So Long Textbooks? Former Education Official Pushes For Digital Teaching Tools

May 12, 2016

Allegheny County school officials met to consider the possibility of ditching traditional, printed textbooks for digital teaching materials.
Credit Scott Barkley / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny County school officials are considering taking a bold step – ditching textbooks.

Superintendents, curriculum directors and librarians from multiple districts met Thursday to discuss getting using new materials.

They're looking to follow in the steps of other schools around the country using open educational resources –- which are free and non-copyrighted, shared materials.

Former U.S. Department of Education Director of Technology Richard Culatta, who has advocated for digitizing teaching material, met with local educators. He said the country spends $8 billion a year on textbooks and other printed materials.  

“If you combine the amount of funding we use for textbooks and throw in the amount we use for copiers and toners and paper costs - which is significant – you can pretty much without adding a whole lot of money provide devices to kids,” he said.

Culatta emphasized the change isn’t just about joining the digital age – it’s about providing a more dynamic experience.

“Instead of a dusty, old textbook, we can actually have them interacting with current events, simulations,” he said. “And all of those can be done in a way that teachers can still curate and maintain them and by the way don’t cost any money.”

Twenty-six states are using open resources, Culatta said. It works when districts pick specializations and share those materials through a network, he said.

“So you may have a district that says, ‘We’re going to pull together a great list of resources for teaching fractions.’ You have another district that says, ‘We’re going to do a similar thing for division,’” he said.

Culatta said schools across the country have been doing this for years, but the practice has been accelerated by the expanded access to internet connection in schools, thanks to an FCC program that funds it. About 70 percent of classrooms nationwide now have an internet connection.

Kevin Conner, curriculum and instructional technology coordinator at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said some teachers in the 42 districts AIU represents are using open resources but the AIU hasn’t surveyed schools to gage how many are. For many districts, he said, it’s a matter money to purchase devices for students.