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Will this digital library be an equity game-changer for Tennessee schools?

American Public Education Foundation president David Pickler addresses some of the teachers who helped create the new Tennessee Digital Resources Library.
American Public Education Foundation president David Pickler addresses some of the teachers who helped create the new Tennessee Digital Resources Library.
Grace Tatter

One of the most visible manifestations of educational inequality can be found in crumbling, outdated textbooks with torn pages and broken spines.

But backers of a new digital library hope to change all that in Tennessee.

Launched Tuesday by the Tennessee School Boards Association, the library offers free digital textbooks, lectures and lesson plans for 14 high school courses that can be updated each year to keep up with current events and shifting standards.

The library is “absolutely about equity,” says David Pickler, president of the American Public Education Foundation, which paid for a group of Tennessee teachers to develop the resources.

“Most districts across the state are dealing with incredible budget challenges,” said Pickler, who served on the board of education for Shelby County Schools when the district merged with Memphis City Schools in 2013. “This is going to allow districts to be able to redeploy dollars that would have been used for textbooks and … invest in ways that can help every child get that great public education experience.”

The resources were developed by 58 Tennessee teachers nominated by their superintendents and were reviewed by the Tennessee Department of Education. Math and English course materials are aligned with the state’s new academic standards approved this spring and coming to classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.

Teachers can submit updates to the library, which will be reviewed by a new team of teachers working each year with the Tennessee School Boards Association.

The library’s launch arrives as technology is becoming more prevalent in classrooms. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education spearheaded a campaign to encourage states, school districts and educators to use openly licensed educational materials so that more students have access to the same resources.

Tennessee appears ready for the shift. Though the state’s first online standardized test was derailed this year, districts had invested heavily in computers, tablets and internet service for the transition — and are eager to use them. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen repeatedly has said that technology in the classroom is an important asset to prepare students for college and the workforce.

Even so, moving more online resources will present a barrier for poor Tennessee students who don’t have access to computers or internet service at home. Memphis, in particular, has one of the lowest rates of internet access in the nation, and Shelby County Schools has historically spent less money on technology than other urban districts. Last year, information technology was allotted 3 percent of the district’s overall budget.

Some districts already have made the leap to digital textbooks. In 2013, Tullahoma City Schools began using open-source resources — meaning that they can easily be shared and modified.

“The tools are out there on the internet that can deliver great content,” Pickler said. The new digital library ensures “a process to make sure it’s curated, that it’s aligned with Tennessee standards, so teachers can spend time their time, their focus on the needs of children.”

Pickler, who served on the state’s standards review committee, said the resources should help teachers transition to the new standards by providing new resources and lessons that are easily accessible.

“We truly are now just at the beginning the journey of life after Common Core,” Pickler said. “To me, this is a great example for other states to follow, on how we’ve created high standards, and now we’ve gone out there and curated content that will help teachers.”

The resources were designed with the help of Apple, and can be downloaded for free from iTunes U. They’re also accessible on non-Apple platforms.

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