be accessible. New digital content and products will track where a student is in his or her learning progression and be able to prescribe the next step, Forsa says.

Their World History is already available for iPad. It contains video, interactive diagrams and maps; the curriculum is also designed to work for collaboration between subject area teachers. Social Studies and English teachers can both use the material for assignments.

McGraw-Hill plans to focus on content development, noting that even if states are moving toward half digital, they are still using half, or far more than half, paper textbooks. Content developed to work with digital material can create “dashboards” for teachers to track student progress. McGraw-Hill acquired Key Curriculum to bring on board the knowledge for making materials not so much interactive with the student at the moment, but able to track and adapt to the student’s learning speed. They also hope to use game strategies:

Games and simulations will also play a larger role in McGraw-Hill’s digital content, building on the company’s current iBook textbooks, which feature built-in assessment “probes” to track student progress and help teachers determine how a student should review or move forward through the curriculum. New products will also be able to track a student’s time spent on tasks and have the ability to see how a student moves through the learning environment. The goal is to allow students to take a variety of paths through digital curricula based on their own learning styles.

Publishers will face a difficult market as content property becomes harder to guard and less important. News publishing is already facing this crisis, as consumers are used to getting news for free. As more learning material goes online, traditional textbook publishers will need to adapt their business model significantly to stay solvent.

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