The focus at the recent annual meeting of the State Instructional Materials Review Association (SIMRA) was the shift from print to digital. While paper weight and book binding standards remain on their agenda, the shift is symbolized in part by this group’s recent name change that replaced “textbooks” with “instructional materials.” I had the opportunity to present at the meeting, and had some timely discussions about the evolving state role in the digital world. Texas (see SIIA webinar), Florida (see SIIA summary) and West Virginia are among the states most proactive in helping lead their schools into the digital content future, while many states (with leadership from their SIMRA-member adoption director) are trying to catch up with their districts and understand their evolving roles and rules. A parallel but accelerated shift to digital is underway in state assessments with the leadership of PARCC and SBAC.
As background, SIMRA members administer the process used in 20+ states for instructional materials adoption, including identifying curriculum and technical requirements, soliciting publisher submissions, managing the peer review criteria and process, and coordinating the school procurement of approved materials (including with state funds to buy materials in states such as Texas, California and Florida). SIIA has advocated for years the need to update legacy rules that often create barriers to adoption of digital and online resources, and therefore limit local choice. While often this is simply about correcting for unintended consequences of legacy print rules, the issues are often far more complicated and reflect the still evolving views of instructional materials in the digital age. A leading example is dynamic content: State policies have traditionally required that content remain unchanged over the course of the six year adoption cycle, while digital resources can be seamlessly updated to remain current, accurate and meet evolving curriculum and pedagogical needs. Not surprisingly, SIIA has long advocated the flexibility for content to be updated and improved during the period of adoption.
Here are a few other trends identified at the SIMRA meeting:
- State budget shortages continue, causing many states to delay adoption cycles or reduce funding and leaving many teachers and students with increasingly outdated materials.
- Common Core State Standards are central to the process, but many state cycles are not aligned and adjustments are often not possible given the overall budget shortages.
- Fewer states are funding instructional materials. In the traditional model, states paid for instructional materials, providing them the leverage to determine which materials are to be used. That is often no longer the case.
- States are increasingly providing local control such that school districts can buy state approved materials, but can also buy any other instructional resources as well.
- Some states are asking whether they should continue to target only single, primary tools of instruction (i.e., textbooks or their digital equivalents), or whether they should also adopt, for example, digital learning objects and modules to support teachers in dynamically assembling resources to differentiate instruction and personalize learning.
- Some states are allowing the use of instructional materials funds for the purchase of the technology hardware needed to access those materials, though priority in general still for content.
States are working with SIIA, publishers and other stakeholders to address new challenges in reviewing adaptive instructional software and other robust digital content. For example, how do they review the full resource in cases where each student may be provided a unique, dynamic pathway through the content (compared to the relative ease of reviewing a more linear (e)textbook).
Also, as digital content shifts from supplemental to primary, format and platform are also increasingly of concern. State agencies, on behalf of local educators, seek to ensure the content they purchase is accessible from multiple platforms, as well as increasingly from their students’ personal/home devices. Some have floated the requirement that digital content must be accessible from every platform through a common format. While interoperability is a key goal, SIIA recommends for industry evolution of common standards and against regulatory mandates that could block use of many widely used technologies. SIIA instead encourages that states focus on ensuring publishers disclose system requirements to empower local decision makers with the information they need to determine what platforms and resources best meet their needs. This will enable technology innovation and competition, enhance education choice, and ultimately ensure the needs of teachers and students are best addressed.
SIIA encourages states to further lead the print to digital transition. In doing so, they must recognize that there is not yet any single best technology, curriculum or instructional practice solution for the use of digital content. Therefore, most importantly, SIIA encourages states to provide the investment, regulatory flexibility and technical assistance districts need to innovate as educators collectively and individually determine the best path forward.
Mark Schneiderman is Senior Director of Education Policy at SIIA.