• November 2010

Digital textbooks: The value of giving students what they want, and need

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine
And Peter Noonan
Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools

In this Education column, we get a glimpse into the future of education: digital textbooks.

Beginning in September, Fairfax County Public Schools began piloting digital textbooks for 7th grade U.S. history and high school government classes. The school system joins others around the country who are jumping on the technology bandwagon.

“During the recent textbook adoption in social studies, it was hard to imagine having printed resources that would be relevant and up to date through 2017 which is when the next adoption would take place,” explains Alice Reilly, FCPS’s PreK-12 Social Studies Coordinator, who is helping to organize the project. “With changes in technology, the publishers now provide highly engaging, dynamic, and relevant electronic resources for students. These resources were reviewed and met with enthusiasm, and we are looking forward to rolling out the project.”

Here’s how it works

At Franklin Sherman Elementary School, librarian Nicole Choiniere-Kroeker knows the importance of collaborating with classroom teachers. Pictured right, she started working at FSES two years ago, she made it a priority to connect her instructional methods with the high-tech tools craved by the digital natives that make up her school’s student body.

“Our children enjoy using technology as a tool to gain knowledge and to express their learning. Whenever possible I try to incorporate available technology with my lessons, teaching students how to access and evaluate the resources available,” she says.

“Libraries help students learn. Part of my job is to remind students that our resources extend beyond the walls of the classroom or the library. I believe that as educators we must provide our students with multimodal opportunities to learn and support their development as problem solvers and citizens in a global world.”

In the fifth and sixth grade classes, Choiniere-Kroeker worked with teachers to establish discussion boards through FCPS 24-7 Learning, where the students talked online about the books they were reading.

“The students were psyched and motivated by this opportunity,” explains Vicki Duling, special projects administrator for FCPS’s Instructional Services Department. “Plus, there was anecdotal information that many quiet, less verbal students in the traditional classroom found their voice through the discussion board opportunity.”

Duling was amazed how faithfully all of the students participated in the program, even during after school hours. In fact, one student was on a family trip in California, but was so enthralled by the project that he logged on — three hours earlier West Coast time — to be part of the online discussion.

Another parent confided that she couldn’t get her fifth grader to bed one night because she “just had to log on and add something to the discussion board” after she finished reading a chapter in the novel the students were studying.

Looking toward the future

Peter Noonan is pleased to see that schools around the division are already ahead of the curve when it comes to incorporating technology into their learning strategies. As a former teacher, principal, Cluster Superintendent, and now the Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, he has long known that for students to achieve and succeed in school, they must be taught in the ways that make sense to them.

“Since they were babies, most of our students have used computers to learn and explore the world,” he explains. “By the time they get to elementary school, they have created their own content online — be it as an art or writing assignment, or sending a text to their friends. Our high school students are also incredibly advanced when it comes to working on computers. Anyone born before the digital age can barely keep up.”

As a result, he insists, educators need to adapt their teaching styles and models to reflect what is happening in the world. The first step, Noonan suggests, is to be able to provide kids with digitally generated content in a technologically rich environment.

“Most educators agree that the gap in student achievement increases when kids don’t have good access to information in the way that makes sense to them,” he says. “What they do out of school is as important as what they do in our buildings, and unfortunately what they are accessing at home — on the Internet, through Facebook, and other social media sites — is anything but rich in educational content. So what we need to do is inspire them to want to excel in school by using the digital content so that they love to learn when we aren’t watching.”

Preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow

Noonan knows that teaching kids to love to learn — through whatever means is necessary — is not just critical for their academic success. It is helping to shape the careers they will have, and the adults they will become.

“The notion of 21st century skills is incredibly relevant in terms of teaching students online because our goal is to help them learn to problem-solve, think critically, and be a good and productive member of a team,” Noonan says.

“These are skills that will be required in the future. Increasingly, corporations have offices located all over the world. The idea that a student should open their textbook and go to a page in a chapter for information, or head to the media center and do some research, is simply antiquated. Savvy teachers and school boards like we have in FCPS realize this, and are doing everything possible to make sure we are preparing our students to be successful members of society who can handle whatever challenge is thrown at them.”

To learn more, click here to learn more about whether technology is changing how kids’ brains work, and more.

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