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Moving Beyond Textbooks in Vail, Arizona
This profile was written when Vail's digital content initiative was brand new.
Vail's Once an old-fashioned ranching community with a one-room schoolhouse, Vail, Arizona now has 13 schools, over 9,000 students and a decidedly 21st century approach to education. The Beyond Textbooks initiative grew out of ideas germinated at Empire High School, the district's first one-to-one school. Empire, which opened in 2005, is a wireless laptop school that, from the start, was designed to allow students to learn digitally. With a few rare exceptions, classes use no print textbooks, focusing instead on digital content. With the launch of Beyond Textbooks in 2008 all schools in the district have access to digital content.
Described in more detail in the articles listed in the left-hand column, the Beyond Textbook initiative is powered by the Vail Interactive Curriculum Calendar Initiative (VICCI), a dynamic Web site that allows teachers to house and share resources over the entire district. It is built around state standards with formative assessments linked to each one. From there it has grown as teachers add to it – their favorite content from free or subscription-based sources as well as lessons they've created themselves. The idea, says the district's CIO, Matt Federoff, is to "harness their enthusiasm, to see what they're passionate about and give them a place to shine." He points to a fifth grade teacher who has posted nearly 20 lessons and a middle-school speech therapist who has added a great deal of information about ways of helping students who struggle with reading meet the K-5 language standards.
Beyond Textbooks, as its name makes clear, is an attempt to build a curriculum that does not rely on the traditional, print textbook. "No vendor can provide it all," says Federoff. "Think iTunes: we don't buy albums, we buy songs. I want the Civil War from one vendor, but I want WWII from another … the best bits and pieces from multiple sources that most closely match our instructional goals. Invert the curriculum!" The bits and pieces that are part of the digital curriculum are often free content that teachers create or find online. In addition, they include subscriptions to premium content such as Discovery Education Streaming, ABC-CLIO and BrainPOP.
A one-to-one setting is not necessary to use the Beyond Textbooks calendar, which includes offline lessons as well as audio or video content that teachers can share with large groups using the projectors, ceiling-mounted screens and enhanced audio speakers found in classrooms throughout the district. However, it is Federoff's hope that 1:1 access will be more widespread in Vail in the years to come. That will only happen, he says, if "we can afford it and the right device comes out." In his opinion, the right device would "have the size and pricing of the netbooks, but with the fit, finish, and trim we're accustomed to with our laptops, at a price of $500 or less. What I would see as ideal is netbooks in various configurations. In K-5 they'd be on carts that can be moved around, in 6-8 there would be classroom sets in every room and in 9-12 we would have one-to-one."
Vail School District's original plan was to phase the program in to a few subject areas at a time but everybody wanted in from the start. "I never imagined just how fast and far it would take off," says Federoff. "In all the years I've been in this line of work, I've never seen something with this much uptake.
He feels confident that other districts will have similar success if they try moving beyond textbooks. "Once folks see what that can look like, and how content is delivered in a post-textbook world, then all sorts of other things become possible."
Empire High school, a laptop one-to-one school, opened in 2005 with an emphasis on digital content. The Beyond Textbooks initiative, launched in 2008, extended Empire High's textbook-free approach to the entire district.
The Vail School District has five elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools, as well as two charter schools. As of the start of the 2009-2010 school year, it served nearly 10,000 students, with numbers expected to grow.
Transforming Curriculum in the Technology-Rich Classroom
K-12 Computing Blueprint's webinar, which took place in April, 2009, is now available on demand. Matt Federoff was a featured speaker, profiling the Beyond Textbooks program.
In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History
Read about Vail in the NY Times
Free at Last
This cover story in the June, 2009, issue of T.H.E. Journal takes an in-depth look at the Beyond Textbooks program.
The Future of Textbooks: Evolutionary, Revolutionary or More of the Same?
This monograph, which is part of the 2009 CoSN Compendium, features Vail and several other districts that have made unusual strides away from the textbook-based curriculum.
The Beyond Textbooks web site
Vail's Beyond Textbooks web site provides an overview of the initiative and offers the district's services (in the form of professional development and content) to others interested in adopting the program.