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Electronic Resources and Etextbooks in the High School Curriculum: Creating a Flexible, Inclusive, Dynamic 21st Century Classroom

By Craig J. McMichael - Posted Sep 1, 2011
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The 21st-century classroom is characterized by the diversity of its students, evident not only in their various ethnicities but also in their unique learning styles. In addition, some students may have special needs that call for additional or differentiated instruction. It is essential that 21st-century teachers not only implement best practices to meet the needs of their students but that they are provided adequate resources so that every student can find success. At Detroit Catholic Central High School, we have undertaken a project leveraging Cengage Learning’s electronic library resources to do just this. In this article, I’ll highlight these resources and demonstrate how they can be used in the classroom to make for an inclusive learning environment that is committed to enhancing student learning.

Our project focuses on the benefits of implementing Cengage Learning’s ebooks and electronic databases into a high school curriculum in place of print-based textbooks. My primary focus here is to look at how these resources benefit students with special needs and, secondarily, to show how their use can help schools cut costs. Unlike etexts and e-resources, traditional print-based textbooks offer teachers and students little flexibility; few print-based textbooks offer specific accommodations to meet the needs of all learners. If they do, the costs associated with these accommodations are separate from the price paid for the print-based textbook, and those costs come in the form of both time and money. A teacher’s skills are underutilized trying to locate and align a specific accommodation tool to meet a student’s educational need. And this can be a discouraging process, as sometimes there might not even be a proper alternative or accommodation.

Budgetary Issues

The use of etextbooks and electronic resources from Cengage Learning help to cut down on the budget that is spent purchasing textbooks and electronic resources. Currently at many schools, there are two separate budgets: a textbook budget and an ebook and electronic subscriptions budget. The adoption of an electronic curriculum not only saves money by removing the need to buy new textbooks periodically, but it also does away with the costs of maintaining and replacing lost or damaged print-based materials and the accommodation tools associated with each of them.

(Way) Beyond Cost Savings

Cost savings can be a major factor in the decision to adopt an electronic curriculum, but the real benefits come with the built-in flexibility that the e-resources offer all of the stakeholders in a school. Cengage’s electronic resources offer students, teachers, and school districts a truly inclusive and dynamic resource that cannot be matched by traditional print-based textbooks. To demonstrate this point, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of two of the inclusive tools—ones that provide accommodations for struggling readers: ReadSpeaker and the Translation function—and how they help to make for an inclusive classroom. And we’ll demonstrate a number of other features and tools that provide learning benefits as well.

Accommodating Learning Tools

ReadSpeaker and the Translation tool are located within all of Cengage Learning’s electronic resources. They help meet the needs of struggling readers, auditory learners, and English-language learners (ELL). Unlike most accommodations, all students have access to these learning tools and do not need an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to benefit from them.

In addition to the built-in accommodations to assist students in their reading, the e-resources provide schools with the flexibility to use these resources in various types of classrooms. Whether technologically well-equipped “have” classrooms or poorly equipped “have-not” classrooms, built-in tools are available to both the haves and the have-nots. In a technology-centered learning environment (the haves), students can access the information directly from their personal learning devices (desktops, laptops, BlackBerries, iPhones, MP3 players). The students at the have-not schools, though, still have access to these resources.

For example, there are some students in my own class who carry laptops to class, while their other classmates have pens and notebooks. When I assign students an article to read for the next day’s lesson using these resources, all students have an opportunity to access the information. The students with their own devices may access the article directly from those devices, while students without their own devices may go to the library/media center to print off the article or access the resource from their home computers, if available.

How about the ReadSpeaker and Translation tools? Are the students without the laptops now shut out from these tools? Not at all. The ReadSpeaker function can be downloaded to a student’s MP3 player. This is significant. A Pew Research Center report on teens’ use of cell phones found that 74% of students aged 12–17 own an iPod or MP3 player (Lenhart 2009). And schools should be able to provide MP3 players to those students who don’t have one using the money saved from no longer having to purchase print-based textbooks. Nor do students need a laptop or a personal computer at home to access the Translation tool. They can either be provided a translation by their teacher or go to the library themselves to print off a translated version of the article.

The Tools in Action Helping Meet the Needs of All Students

Listen Tool

The Listen tool enables users to have an article or other text selection read to them, so they can concentrate on the content instead of having to focus on the pronunciation of each word as they read. Currently, the article is read at one speed in a female voice, but there are updates planned for the ReadSpeaker program that will empower the user to control the following: highlighting of words or sentences as they are read (great for whole-word learners); a choice of four different reading speeds; a choice of either a male or a female voice; a choice of text size; and the ability to change the background to assist colorblind users.

Download to MP3

All articles can be downloaded to users’ MP3 players, giving students great flexibility in deciding when and how they will interact with the assigned material. If the student has iTunes, the text will load directly into his or her iTunes folder.

Translation Tool

The Translation tool enables classroom content to be translated into multiple languages, something that schools relying upon traditional print-based textbooks can’t hope to accomplish easily. With the click of a button, as the content is translated from English to the user’s mother tongue, accommodation of the needs of our English-language learner students is accomplished.

Print Tools

The print capability tools are multiple and flexible. Articles may be printed in PDF or basic print page format and in English or the chosen language of translation.

Friendly Reminder Tools

The Friendly Reminder tools can be used in both digital and print context, enabling teachers or students to either email as attachments or directly download assigned texts or other resources (and, consequently, helping eliminate the long-used excuse, “I forgot what we were supposed to read!”). The tools are very useful when students miss class due to vacation or illness, enabling them to catch up on what their classmates were working on while they were away.

On Reflection …

From my experience, the biggest obstacle we faced when we began to implement these technologies in the classroom was the overall hesitancy of my fellow faculty members to embrace these learning tools. I think we can attribute the timidity of the faculty to a couple of areas. First and foremost, some of the faculty members, especially those who have been teaching for a while, are still apprehensive of technology, probably stemming from several sources.

First, they are afraid that the computer or technology will replace them in the classroom. With such teachers it is best to take small and gradual steps. Discussing similar projects implemented elsewhere can help to build a bridge between reluctant faculty members and the technology. Demonstrating how these technologies will empower them, not replace them, will engender new confidence not only in the new technologies but also in their own teaching capabilities.

Second, they fear that the students may know more than they do when it comes to the technology. It’s a difficult problem to overcome, but this is where professional development—and a tech person who is willing to work with these faculty members as long as it may take—will prove vital. The more they are asked to “play” and “work” with the technology, the more comfortable they will become.

Finally, content standards and high-stakes testing make some teachers feel as though they do not want to be burdened with adding more to their full course loads. When talking with these teachers, it is imperative to show how these types of technologies have built-in accommodations that will lighten their loads.

We have persevered at Detroit Catholic Central, and I am convinced that the switch to electronic textbooks and e-resources via Cengage’s electronic learning resources is reaping us multiple benefits in the form of costs savings and, more important, the creation of a more inclusive learning environment and broader student success. Whichever etextbook source you choose to go with, I urge you to make the commitment toward true 21st-century learning … now!

Craig J. McMichael is a social studies instructor at Detroit Catholic Central High School and the school’s information technology integrator. In the latter role, he is responsible for increasing the use of technology in the daily lives of both students and instructors, including working with faculty to transition to a digital curriculum. Email him at or go to his website at

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