When Jerry Wood first began teaching 16 years ago, the process by which teachers formulated their curriculums was exclusionary, disjointed and non-collaborative. Every educator’s method was different, effectively rendering every teacher an island.
Beyond Textbooks is an open-source platform that allows teachers to share content freely with one another and assemble their own lesson plans. Teachers can even see one another’s curriculum calendars to borrow material from each other to tailor content to their classes’ specific needs.
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“Teachers love it,” Wood said. “They can’t think of teaching it a different way now.”
Wood isn't the only educator embracing the change. Open-source educational programs are gaining steam across the country. In California and Florida, legislative initiatives encouraging the use of open-source textbooks are currently in development. In New York, Open SUNY Textbooks is designed to allow college faculty to act as authors and peer-reviewers of educational resources. A chancellor’s initiative at the Virginia Community College System, composed of 23 campuses, provides faculty with grants to develop open-source materials for high-enrollment courses.
Using an all-digital medium to teach streamlines once-cumbersome tasks, Wood said, such as if a fifth grade teacher wanted to use material from the fourth or six grade. It used to be that he or she would have to go to another class, borrow a physical book from that room, then remember to bring it back.
Now, that same teacher can access other grades’ material on a whim from the open-source platform.
“I can go on and pull lessons specifically for a struggling group, or for a very high group that already have it and need to hone those skills,” said Linda Slade, who teaches third grade at Esmond Station. “It helps me to differentiate my instructions for what those kids need.”
Slade said that Beyond Textbooks works so well because the lessons are uploaded by teachers who have put them into practice. With traditional textbooks, a company decides what goes into the lessons, she said.
“It’s quality lessons, even by people I haven’t met,” Slade said, noting that as an open-source platform, teachers from different schools, different districts and even different states can all share material seamlessly. “I don’t have to upload my awesome lesson, but I want to. It’s the culture.”
And that culture is one of collaboration, Slade said, where teachers share their lessons, instead of hoarding them.
“That’s the thing I like the most about it: It’s teacher-led,” she said.
The move to open-source and other digital platforms has not gone unnoticed in the textbook industry, however. Moving away from traditional mediums is something that all publishers are exploring said Nader Qaimari, senior vice president of content services and solutions at Follett School Solutions.
“I think OER [open educational resources] is definitely what is beginning to gain traction,” he said. “What I really see is there’s not going to be one movement that’s going to replace everything. I think it’s going to be a combination of things put together in a certain fashion that will suit a particular district’s needs.”
Qaimari suggested that lesson plans composed of multimedia would become more popular, and although he believes that there will continue to be a role for physical textbooks, he sees them as more of a supplementary medium in the future.
“Different people comprehend content more effectively in different mediums,” he said. “As a society, as a world, we’re just going to get smarter and know what the right medium is for the right time.”
Matt Federoff is the chief information officer for the Vail Unified School District, where Esmond Station is located, and was one of open-source learning’s earliest proponents. Although other districts have begun experimenting with open-source content, Vail stands out in that it uses no textbooks whatsoever, from kindergarten through 12th grade. He cited California’s foray into open-source learning as one way not to implement such a platform.
“The problem with the California model is they’re still selling blocks of text over the open source,” Federoff said. “We don’t buy the whole album on iTunes; we buy individual songs. California is still selling albums.”
Federoff dismisses the old model of disseminating educational materials as obsolete. The “big three” textbook publishers — Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — basically own the market, he said, and they force consumers to take a product they may not really need.
“We’re fundamentally about teacher respect and teacher creativity,” he said. “Handing a textbook or digital content to a teacher says that the teacher is just a transmitter of content.”
“There’s nothing in a textbook that’s proprietary,” Federoff said. “Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years. The only thing they [textbook companies] are offering is it’s all bundled up.”
Beyond Textbooks became its own department in 2008, and today, 104 school districts have implemented the platform. According to Federoff, roughly one third of Arizona districts are Beyond Textbooks partners.
For its part, in 2013, Follett created the Follett Knowledge Fund, a $50 million capital-funding project dedicated to investing in new educational technologies. The fund invests in educational startups, as well as in companies that help teachers transition to using new technology.
Qaimari noted that the kinds of content a district uses is dictated by the resources available in that district, such as a region’s broadband access, the kinds of devices the district uses and the teachers’ proficiency with the technology.
“It’s about giving districts smaller chunks of content,” he said. “The curriculum is coming from a lot of different places.”
Vail has been able to eschew textbooks entirely, and boasts the first high school in the country to go without textbooks and to give a laptop to every student to use for the duration of the school year. Empire High School, in Tucson, reported average ACT scores two points higher than the rest of the state (21.7 versus 19.7), and higher than the national average of 21.0. Over half of the class of 2013 went on to attend a four-year college.
Moving away from traditional books has another added benefit: It saves money. The district’s enrollment more than tripled between 2001 and 2015, but the average per-pupil cost of instructional materials plummeted. During the 2006-2007 school year, the district spent $51.00 per student. By the 2008-2009 school year, it was spending just $9.00.
According to Wood, many parents purposely moved into the area after hearing about the district’s success with Beyond Textbooks. Others asked if they could open-enroll their children from elsewhere, only to be turned away because Vail’s schools are so full.
Federoff credits the philosophy of subsidiarity to the program’s success. Subsidiarity is an organizing principle originally found in Catholic social teaching that the lowest form of governance is the best way to handle matters, as opposed to a higher, centralized authority. In short: Keep it local.
“Subsidiarity is ultimately about relationship,” Federoff said. “You couldn’t have subsidiarity across the entire nation, so that emphasis on local control, local relationship, local investment is a Catholic ideal. Beyond Textbooks works because of investiture in others.”
Wood echoed Federoff’s point, particularly regarding the collaborative relationship teachers have with one another.
“It’s no longer, ‘It’s my kids.’ It’s our kids,” Wood said.