Making the Leap
Teachers and students have had a love-hate relationship with the history textbook for as long as there have been history textbooks to read (or, more to the point, to assign for reading). This really hit home for me in 2008, at the end of one of the most frustrating school years ever. My students had turned hating the textbook into an art, and I was determined to figure out why and find some solutions that would work in my class.
At the end of that year, I gave my students a survey, asking them about the book, the class, what worked, and what didn’t. Some of the results were surprising, most were not. On the one hand, 66% of my students said that, taken as a whole, reading the textbook was helpful in understanding/being successful in the class. On the other hand, only 40% said that they read at least 80% of the time (and only 15% said that they read all the assignments). Across the board, students said that they would be significantly more likely to read if the reading were shorter and more engaging.
Thus began my team's efforts to find alternatives to the book. Our first goal was to find readings that would be more targeted to the goals we have for our class. A second, and still very important goal, was to make sure that it did not involve any additional cost to the students. Turning to the internet was the most obvious choice.
The result of our efforts was the creation of e-learning folios for each unit. Students are given "big picture questions" for the unit, followed by a series of thematic "learning modules" that students read for class and lists of key terms and ideas that accompany each of them. The learning modules are comprised of a series of links to different online sources, including online digital textbooks, digital museums, primary source readings, and online videos and lessons.
Since implementing our new curriculum, we have noticed some positive results. First, our readings are more targeted. We have been able to really help our students focus on what they need to know from the reading, and we can supplement and enrich that in class. The result is that our students' reading load has been reduced by about 10%.
Secondly, our readings are richer. Rather than just giving students the textbook version of, for example, the New Deal, we have been able to incorporate more readings from historians and have encouraged them to explore a wider array of sources as part of their reading.
Third, our students are encouraged to engage in more online assignments and collaboration. Using the computer to learn about history is more of the norm in our classes, rather than a novelty. Students are encouraged to use that information in new ways that engage "digital natives." Finally, our students have continued to perform. While our foray into the digital world was met, at first, with consternation from parents, in the three years that we have been using this system, our students have actually performed better on the AP US history exam than they had in the past.
With all of that said, there are still some limitations that need to be addressed. The first, and most obvious, limitation is access. While almost all of the students in my school have reliable internet access, there are still some that rely on access at school or for whom we have to provide printed copies of some articles. With nearly 29% of American households lacking reliable access to the internet (according to the Department of Commerce's Digital Nation report), the "digital divide" is still a real obstacle, and until states begin to provide students with access to computers and the internet, digital learning will never truly be the norm.
Second, we lose out on "found time" for studying. Students have lost the ability to use their time on the bus or in the bleachers after practice unless they have wireless access. One odd result has been the number of students who ask to check out a textbook instead. Some students simply prefer a hard copy. In fact, one of the most surprising complaints I have received about our system is that it is too costly. When I have asked students to elaborate on this, it has turned out that many of my students actually print out all of our readings so they can highlight and take notes.
Finally, the downside of our efforts to "pare down" the readings and provide more targeted sources is that the students have lost the sense of narrative that the textbooks provide. No textbook can be everything to all classes, and this is even more true with online sources, which tend to have fewer resources at their disposal. We have yet to find the one "magic bullet" source that has everything we need, and while it is great to have to flexibility to incorporate elements from a number of sources, we have had to work diligently to find reputable sources and redouble our efforts to show how all of the disparate elements they are reading fit together.
In short, the use of online sources as an alternative to traditional textbooks provides myriad opportunities to engage students and enrich the curriculum in the history classroom. However, solving the "textbook problem" can create its own set of problems that teachers will still have to address.