In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Tim Maggard, (pictured at right) Hardin County Schools’ director of instructional technology, who is leading the effort to create a statewide repository for electronic lessons teachers can download and use in their classroom.
Q. What is the Kentucky Digital Textbook Project?
A. It started with an idea – I call it a godsend – we were looking at one-to-one (electronic device program) like everyone else and there just wasn’t the content. Putting a device in a student’s hand without specific content or curriculum behind it to us seemed like not the best use of resources. We began looking at what our options were as far as, how can we get content available to these students?
Textbook companies are beginning to convert their textbooks over, but they’re talking about an annual fee to use their books. I think the going rate right now is $14.99 per book, per subject, so you’re looking at $90-plus a year per child just to have a book in front of you. And even then it would still be stagnant, it would still be developed somewhere else. It would not be specific to our students.
So we began to look at the different management systems out there that you can create curriculum on, and we settled on Moodle, which is an open-source tool that anybody can download and use. It’s totally free, it always will be and it’s easy to use.
We have a repository set up in Hardin County where anyone can submit their digital units or textbooks. And really, it’s not textbooks, it’s just units. I may be great at the Civil War, but not be so well versed on some other history that falls into my curriculum, but another teacher may be an expert in that area. So I can pick and choose the units from these different teachers and build my own custom textbook. Once I pull it down to Hardin County’s Moodle server for our teachers, we can go in and say, ‘We have a cannonball wedged in a wall in our town.’ That doesn’t matter to a lot of people, but it’s been there since the Civil War, and that ties in local history for my students and suddenly they’re excited about the Civil War because they can go downtown and see a building remnant from one of the battles that took place.
So it’s a very personalized approach to creating content for students. That’s where the idea started and we started building some units.
Q. So all schools across the state will be able to use and contribute to this?
A. We want it to be the whole state’s project, not Hardin County’s. We want the best teachers across Kentucky to contribute and then students will have the best resources possible.
The repository would host basically your generic content. It would cover mathematics or whatever, and then when you pull it down to your district, I used the example of, how long would it take to get from the mall in E-town to the McDonald’s in Radcliffe if you’re travelling 35 miles per hour. Suddenly, my students are interested in a word problem because they know where the town mall is and they know where the McDonald’s is. So they get their parents to drive them down there and now you’re getting the family back involved in the educational process, which to me is the critical element we’ve been missing for awhile. Get the community back involved and part of the learning process.
We’re probably going to rename it to the Kentucky Digital Curriculum System. The reason being, a lot of people think of a digital textbook the same way they think of a digital book that they read on their Nook tablet – it’s not interactive, it’s just text in a digital format. But we’re talking about an entire curriculum system: videos that are attached to the lesson; the textbooks we’re creating read to you.
If a student has a reading disability, or if they’re reading at a lower grade level, they can have it read to them on grade level. But it also has the same content at a lower grade level, and the same content at a higher grade level. So if they’re struggling, they can look at the information on a simpler level. If they are advanced and they’re bored because they’ve already mastered the content, they can look at the content on a grade level two or three grades higher.
Every child learns every day has become the motto of it.
We also have it linked to a translator … in this digital format, all they do is copy and paste and the content is translated into whatever language they speak. And we’re just using Google’s translator, we didn’t create it, we just made it a link from the textbook. So now a student coming in speaking Spanish or whatever, day one they can read a textbook with the other students.
Q. Did you go into this with one idea and then discover it had all of these other applications and benefits?
A. Every day we seem to come up with something else we can do to make this more child friendly and more adaptable to where the students are. In the beginning a lot of these elements weren’t even a thought. It was just, why don’t we digitize our own content instead of paying a company to do it?
I firmly believe great teachers are the best content creators in the world. No textbook company can equal the knowledge of a teacher who’s been teaching a subject for five or six years, or 20 years. They know how students learn and they know how to present the content in a way so that students learn. And that, to me, is the difference between an off-the-shelf textbook and the way great teachers teach.
Another thing we felt was critical, was that we wanted students to be able to access it no matter what kind of tool they have. The textbooks that we looked at, the paid (electronic) textbooks were Apple specific, they were written for their devices. Beautiful textbooks created by professional textbook companies, but you had to have an iPad to read or interact with the book.
Ours works on a desktop, it works on a laptop, it works on an iPad, an Android, a Mac; it really doesn’t matter. If a child goes to Grandma’s where there is a 10-year-old computer, they can interact with the textbook; if they go to the public library they can interact; if their parents buy them a $69 Android phone at Big Lots, they can interact. We wanted it to be something that doesn’t limit the families based on what type of delivery system that they had.
Q. How are you dealing with the issue of making sure every student has access to such a device?
A. We haven’t crossed that bridge yet because we’re trying to get the content in place. We have a few pockets that are testing it and they are doing it mainly with devices in the classroom. So students walk in the classroom, pick up an iPad or whatever and they do the content with that. We’re not at the sending it home with them stage or requiring them to do something from home with it. But, we already are working through the logistics of that.
As far as the tool itself, I firmly believe that will not be an obstacle. We’ve looked at printing costs, and just by going mostly paperless, we can come up with about a third of the money we’d need if we do this on a four-year lease. Some districts that have a one-to-one initiative have a technology fee. Students pay $50 a year, at the end of four years, for a dollar or whatever they can buy the device outright.
There are some financial ways to work with this without putting the burden on taxpayers or having it fall back on the community. It’s just a way to repurpose those funds we already have that won’t be needed for those same areas. For example, I won’t need any graphing calculators if every child is carrying a device capable of doing graphic calculations.
Q. Have teachers been receptive to creating electronic lessons?
A. One of the comments we hear, even from internal people is, ‘Why do I want to share something I’ve worked so hard on? Why would I give that away?’ And my answer is, I became a teacher because I love children. I didn’t love Hardin County children any more than I loved eastern Kentucky children. I became an educator because I wanted children to succeed in life and not just in school. If what I know how to do can benefit 10,000 students instead of my 100, why in the world wouldn’t I see that as a great opportunity to share what I have to offer to students?
Our next phase, as we get more books up, is to video tape lessons. In middle school and high school, I want every teacher recording at least one of their contents each day. So if I teach five science classes, once that day I need to record that and put it up on the Web for students to be able to use that. So if they’re sick that day or if they go home lost, they can have their parent watch the lesson with them.
Q. This system also provides a bonus of not relying on older, often outdated textbooks, which may not reflect your standards.
A. As I’ve talked about before, we have a planet that’s not a planet (in a current district textbook) that we’ll probably have for another four or five years. We have the Middle East which can change daily; many of our history books are five or six years old, maybe even older. Nothing is current when it comes to world politics. We absolutely love the idea that a teacher can keep it updated.
Q. This is meeting the students where they are. I’m sure they are much more interested in a lesson when it’s presented digitally instead of in a book.
A. I doubt many of our kids pick up a book anymore. It’s a Nook tablet, or a Kindle, or an iPad, or something that they’re reading their books on. It’s a different environment. But you’re right, it is so much more than just a book. When you get into adjusting it and getting into the different learning levels and learning styles, it becomes not only their format of learning, but it becomes all of these other avenues that they’ve never had before. They can watch a video of the same lesson they just learned that they may not have gotten anything out of and the video may click with them.
I really believe if we do this right we won’t miss the students that we missed before. I think this is a way we don’t have to miss students, we can make it so personal and individualized that not only do you build your own textbook, but if you give them different levels to read it on, they get to personalize it a step further and choose how they want to learn the information.
And when you give them that empowerment, then they take some ownership of their education.
— Click here for more information about the project.