One night, California Education Secretary Bonnie Reiss watched the "Minute to Win It" show with her 5- and 7-year-old nephews.
The contestants obviously did their homework: They watched YouTube videos to learn the techniques they needed to pass 60-second challenges involving household items.
One day, Reiss heard middle schoolers talking about how to turn a downloaded song into a ring tone. One of the kids said, "It's complicated, but go to YouTube, there's a video that will show you how to do it."
These are just two examples of kids using digital content outside of school.
“They’re growing up this way," she said, "so it’s crazy for education leaders and education content providers and educators not to figure out how to use the best of that and take advantage of that to help our kids do better in school.”
California education leaders are determining how to use digital content to help students learn, both at the K-12 and the university level. In 32 courses this fall, five campuses in the California State University (CSU) system started a digital content licensing pilot that takes the place of textbooks. And in four school districts, a pilot program replaced the algebra textbooks of 400 eighth-graders with iPads containing Algebra I applications.
The digital licensing pilot makes up a piece of a larger Affordable Learning Solutions campaign that the CSU launched earlier this year. In response to rising textbook costs, the CSU has provided faculty members with a variety of multimedia educational resources they can use instead of print textbooks.
These digital resources will make a quality education more affordable and accessible for students. In 2008, students in the state university system paid an average of $812 per year for textbooks, according to a Bureau of State Audits report. And those textbook prices are increasing more rapidly than median household income. As a result, students may not be able to go to college at all, may have to wait a while, or may not buy required textbooks at all. But with lower-cost digital content, students can access a quality education.
The multimedia resources will also help them gain skills they need to excel, said Gerry Hanley, senior director of the CSU Academic Technology Services and executive director of MERLOT.
“Reading a book is a more passive learning activity," he said. "It’s certainly engaging, but it’s about knowledge acquisition rather than skills development.”
Students must be able to see and hear how a heart functions rather than just reading about it or looking at a static picture. With tools such as the Auscultation Assistant in MERLOT, they can hear how the heart sounds.
By listening to different types of heart sounds, they can develop skills online before they listen to a physical patient's heart.
“These are opportunities where simulated real world experience require multimedia," he said, "not just reading words on a page.”
Through the digital licensing pilot, 4,000 students in more than 32 courses purchase licenses to digital content for a term. Those licenses come at a discount of 65 percent off the publishers' recommended textbook list price.
They can download the content to their computers, laptops and other mobile devices.
The campuses involved in the pilot include Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, San Bernardino and San Francisco. In the spring, the CSU plans to expand the pilot.
At Long Beach, associate professor Richard Haesly volunteered to use the new digital pilot program for his "Intro to American Government" class. Last year, he had worked out a deal with a textbook publisher to make an online version available to students.
“It seemed to work well last year," he said, "and so I thought that it would be good to participate in this program to see how it would work.”
He typically uses the ninth edition of "The Struggle for Democracy," which is listed at $117.60. Last year, his students paid $56 for the electronic version, but with the pilot program this year, they paid $39.90.
That's a significant savings, and with a mandatory general education class like his, most students wouldn't want to keep the physical book anyway.
“If it were a hard physical book, they would sell it back if they could,” he said.
So far, his 170 students have responded positively to the switch. About 10 of them have told him they do better with a physical book or can't afford a mobile device.
Those concerns could be minimized if the CSU let students know that certain sections would use digital content before they signed up for classes. Because this is a pilot, he encourages students to give their feedback and will be interested to see what they think and what solutions could alleviate their concerns.
The students in four school districts are also going through a pilot of a different sort. Education Secretary Reiss worked with academic publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to test an interactive, full-curriculum algebra application for the iPad.
On Sept. 8, 400 students in four school districts received iPads loaded with the Fuse application, which includes the course, ancillary materials and resources, and comprehension tracking tools. Schools from Long Beach, Fresno, Riverside and San Francisco unified school districts are participating in the pilot.
Throughout the year, Empirical Education will compare these students' academic results and attitudes about learning algebra with students in the same schools who are learning with the traditional textbook. The publishing company will learn a lot from the results of the study, which are scheduled to come out in fall 2011, said Bethlam Forsa, executive vice president of content development and publishing operations for the K-12 Publishers division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The new curriculum represents a shift from a flat, print-centric curriculum to a multidimensional digital curriculum.
“The way it’s changing at the end of the day is the flexibility," she said. "You’re building it around the curriculum to meet that specialized, that individualized need which really in a traditional mode of a book or whatever, you can’t do that because it’s one way.”
In the iPad app, students can drag a chart and drag little bars in the chart to change numbers, said Kurt Madden, chief technology officer for Fresno Unified School District. In the old days, students would use graph paper and a pencil to see what happened when they changed a number.
“Those days are kind of gone," he said. "You can just go and interact right there and see the impact.”
The district is working on three different digital textbook layers with the state: a flat PDF document, an interactive book, and a smart book that keeps track of who the student is and ties into the learning management system. He's more interested in the interactive and smart book level textbooks, which provide a media rich environment. The iPad app is close to the smart book level.
"Five years ago we would have been just happy to have a digital reader," Madden said, "but now we’ve kind of moved past that and we’re really looking for companies that are producing interactive environments for students, including the videos."
These students live in an interactive world. But current world reality is moving on a collision course with current public school reality, Education Secretary Reiss said. Instead of teaching kids in the way they learn best, educators turn off their digital access.
"Outside of the classroom the kids are totally engaged and have access to a globe of information digitally through the Internet," Reiss said, "and then they come in the classroom, and we tell them in each classroom you have to power down, sit down and turn to page 20.”
The reality of the Internet must now enter the classroom, she said, and we must figure out how to do that. Statewide, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's free digital textbook initiative has encouraged a move forward with digital textbooks.
Reiss is joining forces with a working group that includes four big textbook publishers; district leaders from Riverside, Los Angeles, Fresno and Long Beach unified school districts; foundations interested in supporting the movement, and technical experts such as Apple, Google and Microsoft. The working group focuses on how to improve education delivery.
"As a result of the working group," Reiss said, "it’s become clear that if the right encouragement is given, the right leadership is given and some obstacles get removed, then California truly is poised to be the real leader in how the Digital Age can transform the very model of public education.”