MUNSTER, Ind. — Laura Norman used to ask her seventh-grade scientists to take out their textbooks and flip to Page Such-and-Such. Now, she tells them to take out their laptops.
The day all have seen coming — traditional textbooks being replaced by interactive computer programs — arrived this year in this traditional, well-regarded school district, complete with one naysaying parent getting reported to the police. Unlike the tentative, incremental steps of digital initiatives at many schools nationwide, Munster made an all-in leap in a few frenetic months — removing all math and science textbooks for its 2,600 students in grades 5 to 12, and providing a window into the hurdles and hiccups of such an overhaul.
The transformation, which cost $1.1 million for infrastructure, involved rewiring not just classrooms but also the mindset of students, teachers and parents. When teachers started hearing that “the server ate my homework,” they knew a new era had begun.
Our guess is that school districts with money to try switches to new technology or are lucky enough to get grants are the ones implementing blended learning. We are seeing “The Marines” of sorts at schools in suburbs, wealthy rural districts, urban private schools or others with grants. These programs are the first to hit the beaches. One of the first moves of these schools and states is to unhinge textbook buying practices and contracts.
Munster is hardly the first district to go digital. Schools in Mooresville, N.C., for example, started moving away from printed textbooks four years ago, and now 90 percent of their curriculum is online. “It didn’t happen overnight for us — it was an incremental change,” said Mark Edwards, Mooresville’s superintendent of schools. “The competency is evolutional.”
But Munster’s is part of a new wave of digital overhauls in the two dozen states that have historically required schools to choose textbooks from government-approved lists. Florida, Louisiana, Utah and West Virginia approved multimedia textbooks for the first time for the 2011-12 school year, and Indiana went so far as to scrap its textbook-approval process altogether, partly because, officials said, the definition of a textbook will only continue to fracture.
“We’ve stopped pretending that the state board of education is the biggest school district in the state,” said Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction. “I believe in local control, and we don’t have the ability to be the keeper of knowledge we have been in the past. We’ll be better off if we uncuff people’s hands.”
And here is what it looks like at work in the classroom:
Uncuffed, Angela Bartolomeo’s sixth graders spent a recent Wednesday rearranging terms of equations on an interactive Smart Board and dragging-and-dropping answers in ways that chalkboards never could. (In between, a cartoon character exclaimed that “Multiplying by 1 does not change the value of a number!” in his best superhero baritone.)
When the children followed up the lesson with exercises on their laptops, the curriculum, Pearson Education’s “Digits,” not only allowed them to advance at individual rates, but also alerted Ms. Bartolomeo via her iPad when they were stuck on a particular concept and needed help.
Software wirelessly recorded the children’s performance in a file that the teacher would review that night. “Last year I’d have to walk around and ask every kid how it’s going, and I’d be grading sheets, that kind of thing,” Ms. Bartolomeo said. “This way I can give my time to the kids who really need it. And it’s a lot more engaging for the kids. They’re actually doing their homework now.”
Ms. Norman, the seventh-grade science teacher, is using material from Discovery Education, which on that Wednesday included videos from Discovery’s “Mythbuster” series (commercial-free), an interactive glossary and other eye candy to help students investigate whether cellphones cause cancer. When Ms. Norman told the students to take out their ear buds to watch a video, two in the back yelped, “Cool!”