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Beyond Textbooks and Tests

Hoping to push a wide array of digital content and teaching tools to public schools, the Texas Education Agency has cut a deal with a division of The New York Times for an electronic curriculum portal and searchable access to the newspaper’s content since 1851.

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Hoping to push a wide array of digital content and teaching tools to public schools, the Texas Education Agency has cut a deal with a division of The New York Times for an electronic curriculum portal and searchable access to the newspaper’s content since 1851.

A student who wanted to write a paper on the Gettysburg address could instantly pull up not only the speech text but also the paper’s story on the event. For modern content, students could access stories, related multimedia content and source documents amassed and scanned by reporters but never previously published, TEA officials said.

The content is just one piece of the arrangement with Times subsidiary Epsilen. The state plans to eventually use the digital portal to deliver far more and varied educational content to schools from a diverse array of digital curriculum providers. The contract’s cost, initially for $1 million to purchase the statewide license to the portal, could rise depending on usage, though not substantially, said Anita Givens, the TEA’s chief of textbooks, technology and curriculum.

The portal represents a small piece of a larger migration away from traditional textbooks, a move abetted by two bills in the last legislative session.

The legislation gives state Education Commissioner Robert Scott broad new powers to approve electronic curriculum materials, which he intends to deliver through the online portal. Previously, all textbooks, whether print or electronic, had to be approved by the elected State Board of Education.

The capability that most excites Scott allows for the creation of cumulative “ePortfolios” for students, allowing them to store and display their classroom projects, writing and multimedia productions, or even video of vocal, drama or band performances.

That could open up a new and more complete way to evaluate student work, rather than reducing student ability to state standardized tests and grades. The portfolio could serve as a kind of dynamic resume for students, stored over many years of schooling, Scott said.

“We believe this is going to be a pretty big deal in a few years,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for teachers and students to show what happens on every other day besides test day.”

State officials hope the contract helps diversify curriculum offerings and save money. The cost of the portal and the Times content pales in comparison to the one-time purchase of textbooks, often at up to $80 per copy, for students statewide, Givens said.

“The statewide license allows for economies of scale that we just don’t see in any other kind of agreement,” Givens said.

The effort, dubbed Project Share by the state, will begin in the spring with teacher training and networking, then move to include students in a not-yet-determined number of districts and schools next fall. Ultimately, every school district in the state will be able to access the system at no cost, state officials said, though none will be forced to use it.

The portal offers a host of networking tools, including blogs, forums, wikis and social networks to connect students with one another and their teachers, both within and among schools. The system won’t be accessible online to the general public, and all communication can be monitored by teachers and administrators, state officials said. The system also will allow teachers to more easily design, store and share lessons with one another across the state and with other states that use the Epsilen system.

"It's a system to organize future content," Scott said. "Stay tuned. We'll be adding more apps." 

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