Monday, November 07, 2011

Anoka-Hennepin teachers write their own online textbook, save district $175,000 | The Republic

MINNEAPOLIS — The new textbooks in Michael Engelhaupt's statistics class at Blaine High School are kind of cheap and won't last long, but he doesn't mind. After all, he wrote them.

Instead of mass-produced textbooks, the more than 3,100 sophomores in the state's largest district are learning from an online curriculum developed by their teachers over the summer with free software distributed over the web.

Engelhaupt, 31, was one of three district math teachers who spent about 100 hours each developing the lessons, which cost the district about $175,000 less than buying new textbooks.

Engelhaupt said the project began last year when a group of math teachers began talking about new books the district had budgeted $200,000 to buy. They decided they could do a better job.

The problem with mass-produced textbooks, Engelhaupt explained, was that they can cost $65 each and aren't aligned with Minnesota's math tests so the district would be paying for whole chapters that are never used.

The district keeps its textbooks for at least 10 years, so future teachers would probably also be stuck with an out-of-date book by the end of the decade, he said. That wouldn't be the case with an easily updated online version.

"That's the cool thing about it," Engelhaupt said. "The book is kind of a living document."

The Anoka-Hennepin students have been working with the curriculum for more than a month. It's a transition year, with many students working from hard copies printed off the web because their classrooms don't have enough computers. Other students have elected to buy bound editions for $5. Other students check out printed versions from the school library whiles still others get the information exclusively online.

"I think going forward we'll see more students not buying it and accessing it only online," Engelhaupt said.

Anoka-Hennepin is at least the second Minnesota district to develop its own online curriculum with hopes of saving money and improving quality. Schools in other states have embraced the trend more aggressively.

The Anoka-Hennepin teachers also persuaded the district to spend the savings on the math department. The details haven't been worked out, but it could include more classroom computers and more teacher training.

The district spent about $10,000 paying Engelhaupt and the other teachers to develop the material, which he said was about their regular hourly rate. Another $5,000 went toward making the material accessible to students without Internet connections either at home or in the classroom with hard copies and DVD versions.

Ellen Delaney, who is responsible for the curriculum in the district's high schools, said the project was started under her predecessor in the job, but she has become a big fan.

She said most high school textbooks are written to the requirements of Texas and California, the two biggest markets for the book publishers. It means often a third of the books go unused in Minnesota, she said.

Foundation Executive Director Neeru Khosla said the foundation started five years ago because she and her husband, Vinod Khosla, the founding CEO of Sun Microsystems, wanted to improve math and science education in the country.

That sort of inefficiency just doesn't make sense at a time of tight school budgets. "The cost of textbooks is just out of bounds for the resources we have available," Delaney said.

Delaney said she's hopeful that the new curriculum, which matches up better to the state's math standards, will result in rising scores on the state's high-stakes tests.

That's how it worked in another Minnesota district that developed its own curriculum online. At Byron High School in southeastern Minnesota, students started with the material in fall 2010 and tested on it in the spring.

"We see greatly improved scores here," said Byron High School Principal Mike Duffy. "It's not enough data to say with great confidence that it's growing, but everything we have says we're getting better."

Seventy-six percent of Byron's students passed the state's math test for graduation in 2009; the number rose to 81 percent by 2011 after the new curriculum was adopted.

Teachers in both Anoka-Hennepin and Byron tapped the free resources of the California-based nonprofit CK-12 Foundation, which has created an online framework to develop and distribute digital textbooks. It's one of several groups around the country pushing technology to distribute textbook information more efficiently.

Foundation Executive Director Neeru Khosla said the foundation started five years ago because she and her husband, Vinod Khosla, the founding CEO of Sun Microsystems, wanted to improve math and science education in the country.

They decided to harness Silicon Valley software skills to give schools an inexpensive and flexible way to provide their students with the most up-to-date information, she said.

While it's difficult to determine exactly how many schools have moved to online textbooks, she said educators in California, Utah, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida has been particularly aggressive.

Engelhaupt, one of the Anoka teachers, said it's already clear some of the chapters need to be tweaked over the summer. Once that's done, the district plans to make the online curriculum available to other districts for free.

"If every school district looked at doing this for all of their classes, the money saved would be just unbelievable," he said.

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