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The textbook is out there: Student learning in the digital age

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While the idea of digital textbooks and resources is not new, with the onset of the Common Core State Standards, many schools and districts around the country are forced to access additional digital content as their resources truly are “obsolete.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports the move to more digital content because today’s students live in a “changing world”. In an environment where the answer to any question is, “Google it!,” students are likely to engage more with online content than the traditional paper and pencil trappings of the classroom. So, if the textbook is “out there” in cyberspace, what does that mean for teachers and how does it change the nature of learning in the classroom?

Digital content levels the walls of a classroom. No longer are students and teachers bound by the resources available to them and the interactions they can have with other students in the same room or building. Students can access a plethora of information on any given topic, and teachers have access to materials created by top experts in various fields. Students can also interact with students from around the world, so that learning about different cultures and places means talking to the kids in those places.

Digital content extends the instructional day for students—in a good way. Teachers are taking advantage of technology to offer such innovative instructional models as the “flipped classroom,” delivering lessons via digital content so that classroom time is spent engaging in discussion and higher-order tasks around content. Students also have access to instructional resources outside of the school day, so that a “teacher” is never far away. Students who are struggling to understand a mathematical concept can access videos from YouTube. Students who want to learn about the rain forest at a deeper level can access articles and videos.

Digital content is also more engaging for today’s “wired” generation. Today’s two year-olds are tapping apps on an IPad. Todays’ teenagers connect via social media as opposed to antiquated methods such as telephones. Students are no longer (if they ever were) engaged with a lecture, with a worksheet, or with a lifeless textbook. Rather, they are more apt to engage when content is presented in a variety of forms—pictures, diagrams, words, videos. They are more apt to complete “homework” if it involves participating in an online discussion or accessing a video.

With all of the positive ways that the digital age is changing the nature of teaching and online learning, there are still some barriers for educators. Teachers in poverty-stricken urban or rural communities cannot be sure that all students have access to the Internet, so the wealth of resources at their fingertips may not be at the fingertips of students and parents. Further, parents sometimes complain about the lack of traditional print resources to use with their children. While our students are increasingly “wired,” the adults who work to support their learning at home may not have the same level of comfort with technology.

Teachers also sometimes worry that the digital age is making their job as obsolete as printed textbooks. If kids can “Google” anything, do they still need a teacher? The answer is a resounding, “Yes”! Students still need to understand how to be smart consumers of the information they find online. They need to understand how to take information presented to them and use it to propel their own thoughts, ideas, and responses. Students still need teachers to teach them. We just have different tools now—online discussion boards instead of pen pals, videos of how to solve a math problem instead of step-by-step notes, and access to digitally scanned primary documents rather than a second-hand, filtered account in a textbook. The textbook is definitely “out there,” and students need teachers who are willing to step out there with them.

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