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Books in Translation

Moving Beyond the Textbook
November 21, 2012 | Volume 8 | Issue 4
Table of Contents 

Field Notes

Shifting from Textbooks to Digital Portals

Christopher J. Pellettieri

As I pore over the annual requests for new textbooks, which have been exacerbated this year by the United States' adoption of the Common Core English language arts standards, I realize more and more that schools need to move away from this outdated resource.

Technology in the classroom is no longer a choice but rather a necessity if educators wish to develop college- and career-ready students. We can no longer afford to teach youngsters the same way that we've taught them for the past 100 years; we must meet and teach our students in the technological media they live in on a daily basis. If we do not, they will begin to see us as relics of the past who are irrelevant to their changing world and will tune us out completely.

Goodbye, Textbooks

Take a look at the dinosaur that is the standard 400- to 600-page, three- to five-pound textbook. Any educator can easily recall the familiar scene of teachers dutifully rolling out the textbooks on carts each September; students crawling home with backpacks bloated like the Grinch's sack of stolen Christmas gifts; and then, in June, teachers posting the dreaded book-return notice on the board and children scurrying about their homes looking everywhere for their textbooks. "Now, where did I leave that Earth science textbook again?," they ask themselves. Why didn't the students use the textbook? Because there are so many better, up-to-date resources in digital content that our students know full well about.

We finally have an opportunity to make all this go away. Let's rid ourselves and our students of the textbooks that are out-of-date the day they are printed—let alone when the students get their hands on them. Let's change the knowledge-delivery system to one that provides us with current (within minutes), secured, digital content. Wouldn't it be nice to not have to rely on textbooks that still regard Pluto as a planet because there are still three more years until the astronomy class is eligible for a new textbook? Let's replace the 20th century textbook with a 21st century alternative.

In my district, schools have begun to replace textbooks with digital portals. Instead of students receiving a textbook on their first day of class, they are given a user name and password. Once they enter the portal, they find an interactive, accurate, digital-content forum on multiple levels for multiple intelligences that includes podcasts, streaming video, images, primary sources, keyword searches for vital vocabulary, online books and articles, maps, graphs, and other Web 2.0 tools.

The possibilities are truly endless, and all are built around a particular course of study with the engagement of today's youngsters in mind. Students will now be able to dive deeply into a keyword search with a simple mouse click. All of this content is differentiated and available in a multitude of languages and software that will even read text to students. This type of forum naturally lends itself to collaborating with peers, thinking critically, communicating, and creative problem solving. At last, a real 21st century classroom environment.

How It Works

Ideally, this type of teaching and learning works best with a one-to-one laptop or iPad initiative. With a one-to-one or BYOD (bring your own device) environment, students would not only have 24/7 access to their digital content and schoolwork, but they could also use their device to hold their e-books, thereby shrinking their backpack load considerably. (I bet there are quite a few 8-year-olds who would be happy to hear that!)

You may be asking yourself right now, "Well, this sure sounds great, but how do we pay for it?" Think of all the money we can save when we stop purchasing separate resources for some of our students and instead have a one-stop shop for all our students' digital needs. Digital content, as I'm sure you know, comes with translators, readers, text-to-speech, and the like for use by all students. The real dollars, however, will be found when we stop spending millions of dollars on outdated textbooks! You can also save a great deal on ink and paper because you will no longer need to print. Best of all, we will contribute to a greener environment. The dollars saved can then go toward providing our students with the devices they need to access the digital content. Several states have already allowed the comingling of textbook and technology dollars to ease this transition.

Invariably, naysayers will argue that the economy is in too poor a shape for such an undertaking. Unfortunately, that excuse can be used year after year, considering our schools' limited resources. We have to stop making schools the one place in which our kids lack the ability to access information instantaneously. We need to dedicate our resources in this area now to fully prepare our students for the future in which they will live and work. Think about it: when was the last time you took an encyclopedia or a textbook off a shelf to find an answer to something? That probably hasn't happened in years. Then why do we still want to teach our students to find answers that way?

Christopher J. Pellettieri is assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Rockville Centre Schools in New York, where a pilot of an Earth science portal is currently under way.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 4. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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