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A Beginner’s Toolkit for Teaching Remotely

As the world has suddenly been sent into self-isolation, many schools are trying to figure out what to do next. Some are opting for extended Spring Break, while others are trying to figure out ways to continue learning from home. This pandemic and subsequent shut down of social interaction has shed light on some major issues when it comes to connectivity in our students’ homes. Those with internet may have limited access to a device as well as there may only be one smartphone that a family has access to.

Knowing all of those underlying issues exist in many of your schools, there are many schools moving forward with the idea of “remote learning” or eLearning. For a classroom teacher that has been trained in the day-to-day operation of being in a physical classroom, a virtual classroom presents many different opportunities and challenges besides the lack of access mentioned above. As you might imagine, teaching the exact same way you would in a face-to-face environment is a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I’m offering up this beginner’s toolkit as a start for a teacher just now getting started. I’m not focusing on a grade level or subject area with this guide, but rather a set of tools, resources, questions, and ideas you’ll want to have in your virtual toolkit.

Consistent Communication

I’m starting with this before we dive into content and strategies. All of the other stuff is just noise if you don’t have a consistent method of communication with parents and students. Email is probably the most basic and universally accepted but could be cumbersome if you are teaching multiple subjects and students each day. Having apps that act as text messages like Bloomz and remind could also work.

As a way to streamline communication, many districts use Learning Management System (LMS) tools like Canvas, Schoology, Seesaw or Google Classroom as way to communicate and distribute work to students. If you are in a school district that does not have an LMS tool in place, I’d highly recommend either Google Classroom or Seesaw as a simple way to set up a remote classroom for your students.

Here are some tutorials you could use to get those set up:

Seesaw for Home Learning (Video)

Quick Start Guide to Google Classroom (Website)

No matter what you do or what tool you use, be sure to be consistent. Whether you are sending out the weekly work every Monday at 9am or checking in daily, be sure you are consistent and available for support. Which brings me to my next tip

Support Your Learners

Many students are confused, stressed, or excited by the prospect of being out of school for an extended period of time. Their parents are also under a lot of stress during this time and may have lost work or are struggling to work remotely while being self-quarantined with their entire family. Life and learning at home will look very different for each of your students depending on their situation and you no longer have the consistency provided in a single classroom environment. Just like communication, I listed this section prior to getting into content and strategies because supporting your students is much more important than turning in a digital worksheet. If you do nothing else during this time away than consistently communicate and support your students with periodic check-ins, know that you will have helped with their social-emotional well-being if nothing else.

Sending short videos saying hello, leaving a voice mail, or even sending a letter to their home can be a way to check in and make them aware that you care about them and their well-being during this turbulent time.

Virtual Office Hours

As part of those check in with students, some teachers have set up “virtual office hours”.  These can be in the form of brief 1-on-1 chats with students or possibly checking in with the whole group during your regularly scheduled class time. Many companies have stepped up to the plate and offered up free services for video conferencing for schools. Business video conferencing companies like Zoom and Webex are offering free versions or expanded basic versions for all schools. For Zoom you have to fill out this brief school information form and for Webex you can just download the app to get started. One thing to be cautious of is that many of the business versions of online video chat software are not COPPA-compliant (meaning kids under 13 shouldn’t use them.

For those of you teaching younger students, you could use a tool like Google Hangouts Meet (if you are GSuite school) or Microsoft Teams (if you are an Office 365 school). If these options aren’t available to you, here’s a list of kid-friendly video chat apps you might consider as well.

A couple of notes of advice from video chat experts:

  1. Keep the chats short. This isn’t the time for an hour long lecture. Figure on about 15-20 minutes of time to share any information you might normally do in a one-hour class.
  2. Have a script or set of questions to keep things on point. This can be as simple as asking students how they are doing to more academic questions.

Content Delivery and Retrieval

I saved this until later in this post as I know it’s probably the first thing many teachers are thinking about but also the most complex to deal with based on many of the items above. Before I list a few ideas, I have noticed that depending on the state you are in, academic work may or may not be counted on for a grade. You’ll want to follow whatever guidelines your school or district provides when it comes to grading. That said, many families are hoping or some direction and ideas when it comes to at-home learning. The two most common approaches when it comes to delivering content and work for students are these:

  1. Synchronous method: Teachers and students gather virtually in an online space during the time of their actual class period. So if you have Pre-AP Algebra from 9:30-10:20 normally, that’s when students would log in to work with the teacher. While this most resembles the actual school day, it’s also wrought with issues like students not being able to get connected, tech issues, or what to do when a student is “absent” and misses the virtual session. Recording these in Google Hangout Meet might be one option for later viewing, but just know the backend issues that can arise when doing this the first few times.
  2. Asynchronous method: This has by far been the most popular method for remote learning. Much like online university classes, assignments are handed out daily or weekly for students to complete. Teachers can record themselves using Screencastify for PCs, Quicktime for Mac, and the built-in screen recorder for iPad or iPhone. Then these videos can be uploaded and distributed via your communication method of choice (see item #1) along with any other materials you want to attach.

Collection of materials can be tricky without an LMS. Without a full-blown LMS you could ask students to gather their work in a folder or even in a virtual folder in Google Drive. One clever idea that was shared with me from a teacher in Illinois was using an ePortfolio system like Bulb for students to document their learning. Using Bulb, students of all ages can document their learning in a series of collections. Check out this 3rd grade and high school example for ideas.

Another tool that I’ve always loved for digital learning is Nearpod. This morning they released this Google Doc with a rough schedule of what a day of at-home learning might look like. What I love about their approach is that they focus a lot on building those SEL skills like meditation for middle school kids or goal-setting for elementary students. They even have lessons in Spanish! Ideally your school would have a Nearpod account, but if not, they do offer a limited set of tools or free.

Using FlipGrid is a great way to have a virtual, asynchronous class discussion around a multitude of topics. From virtual book clubs to selecting and sharing a variety of topics in their Disco Library, this web-based tool can work on any device and allows students an opportunity to see each other more often, even if it is not face-to-face.

Also, having a running Google Doc shared with your students could work in terms of sending them ideas or a daily to-do list much like the one Nearpod shared above. Collection becomes a little trickier without Google Classroom, but having Google folders set up to “turn in” work could be a work around.

I am working on a list of resources for teachers that are more based on grade levels and ages, but as this post is just a beginner’s guide, I’m just sharing the above tools that could be used regardless of age and subject.

The Power of Reflection

“We do not learn from experience….we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

Reflection is a powerful ally to learning. One thing I always struggled with until late in my teaching career was allowing kids the time to reflect on what they had learned and accomplished. Reflection coupled with goal-setting can help with productivity as well as a student’s confidence to achieve a goal. One of the best examples of this that could totally be done at home is the design and building of a Rube Goldberg machine. Using available utensils and tools, the student creates a device with multiple moving parts and then predicts how successful it will be and how many attempts it might take. (here’s one example by a young man named Audri)

Taking time to reflect on their day and the process of what they are learning would be a great use of time at home. Reflections can be done in a physical journal, in a Google doc, on a FlipGrid, using a tool like Book Creator, or captured in a Bulb ePortfolio. No matter what subject or age you teach, try and encourage your students to document and reflect on what life is like in this crazy new normal.

I hope that the above areas help you get started on your journey as a teacher who works remotely. Remember to take care of yourself too during this time away and take time to reflect, share, and breathe. I’ll be sharing more tools and resources in a separate post.

If your school or district needs help, I’m available for virtual consulting. Click here if you’d like more information or need some assistance in your school or district.

 

 

How Prepared is Your School for a Long-Term Pandemic?

It’s been interesting to watch the world react to the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the “Coronavirus”. In the age of social media and instant notifications on our mobile devices, it’s made this pandemic seem like the worst on record when in fact, it’s not even close. That said, as with any disaster or pandemic, there comes an increased awareness to how schools and districts respond to it. Many schools are on alert, creating plans and awaiting guidance. While others, like this school in Seattle, are shutting down as a precaution.

Last week I posted the question of how schools prepared for a long-term closure using Facebook, Twitter, and group texts as ways to crowd-source responses.  Those responses varied from “packets, we’ll just give them lots of packets” to “we’ll use Google Classroom to hand out assignments.”  Neither of these responses are inherently good or bad, but it does open the door to a slew of questions schools and districts need to be asking themselves when it comes to continuing the learning even when the building is closed to students.

This post is a cumulation of those responses crowd-sourced from school administrators across the globe. As every district is different, it’s impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach to long-term closure. However, I do hope these questions can help guide you as you see what kind of plan you have in place should the unfortunate happen. Being from Texas, I know that weather can cause long-term closure as well (see Hurricane Harvey). For the purposes of the following questions, I’m going to assume that it’s a pandemic and that it’s affecting the entire community and surrounding districts. I will also post some ideas and solutions that were shared with me in the hopes of sparking an idea for your school or community.

1. How will you deliver learning to your students?

I purposefully put “learning” instead of “content” as too often times we default to what we know. Learning online looks a lot different than learning in a physical classroom. Some mentioned using LMS platforms like Schoology or Google Classroom to deliver the learning to their students but this assumes that A) they have devices and B) they have internet access (see next question). Also, most of the responses pertained to students in grades 6 and up. Some had some measures for 3-5 students while most had no plans for online learning when it came to K-2 students.

Ideas/Solutions: As mentioned, using LMS platforms seemed to be the most common response to this question, with Google Classroom being mentioned the most. Sometimes these can be online assignments, digital worksheets, or journal prompts. Some mentioned using live chats, YouTube, and Google Hangouts as a way to supplement the learning, including having “office hours” where teachers take 10-15 minutes to check in virtually with each of their students. A couple of districts mentioned their teachers creating lessons on Nearpod and using the “student-paced” option to send work home as it tracks their answers and allows them to upload work. Andrew Wallace from South Portland Maine Schools shared another creative solution. In his district, they send home a “one page cheat sheet” with passwords and usernames for online resources like Newsela, Tumble Books, Overdrive, and BrainPop (which already has a new lesson on the CoronaVirus – see below) In Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, Kyle Berger deploys a Classlink portal for all teachers, parents and students to access resources. Of course, this all still assumes that all kids have devices and internet at home which leads me to my second question.

2. How many of your students DO NOT have online access at home and how do you deliver learning to them?

This is a question many schools may already know the answer to. Online survey tools like Survey Monkey and Bright Bytes can help collect this data (ironically, you have to be online to take the survey) or you could collect this information during school registration. Regardless of how you collect it, you’ll likely have a percentage of students without access that you’ll have to plan for.

Ideas/Solutions: There were a WIDE variety of ideas and solutions for this question. Bonnie Blan from Southwest Christian School was able to leverage discounted internet access for families in need using Kajeet and the BroadbandNow initiative. Others mentioned giving out hotspots as it would be likely that students wouldn’t be able to go to places like McDonald’s or Starbucks during a quarantine (although some adults might risk it for coffee :). With either of these solutions, you would need to set these up well before disaster strikes, but I like that schools are solving this issue regardless. In general, the responses from educators seemed to indicate that you should be prepared to have some analog mixed with digital. Writing in journals and reading are easy enough for ELA, but having prompts for writing helps. Some schools mentioned having students check out extra books out of the library just in case.

3. How prepared are staff and what is their role?

Like Jennifer mentioned, setting up a bunch of brand new tools during a stressful time like a long-term closure wouldn’t be wise. Staff will be worried about their own families as well as their students. Anything that is implemented would either need to be put in place before hand or easily deliverable to a teacher’s existing curriculum and instruction. While not ideal, this could mean just sending home paper or digital worksheets, but even that can be a challenge.

Ideas/Solutions: Having a plan in place with deliverables to staff would be a smart thing to create and have on hand regardless of a global pandemic. These can range from having some one-page step-sets that show teachers how to deliver a variety of content on your LMS of choice to an internal website with a range of ideas for online learning. Schools can leverage tools like Microsoft Teams as a way to collaborate or have conversations or create Padlet walls that students can post ideas on. Any and all solutions should be web-based, device agnostic and able to work on a smartphone as that may be the only online access they have.

One bit of advice from Jennifer Pearson, a Tech Coordinator who works at the International School of Nanshan Shenzhen in China – “There should be a plan. The plan should be consistent and NOT introduce a bunch of new techy tools.”

4. Are these days recognized by your state or country as actual instructional days?

As you might imagine, each state and country has different rules around this. Here in Texas, we count instructional days based on the actual amount of minutes our students are physically in school. While there might be exemptions made, currently those days won’t count and schools would presumably have to extend the school year to make up for the loss of days and weeks while shut down which would likely push through the end of June. While I think learning should still continue even if your state or country doesn’t recognize it officially, this brings about many other questions, including contract lengths of your professional teaching staff.

Ideas/Solutions: Some states, like Illinois, recognizes a handful of “eLearning Days” that can often times come about due to poor weather. These days are counted as official instructional days and were recognized by the state, which means no make-up days at the end of the year. Phil Hintz from Gurnee D56 in the Chicago area was a part of a handful of districts that ran the pilot for eLearning days starting in 2016. While not a solution for weeks of closure, the framework they built was around giving students windows of time to complete assignments and using Title 1 funds to get those without access Kajeet Hotspots. Here’s a video of his school’s experience with eLearning day.

5. What role do other “non-classroom” professionals play?

In an average school building there are many professional, salaried staff working along side the classroom teachers. Some of these teach special area subjects like art, music and PE. Others include counselors, nurses, and campus administration. While the majority of the interaction of students will come from the teacher in an eLearning concept, these staff still have a role to play.

Ideas/Solutions: Principals are the go to source for school-to-home communication. They should be posting updates regularly to both parents but also to staff and help identify families that might not have online access at home. They also have to set expectations for teaching staff in making sure online instruction is consistent. Special area teachers should continue to serve students and provide instruction whether it be having students post a video of them doing push-ups on a FlipGrid or capture their art and reflect using a digital portfolio tool like Bulb. Counselors and nurses can provide support to families in need either through one-on-one at home visits or through online video chat tools.

6. What about itinerant and paraprofessional staff?

Those professional staff on salary can rest easy knowing that they are still getting their paycheck every month, even if the school is closed. Sure they may have to work some extra days, but they aren’t clocking in to work an hourly job. Custodians, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers and teacher aides don’t have that luxury. For them, a shut down could be a devastating hit to them financially if they aren’t working.

Ideas/Solutions: There are still roles for many of these staff to play even if the building is closed, but they may be very different compared to the normal school day. Custodial staff should do a deep cleaning of the building and prepare it for the eventual return of students. Admin assistants can help connect teachers with students and vice versa as they have access to parent contact information. Cafeteria workers can help provide and deliver meals to those families in need. Teacher aides can use tools like Google Hangouts to meet with those students they serve and check in or assist on the work that they have to do at home. In some cases, while human contact in masse is to be avoided, they can also make one-on-one home visits like the counselors and nurses. While the building may be closed, there is still plenty of work to be done and these staff are vital to keeping things running efficiently as well as helping our students with special needs.

In summary, there is a LOT to consider before shutting a school down for a few days or even a few weeks. The questions above are just the tip of the iceberg, but they come from a multitude of librarians, teachers, and administrators across the world that genuinely care about keeping the progress of learning happening despite the closure of a physical building.

What plans does your school or district have in place? Please post your ideas and solutions in the comments section below. If I’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that we all are better when we work and collaborate on ideas together.

When Should I Give My Kid a Smartphone?

We recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. That means the iPhone has been in production two years longer than my oldest child. Every student in elementary school today cannot fathom a world where smartphones don’t exist. I LOVE this Douglas Adams about technology in our lives:

 

With the invent of the smartphone being so new to those of us over 35 yet part of the natural way of things for those under the age of 10, you can see how this can become a major topic of contention. One of the major discussions amongst parents in my community and others is when is the right time to give a child their first phone. This is an ongoing debate in the Hooker household as well. While my kids have access to devices like iPads (both at home and at school) there are times where it might be helpful for them to have access to a phone.

Here’s one example that was shared with me recently:

When we were kids and we went to a friend’s house, we had to call our parents to let them know we had arrived.  The only problem with that solution today is that many households are getting rid of landlines which makes it hard to communicate with your child when they aren’t within your grasp.

Now, some could argue that may seem like more of a convenience then anything and to just get your kid a “dumb phone” for that purpose. While we’re still on the fence about when to give our oldest her first phone, here are a list of reasons why it might make sense to do it sooner rather than later.

Becoming a Good Digital Citizen

What does it mean to be a good citizen much less a digital one? Much of this practice happens at home at an EARLY age when we teach our kids how to be respectful, say “please” and “thank you” and not to chew with their mouth open. While there is much more to being a good citizen than just that, we do start building those traits as soon as our kids can speak for the most part.  Enter in the smartphone and the world online.

While many of the rules of modern society apply to an online environment, some do not. The ability to be “anonymous” (I put it in air-quotes because no one is truly anonymous online) on the internet can bring out the worst in some people. Just look at the comment section of any online discussion or better yet, listen to the story of Lizzie Velasquez (video below), who’s father I used to work with. Lizzie was looking at YouTube one day when she came across a video that was titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman” and was shocked to find footage of herself on the video. While this is an extreme example of what the online world can do to people, her reaction and subsequent inspirational talks turned what could have been life-devastating to life-defining.

The sooner we start to work with our kids on appropriate online behavior the better. When we thrust them into this world in the middle of their teen years, many bad habits have already started to form. Throw in the fact that they have “teenage” brain and don’t believe a thing their parents try to teach them, and you start to see that it might be more beneficial to have those conversations about online behavior at an earlier age.

Handling a Cyberbully or Troll

Lizzie’s example from above was just one of countless examples of cyberbullies or trolls that you can find on the web. Bullying has been around long before the days of Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver. With social media and instant communication, it is now easier to torment or harass someone. Every year it seems, there are stories out there about teens committing suicide due to being the target of a cyberbully. Your first reaction as a parent is to protect your kids and prohibit them from entering this online world. I know that’s mine. You figure, if they aren’t online, they won’t have to deal with a cyberbully.

These stories are tragic and shouldn’t be ignored, but we also shouldn’t completely put our kids in a cyber-bubble. The numbers of teens that have experienced or witnessed some form of cyberbullying is nearly 90%. However, bullying behavior, whether online or face-to-face begins as early as Kindergarten. As kids get older, they tend to be more reluctant to report bullying to parents. While this may not seem like the best reason to give your 10-year old a phone, one thing is for sure, the sooner they learn how to handle this sort of online behavior with your support, the better.

Regardless of when you give them a phone, you need to be actively involved in your kid’s online and daily life. That means understanding the social media sites they frequent. While we may not understand the fascination with the SnapChat dog-face filter, we should look for opportunities to have our kids teach us the ins and outs of a platform while we play the role of student. Not only will this open up lines of communication, but it will also give you an opportunity to relay some life wisdom to your child and discuss scenarios of what to do when a troll or cyberbully attacks.

Again, just like with citizenship, when our kids are in their primary grades they is a strong likelihood they will witness, become a victim, or participate in some form of bullying. We need to be involved and on the look out for signs like depression, anxiety, anger or fear. Unlike face to face situations, we have a multitude of digital tools to help us monitor and track when a cyberbullying situation may be taking place. I like the advice given in this article which includes setting up a Google Alert for your child’s name. The sooner we can have these hard conversations and problem-solve the solutions the better.

Data Privacy

This past year, I started having social media and cyber safety talks with 4th and 5th graders. I did this for many of the reasons stated in this post but mainly because I felt like a lot of bad online habits were already forming by the time students were in middle school. One of the most interesting discoveries in talking with 10 and 11 year olds wasn’t that they don’t know what a floppy disk was (although I found that depressing), it was that they were adept at identifying what information to not tell a stranger online.

They knew not to give out their personal information, address, credit card number, etc. whenever they were involved in an online discussion or game. However, when I showed them the terms and services agreements that often pop-up where a company wants access to your information, most just said they click “ok” or “I agree” and continue on (Parents are guilty of this too). A stranger can come in all different forms, from an online person acting like a child to a multi-million dollar company stealing your information and selling it to others.

Be careful what you agree to…

Having kids check with their parents before downloading malware or accepting terms and agreements that make their data privacy vulnerable is important. When kids enter middle school, they are testing their independence and for the most part, decide they can make these choices for themselves. While it’s important that they gain some independence, we need to scaffold and build a foundation of understanding in them early on when it comes to their data privacy online. Otherwise, they might all be trying to give a Prince in Nigeria money by accident.

Learning How To Balance Life

Research shows that most habits and much of a child’s personality are formed by the age of 9. One thing we started working with our kids on as early as 4 was self-monitoring their screen time and appropriate times to use technology in everyday life. While we as parents don’t always model this the best, our kids have begun to internalize the best practices that come with using technology and social interactions in everyday life.

By scaffolding these skills early on in their life while their habits are forming, we will likely be more successful battling against things like internet addiction or social isolationism. Will there still be battles in the future as our kids become teenagers? Absolutely. But by building those habits in their early years, we’ll have a strong foundation to build on. My wife and I are far from perfect parents and still have moments where we battle this digital balance with our kids. However, as the years go on, we’ve found that our kids have become much more cognizant of an overuse of screen time.  Recently, during my usual Sunday football viewing, my middle child told me, “I think that’s enough screen time for the day, let’s go out and play.”  This type of internalized self-awareness doesn’t happen without tons of practice while they are in their highest habit-forming years.

Building Healthy Relationships

Part of that life balance besides just screen time, is building the skills to have healthy relationships both online and in person. Many adults and older teens, to whom the smartphone is still considered “new” have struggled with the management of peer-to-peer and parent-to-child interactions. Some of this is due to the instant gratification and distraction that comes with constantly checking our phones.  Modeling when to be on our phones and when not to is one of the best ways to show how to have healthy relationships and interactions. Modeling can only go so far in teaching our kids the best practices of relationships though. Having some access to a device to “practice” and fully internalize this skill early on will help as they enter their later teen years.

Avoid Parent Shaming

At this point I should put a MAJOR disclaimer: This post is not to be considered a persuasive essay on why we should give every kid a smartphone at the age of 6. Let’s agree on something – every child and family is different. Some kids can easily handle the social pressures of online interaction early on in life. Others have noticeable changes in behavior just by having access to a screen for more than 5 minutes. Regardless of which child you are raising, teaching them to be digitally aware is not easy. But then again, neither is parenting.

Much in the way that I won’t judge or shame a parent that gives their child a phone in first grade, I won’t judge or shame a parent that has chosen to wait until they are in high school. We all carry with us a variety of ideals and ideas when it comes to raising our child. I have respect for those that are choosing to wait to give their kids a phone until later in life. A smartphone is an expensive device that requires a level of responsibility that some kids can’t manage. The truth is, as a parent, we’ll never know the perfect age to give our child their first smartphone.

But keeping it out of the hands of our kids hands because of our fears or worry of being shamed isn’t right either. This post is more meant to give parents that have chosen to give their kid a phone some skills to work on and be aware of. Why not take advantage of building those skills early on in life rather than later when the more harmful online encounters happen?  Doing so could give your child an edge on their peers when it comes to online and social interaction. It could also create a trusting, open line of communication between child and parent throughout their teenage years and beyond.

 

How Did the Textbook Go Extinct?

Our summer visit to the land before time

Our summer visit to the land before time

My daughters love talking about dinosaurs.  This summer we visited the dinosaur park in Cabazon, CA (made famous by Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) just so they could climb inside a dinosaur. I’ve shown my oldest the original Jurassic Park (not the scary parts) and she has begun to ask me, “Daddy, what happened to the dinosaurs?  Are there still some around? Did they become birds?”

Lots of questions and lots of theories but it’s made me think about our own educational landscape and the changes that have been happening dramatically the last 5-7 years when it comes to mobility, social media and content creation.  We still have a lot of dinosaurs walking the earth in education, namely the major textbook companies. What is going to happen to them?  Will they go extinct or evolve?

Today, I attended a State Board of Education session on “Educating the Digital Generation.”  I was pleased to see many educators like Scott Floyd (@woscholar) and superintendents like Randy Moczygemba (@rmocyzgembanb) present to share their frustrations and concerns around the digital textbook industry. (You can view their testimony here: http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/) Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 7.54.13 PMHowever, being that textbook publishing is a big business in education, the major textbook companies were also given time to not only defend their platforms, but also ask for more support.  The SBOE in Texas has some progressive members that support digital learning in schools but they also have some that seem to be steeped in learning from prehistoric times.  One such board member mentioned that “kids are stupid” when it comes to social media and that “using the slide rule is better for learning math than a graphing calculator.”

What does all of this mean for major textbook companies? I have an outlook for them, and judging by recent events, their future is bleak.  Let’s look at some signs that spell the demise of the “Big 3” (Pearson, HMH, and McGraw Hill) as well as the massive educational asteroid that will ultimately wipe them out.

Open Educational Resources

With the government’s recent push for more Open Educational Resources (OER) and the already massively available “flexbooks” through sites like CK12.org, we no longer have to purchase an expensive, unreliable online textbook from a major company.  Instead of spending millions upon millions of dollars on textbooks, districts can instead dedicate that money towards staffing, technology, and paid online resources that will actually help kids with learning.  In Texas, we have our Instructional Materials Allotment (IMA) which allows for “local control” of funds so districts can choose what they want to purchase when it comes to instructional materials.  However, the most recent statistics show that 93% of those dollars are spent on traditional textbook resources, mainly from the Big 3.  Why is that the case if there is still local control?  Primarily it’s the “safe” thing to do.  No district wants to stick their neck out too far to purchase something not vetted or…*gasp*…perhaps even save that money for other instructional uses.

Crowd Sourced Content

In addition to the OER resources out there, teachers and schools are sharing more than ever before.  Take a look at the hundreds of twitter chats happening online daily centered around education to see the explosion of sharing that is taking place.  Some of this sharing comes in the form of “paid sharing” via a program like TeachersPayTeachers.com.  I don’t begrudge an already underpaid teacher trying to make a buck (although profiting off other underpaid teachers is a slight concern), I do think the more open we are, the better the learning will be for our students.  I recently listened to Tim Berners-Lee, the “Father of the world wide web”, on the TED stage talking about how if he had made the internet cost money, it would have never turned into the great collective network that it is today. I think if we freely share resources and best practices, that crowd sourced content will ultimately make the Textbook-destroying asteroid even bigger.

MYOT (Make Your Own Textbook)

Ok, so a bit of a play on words of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement in Ed Tech, but when you take the OER resources and the crowd-sourced content being shared, why not just get the best teachers in the district or region and have them create their own book?  It’s not about the book, it’s about the learning standards right?  Paying teachers even HALF of what we pay textbook companies to make a better book, would not only save a district thousands, but also create a better product that is ultimately district-owned.  We’ve started down this road with the Texas History adoption, and during today’s state testimony, many districts reported successfully building and deploying their own “textbooks”.   I see this as the next evolution in content provision and can even see it further evolving to where kids start to create their own textbook.  After all, teaching the material is the best way to learn right? The meteor is approaching….

Publishers vs. Programmers

Some of the dinosaurs did indeed evolve and survived.  Those smaller mammals that were more nimble (i.e. smaller content publishers) survived and even thrived following the extinction level event.  When working with the Big 3, you must realize that they are publishers, not programmers.  I can’t begin to tell you the amount of man hours wasted with data uploads, failed ebook downloads, incorrect content, and massive lack of technical design when it comes to digital textbooks from the larger providers.  While I won’t mention names I can tell you that one company even creates a “bridge” product to connect it’s multiple products and product teams. Another when asked directly about integration with our student information system (SIS), stated that they “never mentioned it would be seamless.”

While you would think an eTextbook would save money, in many cases, because of how they are bundled, these cost districts almost the same amount of money.  In many ways these companies take fat checks from schools and districts all over the land to cover their massive bottom-lines, not to better serve districts.  The smaller, more nimble companies, on the other hand, start with programming and build a better project based on client feedback (that client being the teachers and students).

The Final Explosion and Aftermath –

Several districts here in Texas have started to join forces to fight these behemoths and their poor practices and heavy costs.  We’ve pleaded with them to join up with a company like Clever, which handles the automation of data from SIS to textbook company (at NO COST to the school or district).  Two of the three major textbook companies have told me that we “don’t need that kind of integration” or “sure it’s free for you, but it costs us.”  The fact that a company that gets millions of dollars from districts actually has the gall to say that is appalling.

And so, with this global killer approaching their industry, it’s obvious that the only thing keeping them alive is their sheer size and girth.  But like the dinosaurs, those that don’t evolve will become extinct.  And in some ways, maybe the educational world will be a better place because of it.

A textbook museum from the future?

A textbook museum from the future? Perhaps…