“I don’t really use my traditional textbooks,” Shulman said. “There’s almost too much good stuff online.”
Enterprising teachers have long scoured the Internet for ways to improve on their textbooks or local curricula. Now, though, lessons accessed via the Web are proliferating in the classroom as never before and are challenging the position of the powerful education-publishing industry in public schools.
Fueling the trend, most states in the past two years have embraced national standards for what students should learn in English and math classes. The new standards should make it easier to share curricula across state lines. In addition, budget pressures after the recession have led many schools to scale back or freeze purchases of textbooks and other teaching materials.
As classrooms become better equipped with interactive white boards and other gadgets, more teachers are looking for digital content and adopting an assumption that prevails in much of the World Wide Web: That content should be free.
“Now that expectation has entered the American classroom,” said Jay Diskey, executive director for the school division of the Association of American Publishers.
Seventy-four percent of elementary school teachers reported that they used free Internet resources for lessons that they flashed on computerized white boards or offered on desktops or other gadgets, compared with 65 percent who said their digital content came from commercial providers, according to a January survey by Simba Information, a market research company. The survey found that middle and high school teachers also gravitated more toward free online content.
Analysts say private vendors are likely to regain their edge as school budgets improve, but the market is undoubtedly changing.
Most school systems across the country have delayed new textbook purchases, which often run on a six- or seven-year rotation, to bridge budget gaps and to wait and see what the next generation of standardized tests will look like. New tests, tied to the national standards, are scheduled to begin as early as the 2014-15 school year.
Sales of textbooks and “core instructional materials” dropped from more than $4 billion in 2008 to about $3.3 billion in 2011, according to the Association of American Publishers. Pent-up demand for new materials could lead to a buying spree.
But advocates for open-source materials — free online content that can be shared and customized by users — say the national standards offer a unique opportunity to create high-quality curricula at low cost.