The Textbook Challenge [CONTEST]

I have been known to say that there’s not much in your children’s textbooks that isn’t available in at least a dozen places online for free.

But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. After all, the textbook publishers think that they’re adding value to the teaching-learning process. And many teachers and school systems appreciate that someone else has curated for them the nearly-infinite range of learning resources that now exist in print and/or digital form.

This week I’ll be looking at my children’s textbooks and comparing them to what I can find online. I invite you to do the same. Let us know what you find and/or think by commenting on this post or any subsequent post in the series. Anyone that leaves a comment (along with a valid e-mail address) will be entered into a drawing to win the following prize pack:

The prizes aren’t really the point, of course. What’s important here is how able (or unable) we are right now to step away from costly printed/electronic textbooks. I agree with Michael Doyle’s statement that

a well-crafted web site with a thoughtful teacher acting as the curator to the links can produce a body of knowledge superior to textbooks.

I also would add that students should be part of the curation process too through use of tools like wikis, social bookmarking, and blogs. Subject-area associations like the National Council of Teachers of English or the National Council for the Social Studies, foundations, museums, libraries, and other entities also could be excellent curators of online content.

So… this week I investigate in more depth my own proposition. I hope you will join me by trying this yourself and also passing this quest along to others. Feel free to use my Textbook Challenge image as desired; like everything else I do, it’s got a Creative Commons license. Thanks!

24 Responses to “The Textbook Challenge [CONTEST]”

  1. Khan Academy is doing some amazing stuff for free education online. Over 1800 educational videos produced already. Not much aimed at children, but there are some relevant topics there.

  2. Over the past year, CLRN has reviewed two phases of the Governor’s Digital Textbook Initiative, where free, open source high school textbooks were reviewed against California’s academic content standards. A variety of high quality books, many which are being supplemented with interactive components, are available on our site, Phase Three, which includes only online, interactive “books” is currently underway.

  3. My website ( has a section for the Advanced Algebra Application course. This course has its own website! We have a textbook, but almost everything can be done without it. Why we spend money on a textbook when the resources are all online is the silly part.

  4. Scott, This is what I learned when I looked at my daughter’s social studies textbook.

  5. My students are creating their own AP Psychology textbook using wikispaces. Gotta give them credit – they’re doing a phenomenal job and in 3 years we hope to use this as our primary source (though I’ll stockpile a class set of published hardbacks just for occasional reference). Students can and will rise to the challenge, and by adding multimedia clips/mp3s and hyperlinks, our free open-source textbook will rival any publishers’ spine-bound $100+ edition in term of being informative, engaging, relevant and timely.
    Take a look – their working on “Brain Bits” this week. It will be a continuing work in progress.

  6. I will be looking at my kids books this week but this site with free iPad books is interesting:

  7. Nope. There’s nothing unique in a textbook – at least through the high school level I’m doing with my students.

    It’s too bad our tax dollars continue to fund regurgitated facts, poorly written and poorly presented in overpriced, unappealing textbooks. Having said that, I think I should also say the following: I love literature and I still read books on paper and not a kindle. Even so, the classics are all free online, and so are thousands of audiobooks!

    I know my opinion is more on the extreme side, but I think it’s ridiculous that colleges and universities continue to charge – and people continue to pay (or borrow to pay) – such high price tags for an education that can mostly, if not entirely, be gotten independently, for free.

    We love learning online in our classroom!

  8. As soon as I read this, I grabbed my son’s 11th grade Earth Science textbook and started my own online version using Symbaloo. I started with Chapter 1: Earth’s Structure and Movement. I immediately found more than one excellent online resource that covers all of the topics in that chapter. Here is my Symbaloo page (still a work in progress); I’m estimating that it take me about an hour to complete the task of finding resources to cover all 8 chapters.

  9. For the past decade I’ve been involved in the educational publishing industry. The complicating factors for textbooks–including state boards of education and the crazy process of reviewing textbooks (especially in states that are large, buy a lot of books, and promote their own agendas around “proper” subject matter)–means that textbooks are never going to be as expressive, engaging, and interesting as online content. That being said, textbook publishers in K12 have their own problems, as they rely on “development houses” to write textbooks–with sometimes questionable results–and freelance writers who may or may not have knowledge in the subject area. But publishers also have staff editors who really care about the information and who try to make it relevant and high-quality. The system itself is flawed; at the same time, free content on the Internet has not been verified by subject matter experts and is much more prone to errors and political/social agendas.

  10. When I was a secondary level school history and English teacher, I was mostly anti-textbook. The ones they gave us were, to put it bluntly, crap. However, now I’m a homeschooling mother of elementary age kids and I find I use more textbook and workbook type resources than I expected to.

    I think it depends totally on how you define the question. Of course the information is out there on the internet. But is it geared toward kids? Does it have suggested activities or reproducibles or interactive activities that are easy to find or linked from one place? When I taught at the secondary level, I found that was mostly true. Improvements are always needed, but it was there. However, I don’t think that’s true at the primary level at all. The educational content out there written for younger kids is still limited. I’m sure that will change in the near future. For example, our math curriculum comes from online for free from the UK. There are educational sites proliferating. But for now, I say no. What you need to teach, at least for elementary school, isn’t all online yet.

    Anyway, interesting question, so I wrote a blog post about it…

  11. When I first read this blog post the ad to the side was for which I found somewhat funny given the subject matter of the post.

    I teach 7th and 8th grade History. In the recent Chapter on the Beginnings of Civilization I did not use the text book instead I used this website.

    It is a wonderful source of information on human history with art and resources to go with it.

  12. Teaching video production, I have my advanced students create their own Resource Database to teach themselves (cooperatively) the professional editing program Final Cut Pro, rather than buy textbooks for this purpose. Together they create their own Table of Contents and Index full of online links and tutorials (although the youtube videos they have to bring in themselves). The group dynamics are fascinating as they divide and conquer, changing teacher/students roles as necessary.
    My purpose in doing this is to give them experience creating their own cooperative learning groups, and to understand how to find the resources to teach oneself something as complicated as a professional software program for the future. They will need these skills!

  13. This is a great challenge. What I think is the most daunting aspect of a project like this is creating something useful, relevant, engaging, and trustworthy. Pulling many resources together and presenting them in an aesthetically pleasing way is difficult. I would love to find a drag-and-drop interface that allows a teacher to choose from several links (that have been collated for selection by other teachers) to create a unit. It seems like I have to build from scratch each time. Is there a lesson builder available that allows easy creation of collected content? Am I asking too much? 🙂

  14. Tom, seems that something like Diigo would fit the bill for what you are looking for. If not that, I’m sure that there are other tools that would work.

  15. For me, as a librarian, the most frustrating teachers I had to work with were the social studies teachers. I’d say, “You’re teaching geography out of a BOOK? You’re using WORKSHEETS!?!” I still don’t get it. Throughout my own children’s public school careers, they’ve encountered teachers who dispensed inaccurate, out-of-date information. When my daughter, who went to state with the National Geography Bee, pointed out to her teacher that Lagos hadn’t been the capital of Nigeria for almost a decade, he said, “Oh, well, I don’t want to confuse the students by changing the information I gave them.” What? You don’t want to confuse the students? What are you talking about? What could be a better teachable moment than to bring up the fact that Nigeria chose to move the capital inland from Lagos, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Why would they do that? Then you could bring in Brasilia (same idea) and then how Eisenhower chose to move a lot of federal offices to Denver for military reasons. Why would you use anything other than the CIA World Factbook as a *start* for geography research. Check out the comparative charts. Which country has the highest incidence of AIDS?
    Then there’s the Department of State background notes, BBC countries, Library of Congress Country Reports, Infoplease information on states and countries, the Economist country reports and Big Mac Index and so much more.

    I have 120 geography bookmarks on my delicious page at I haven’t even updated it in a long, long time.

    I would use map blogs, like Strange Maps, historic map sites like Perry Castaneda, daily city photo blogs where you can’t forget that it’s a different season in Australia because you can see a photo of fall every day that someone in Australia takes from outside his/her window. I’d use other blogs, like where Tom has just traveled back for another stint in Australia. I’d use CAMS. You can look *live* at the Wailing Wall, London, New York City’s time square. You can *see* that’s it’s dark in different parts of the world. You don’t have to have someone tell you. I’d use online geography textbooks, like The Physical Environment at I’d use video from and from National Geographic. I’d have students use Wolfram Alpha to look up geographic comparisons. Type in two city/state names and Wolfram Alpha shows you a near-instant comparison of population, elevation. Sheesh, and of course I’d use Google Earth. And YouTube. You can almost climb Mount Kilimanjaro by following along with YouTube videos. One “innovative” teacher had his students look up the temperature in one city each day at, then graph it. Did they do this boring, irrelevant project for a day? A week? No, he had them do it for the entire school year. That’s innovative?

    When my son was in 3rd grade, we used blank outline maps at About Geography and we also used his chart about country names that have changed to find out what happened to Zaire because the outdated materials he was given still said that the Democratic Republic of the Congo was called Zaire. We told the teacher that the materials were wrong, and she said, “Thanks. I don’t have time to change them.” And thus misinformation continues to spread. I hate it. It’s so unnecessary. Back in the 1960s, countries in Africa seemed to change boundaries frequently. It was so easy to learn Africa when I entered school. You had many fewer countries to learn. My geographical ignorance about Africa, dating from the 1960s when countries changed yearly, led me to a fascination with geography. I sometimes take the quiz at National Geographic Kids just so I can see if my knowledge of Africa has improved.

    In the 1960s, I subscribed to Soviet Life, the inexpensive Soviet propaganda magazine which told you almost nothing about the Soviet Union, but had lots of pretty pictures. Now, every day in my Google Reader, I look at photos taken that day in Moscow by Irina and her friends That is almost a miracle to me, and it’s one that’s largely ignored by teachers and schools.

  16. Oh, yeah, and then there’s this guy: Larry Ferlazo–who collects links for ELL students which would also be good for a lower level textbook.

  17. Darn. I was so passionate in that post that I didn’t proofread it. Tom from bigblueglobe blogs from ANTARCTICA, not Australia.

  18. FYI, NASA just contributed a chapter (that includes simulations) to CK-12’s Physics Flexbook:

    See also CK-12’s other online texts:

  19. I was inspired to write about the textbook challenge on my blog:

    These are the some of the resources that I rely on for teaching Spanish (without being tied down by a textbook). Vocabulary sets can easily be added to websites like StudyStack or Quizlet. Authentic resources provide the best practice for seeing vocab and grammar in context. EuroNews ( is my favorite site for quick and easy authentic resources. The news clips are fast, but a transcript is provided and the video provides context for students to understand.

    Additional online resources for Spanish:

    * Spanish Culture&Language
    * Albright College Grammar Topics
    * Libro Digital Herramientas de espanol – Online Advanced Spanish Book
    * Espanol con Carlitos
    * BBC Spanish
    * Spanish Proficiency Exercises

  20. I’ve already given up on textbooks for the future. I’m going to be buying used textbooks from now when I need them, and not bothering with new ones. Already I’m supplementing the sixth and seventh grade textbooks with a lot of additional materials from the web.

    Oh, and I don’t need the books. I downloaded them for my iPad. 🙂 Plus the context is over.

  21. The statement was proven valid in my house! And most often, the information was more complete/thorough on the web.

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