There are textbooks in Ronald Tyson’s social studies class at Community House Middle School, but they’re stacked on a shelf, seldom touched.
Instead, when his seventh-graders start a lesson on the scientific revolution, they log onto classroom laptops or turn on their own phones and tablets to watch a short video. After Tyson refreshes their memory on heresy, they talk about why scientific pioneers were willing to go against church teachings.
While they’re reading or watching videos, students can take notes and highlight key concepts in their Discovery Education “ techbooks.”
All Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle schools started using the techbook digital program for science and social studies this year, following the path of nearby Mooresville Graded Schools. All told, more than 700,000 students across the country and more than 60,000 in North Carolina are using them. That’s about 4 percent of the state’s 1.5 million students.
By 2017, the state hopes to have all public schools completely converted to digital “texts,” which are offered by a number of vendors.
“The global classroom comes alive in a digital format,” says Valerie Truesdale, the top academic official for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In her view, online learning will always be supplemented by books and directed by a skilled teacher. “It’s all about blending it skillfully.”
The change is driven partly by the way today’s young people learn. But it’s even more about changing the way schools teach. In an era when memorizing dates, names and facts is an archaic skill, national Common Core standards are pushing teachers to help students analyze, interpret, cooperate and create.
Tyson alternates between guiding the discussion and giving students time to do their own online research. During the lesson on the scientific revolution, they discussed how the Reformation opened the door to doubt, how Muslim and Christian thinkers influenced each other and how the heliocentric view of the universe contradicted biblical teaching. Students worked in groups of six to research such key ideas as humanism and report out to the whole class.
“I love it,” Tyson says. The Discovery Education material is presented in the “short bursts” that appeal to wired young people, he says, and the group work builds engagement. “In middle school, they learn more from each other than they do from me.”
Making the change
Discovery Education, owned by the same company as The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, was already selling videos and other digital material to schools when it decided to create science and social studies packages to compete with traditional texts. The techbook material is designed to mesh with Common Core and state standards, with lesson suggestions for teachers and tools to help them create tests.
Colette Pechulonis, 13, a Community House student who says she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, likes the ability to have the text read aloud by the computer and to see videos that bring the material to life. “I just think it’s 100 percent easier,” she said.
Mooresville, which has won national acclaim for getting all students equipped with digital devices, uses techbooks for middle school social studies and for science in grades four and up. The district is helping Discovery Education beta-test a math techbook.
Mooresville schools stopped buying traditional textbooks when it began its digital conversion in 2008. The only books still in use are for Advanced Placement classes, and that’s because digital alternatives aren’t available, said spokeswoman Tanae McLean.
“A textbook, when you get it, it’s already outdated,” McLean said. “When you’re using digital, it’s updated constantly.”
This year, CMS bought three-year Discovery Ed techbook subscriptions for its 42 middle schools, which serve about 30,000 students. The three-year cost comes to $24.40 per student for science and $29.40 per student for social studies, Truesdale said, or about $18 per student each year.
The ultimate test of techbooks and other digital texts will be how well they help students master the more complex demands of the Common Core curriculum, which aims to prepare students for college and high-skilled jobs.
The switch to those standards is new enough, in North Carolina and across the country, that it’s hard to make solid comparisons with standard textbooks and other teaching methods. Discovery Education says it has no data on results from techbooks.
Mooresville points to steady gains on an array of academic measures since it began the digital conversion but says techbooks are only one part of that effort.
Last year, North Carolina introduced new state exams designed to move students a step closer to meeting the national standards. Proficiency rates plunged across the state, as was expected when the state made the tests tougher to pass.
Mooresville, which was using the techbooks last year, logged a 60.2 percent proficiency rate on fifth- and eighth-grade science exams (there’s no end-of-grade test for social studies). That’s well above the state average (52.2 percent) and the average for CMS (53.5 percent), which wasn’t using the techbooks districtwide.
But Mooresville fell below some other districts that aren’t using techbooks, including schools in Union and Lincoln counties, which had proficiency rates of about 64 percent. Both districts put a heavy emphasis on hands-on science experiments, as the techbook program does.
Union County used hands-on science kits created by the district’s teachers in elementary school, said spokesman Rob Jackson. Union middle schools use Discovery Education videos as a key part of their science curriculum but do not subscribe to the techbooks, he said.
Lincoln County uses paper textbooks to supplement the Engineering Is Elementary program developed by the Museum of Science in Boston, which includes activity kits and science storybooks. Middle schools also use a mix of traditional books and hands-on activities.
New ways to work
Switching to digital texts requires teachers and students to rethink the way they do things.
Students can work anywhere they can use the Internet. Interactive features let them share notes, comment on each other’s work and create “posters” that incorporate video and audio clips.
At East Mooresville Intermediate School, sixth-graders Maggie Schall and Rylie Warren won a national Discovery Education contest with an interactive display on polar bears that included an original song set to the tune of “Joy to the World.” Their prize: Their class got to have a video conference with scientists from Polar Bears International, who Skyped in from their tundra buggy in the Arctic.
At Community House, some students take advantage of the CMS “bring your own technology” policy and use their own phones and tablets in class.
During a recent lesson, Tyler warned the students that the introductory video was compatible only with Flash Player, not Windows Media Player. In theory, it’s fairly simple to set the classroom Chromebooks for Flash. In practice, many students struggled to launch the video.
That slowed things down, but Tyler likes to help the students get comfortable solving technology problems. One group had little luck getting the video on the classroom devices, so they clustered around an iPhone to watch. Others figured it out and helped classmates.
At the start of the year, Tyler says, many students struggled, not just with the devices or the language but with the more sophisticated approach to learning. “They’d ask, ‘What do I need to remember?’” he recalls. Now, he says, they’ve embraced the notion that information is just a starting point.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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