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Affton School District joins national effort to rethink textbooks

Remko van Dokkum | Flickr

The Affton School District has joined a growing movement to reboot the way textbooks are used in classrooms. The south St. Louis County district is one of 10 school systems across the country that are taking part in the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign to develop best practices around using free, open-source digital textbooks.   

Robert Dillon, director of innovation for the Affton School District, said the prospect of allowing teacher to mix and match the best materials for students could be a game changer in the classroom.

“The process right now for teachers is tremendously arduous, trying to cobble together resources,” Dillon said. “If you allow teachers to crowdsource those kind of things, it would allow for a big time savings and probably increase the quality of what’s in front of students.”

While the technique for developing open-sourced textbooks is digital, their distribution can range from simply printing out copies of chapters to completely digital lesson plans.   

Advocates for the use of open-sourced textbooks point to a potential cost savings for cash strapped districts. And the idea has gained traction on college campuses, where the average student can spend up to $1,200 a year on textbooks, according to a study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“I think the open education movement has the opportunity to bring the best resources to all kids, especially those students that may be in schools that are struggling to succeed,” Dillon said. 

But open-sourced textbooks don’t come without challenges. For instance, providing the kind of internet bandwidth it takes to fully integrate open-sourced materials into lesson plans is expensive and can be hurdle for high-poverty schools. Then there’s the digital divide between children in low-income homes and those from wealthier families in their access to digital devices and internet access at home. 

Critics of open-sourced textbooks also say they don’t come with the same kind of strict quality control provided by traditional textbook publishers. For example, last month some educators reportedly found what they said were significant problems with accuracy and bias in a Michigan effort to expand open-sourced textbooks in K-12 schools.

Robert Dillon, director of innovation for the Affton School District
Credit courtesy photo
Robert Dillon, director of innovation for the Affton School District

Dillon said one goal of the program is to refine best practices around open-sourced textbooks. He added that the current model of a district buying a textbook every five years is outdated.

“We’re in a time and place where that cycle has to be shorter, and the only way to do that is with open resources.”

As part of the agreement with the Department of Education, Affton will begin moving toward an open-sourced text book for seventh- and eighth- grade science next school year.  Dillon said the district has been talking with EducationPlus, which represents districts and charter schools across the St. Louis region, about how the project could be expanded. 

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