The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation’s Digital Learning Plan for North Carolina, which was presented to the North Carolina State Board of Education in Fall 2015, charts a course for the state’s conversion to statewide digital learning.

The original impetus for the state’s transition to digital learning was a 2013 statute that required the state to transition from print texts to digital texts. This transition not only impacts the materials themselves but also the manner in which they are adopted and reviewed. Currently, the state’s Textbook Commission considers new texts for one content area each year, with texts for each core content area (English, science, mathematics, social studies) scheduled for review every five years. In a world of fixed printed media, this process and schedule work well; in a world in which content changes constantly, the state will need to consider new approaches to adoption of official texts.

However, while the Textbook Commission may need to make changes to its procedures, timeline, and make-up, it is unlikely that the state will no longer need a Textbook Commission (or similar group) after the conversion to all-digital materials. The state will need to retain some formal content approval process in order to address state constitutional issues by designating that certain content is adequate for providing a sound, basic education, per the Leandro ruling.

In particular, the State Board of Education should convene a group to consider changes in the following areas:

  • Modification of General Statute 115C-85 (Definition of a textbook);
  • Modification of General Statutes 115C-86 through 115C-102 (Textbook adoption);
  • Revision of textbook adoption process policies;
  • Revision of the state’s process for legal review of digital content acquisition; and
  • Reconciliation of current overlapping state-sanctioned content vetting and purchasing processes.

This pgge offers recommendations aligned with those in the Digital Learning Plan for helping this group to make decisions regarding modernization of the state’s textbook adoption process. The group should report the results of its deliberations to the State Board of Education (for policy-related topics) and the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee (for topics related to statutes) no later than January 2017. Download PDF

Statutory Transition from Textbook Adoption to Digital Resource1 Adoption

Modification of General Statute 115C-85 (Definition of a Textbook)

The current statutory definition of a textbook is very broad:

. . . “textbook” means systematically organized material comprehensive enough to cover the primary objectives outlined in the standard course of study for a grade or course. Formats for textbooks may be print or non-print, including hardbound books, softbound books, activity-oriented programs, classroom kits, and technology-based programs that require the use of electronic equipment in order to be used in the learning process [emphasis added].

The state should reconsider whether this definition is broad enough, and also whether the word “textbook” should be replaced with something more reflective of the state’s transition to digital materials.2

Modification of General Statutes 115C-86 through 115C-102 (Textbook Adoption)

Several statutory components of the adoption process may require revision. In particular:

  • State statutes require appointment of a 23-member representative board by the Governor’s Office, but there is no requirement for any of these appointees to have any background in reviewing or using digital content;
  • Statute 115C-98 appears to allow only districts operating as individuals to purchase nonadopted texts, which could prevent groups of districts with similar purchase plans from realizing potential cost-savings via collaborative procurement bulk purchases and contract negotiations; and
  • As above, the term “book” is used throughout the statutes.

In addition, the group tasked with reviewing these statutes may need to consider whether the state should:

  • Provide to the Textbook Commission dedicated staff for general technology troubleshooting; and/or
  • Require the Commission to prioritize hiring reviewers with both content and digital learning backgrounds, when possible (currently, the Commission has significant leeway with respect to the external content expert reviewers it hires).

Policy Transition from Textbook Adoption to Digital Resource Adoption

Revision of Textbook Adoption Process Policies

Current non-statutory components of the process (i.e., policies established by the State Board of Education or by the Commission itself) that may need to be revised include:

  • The 5-year review cycle for each subject (i.e., a subject’s textbooks are reviewed every five years), which may no longer make sense given the rapidity with which digital texts can change;
  • The lengthy (11-month) review process per subject (the current process starts with an invitation to submit textbooks for consideration in March and concludes with contracts in February of the following year, with books in schools at the start of the school year following that);
  • Commission review criteria (the current textbook adoption process does not include criteria for review of textbook characteristics that are specific to an e-format [e.g., screen readability, access for visually impaired, etc.]);
  • Limitation that the Commission review only complete, self-contained texts (i.e., wholecourse texts) from publishing houses (e.g., a digital materials world will make it more likely that groups of content providers can and will collaborate on producing a series of materials that collectively comprise a complete text for a course);
  • Commission review of only static materials (i.e., materials that are not updated in real time); and
  • A Commission review process that currently is face-to-face only.

Possible recommendations that the group tasked with reviewing these policies may want to consider include:

  • Introducing a technical component to the vetting process (e.g., assessing whether products meet baseline device requirements based on the state’s standardized baseline; assessing the usability [user friendliness] of the material; etc.) that includes:
    • Use of extant national criteria; and/or
    • Requirement that vendors demonstrate their digital products to the Commission;
  • Including vendor-provided teacher support as a vetting criterion;
  • Changing the policy that requires vendors to provide paper copies of all submissions (e.g., for dynamic online “content” that is not printable); instead, the state may need to require vendors to make their products downloadable to Commission member devices that meet certain baseline technical requirements,3 like those recommended in the Digital Learning Plan for student devices;
  • Adjusting the current textbook contract language to accommodate “textbooks” that are purely subscription- or web-based; and
  • Amending the bid process to allow bids from smaller vendors who partner to pool resources to provide a complete subject-area package.

Revision of State’s Process for Legal Review of Digital Content Acquisition

The group also should consider whether the State Board of Education’s and Department of Public Instruction’s current legal infrastructure is prepared to handle a digital learning-optimized landscape of content, contracts, and relationships with vendors.

Reconciliation of Current Overlapping State-Sanctioned Content Vetting and Purchasing Processes.

Currently, the Textbook Commission is not the only state-level group that vets and approves content for use in North Carolina public school classrooms. In addition, the North Carolina Virtual Public School manages a parallel materials approval process, as does the Department of Public Instruction’s Learning Object Repository team, which approves content for inclusion in a state-supported database that connects materials to courses. The group should consider whether and how to reconcile these three state-sanctioned text approval processes.

1 Note: The state budget for 2015-17 (SL 2015-241; , Section 8.18) includes conversion of the Textbook fund to the Textbook and Digital Resources fund.

2 E.g., “digital materials,” “instructional materials,” “educational resources,” “instructional content,” etc.

3 Currently, vendors are responsible for providing the technology necessary for their materials to be reviewed, which is likely burdensome for smaller vendors and excludes them from the process. Allowing Commissioners to use their own devices—as long as they meet certain publicly-posted standardized requirements—may help resolve this issue.