Electronic textbooks for K12 education: Lessons learned from the Ohio as America redesign

Ty Pierce, Ohio History Connection, USA


Electronic textbooks are quickly becoming the norm for K12 education, providing museums and cultural heritage institutions with new ways to connect to the modern classroom. Join members of the Ohio History Connection's digital team as they share their experience redesigning Ohio as America, an electronic textbook that has served as the organization's flagship educational product since 2011. While much has been made of K12's rapid adoption of technology, it underpins a much larger and more significant shift in pedagogy toward student-centric learning. More schools are adopting blended learning methodologies, the need for differentiation and extension has increased, and the efficient use of teachers' time has become even more paramount. Despite being regarded as the premier resource for social studies education in the state, a comprehensive evaluation in 2015 showed that Ohio as America needed significant improvements to keep pace and continue to grow. The team embarked on a complete redesign that included the content, structure, and the platform itself. Less than a year later, the "2.0 version" launched—an enormous undertaking that included more than 100 teacher-created lessons, hundreds of primary sources, and significant UX improvements. This session will include discussions on the following subjects: 1) website or Learning Management System (LMS)?; 2) working with teachers: pros and cons, do's and don't's; 3) teaching to standards, teaching to tests; 4) interactivity and Rich Media; 5) digital vs. analog: designing lessons with a foot in both worlds; 6) accessibility and differentiation; and 7) projects or products? The ideas shared in this session can inform any museum creating digital resources for K12 audiences, regardless of discipline or subject, and will include an open discussion about other digital engagement opportunities for museums.

Keywords: textbook, K12, education, classroom, Ohio as America, history


In the past five years, the K12 classroom has experienced nothing less than a paradigm shift. While much has been made of K12’s rapid adoption of technology, it underpins a much larger and more significant shift in pedagogy toward student-centric learning. More schools are adopting blended learning methodologies, the need for differentiation and extension has increased, and the efficient use of teachers’ time has become even more paramount. Electronic textbooks are quickly becoming the norm for K12 education, and the use of myriad electronic resources is now standard practice in the modern classroom.

In 2015, a comprehensive evaluation showed that the Ohio History Connection’s flagship education product, the Ohio as America electronic textbook, needed significant improvements to keep pace and continue to grow as a revenue generator. Our department embarked on a complete redesign that included the content, structure, and the platform itself. Less than a year later, we launched the “2.0 version” of Ohio as America in August 2016—an enormous undertaking that included more than 100 teacher-created lessons, hundreds of primary sources and significant UX improvements.

The process of bringing this new product to market taught us countless lessons and involved many decisions and considerations applicable to any museum engaging K12 with digital content.

Project or product?

Do you plan to make money from your project? The answer to that question will set your path down one of two development tracks. The project track is familiar to most of us. Choosing product, however, immediately mandates several considerations and leaves less room for error in others. A paid product will likely require a credential and access process for users, and that you protect your content from piracy, for example. Schools have very different expectations for functionality and support with paid products than the typical free museum-created resource. Functions like Single Sign On (SSO) are becoming a necessity, and you will need to determine your team’s capacity to manage subscriptions, process payments, and provide consistent and long-term technical support across the entire product.

This decision is also affected by how robust a resource you can deliver. With the plethora of free and open-source educational content, there is a dearth of material for teachers to incorporate into their lessons. There is a very real need for quality resources, however, and schools will pay for products that improve the quality of instruction and save their teachers time. The more niche your resource may be, the smaller its potential audience and the less likely it will succeed as a paid product. Many times, museums may have high quality collections that fit a particular subject area, but these may be better off as a free resource to supplement classroom instruction, rather than a paid one-off that fails to find an appreciable market. In addition, resources should be designed to be expansive, rather than restrictive, and allow teachers to adapt it to their own instruction methods as they see fit.

Teaching to standards, teaching to tests

For better or worse, K12 right now is all about the assessment. Instruction at all levels and in all disciplines is focused on addressing standards and driving achievement on standardized tests; by and large, the success of our products depends on this reality. Rather than start with your institution’s stories and content, you should start with the standards of your identified market.  How many of their standards can you directly address? How many can you address in multiple ways? Art museums, for instance, may not have pieces that directly address the subject matter of a given standard, but they can create content to support skills-based standards or use art as a springboard for creative writing prompts. It’s worth making an honest assessment of your content with standards in mind before starting any K12 project.

With Ohio as America 2.0, we created a pacing guide that aligned to the Ohio Department of Education’s 4th grade social studies standards. Every content statement has at least two activities that directly address it, resulting in more than 100 new activities; the standards drove all our content decisions. From image selection to video storyboarding and the way we incorporated outside education apps, the standards-aligned pacing guide formed the backbone of our entire project.

Website, Learning Management System, or something else?

A literal interpretation of the term “electronic textbook” leads many to think of popular e-book formats. Your digital team could simply create an e-book using one of the various methods available and put it up for sale. You could adapt text documents and images into a simple EPUB file, use iBooks Author to create a gorgeous and immersive digital experience, or anything in between. These options may work well for small- to medium-sized resources, but in our experience, e-book formats quickly begin to limit your development options in negative ways; iBooks don’t work on Chromebooks, they are limited in overall file size, and Apple takes a cut of your revenue; EPUBs are limited in their ability to deliver multimedia and interactive experiences, and are typically utilized with a traditional approach to teaching.

Creating a website seems like a simple—and possibly obvious—place to start. The tools are familiar, the team can leverage existing infrastructure and hosting services, and it’s accessible to anyone.  But before you fire up WordPress and go out for coffee, a few things to consider:

  • You’ll need a simple and reliable way to manage user credentials and access.
  • The design and content must be fully compatible with multiple device and responsive to a wide variety of viewports.
  • Its navigation and layout are optimized for the targeted grade level(s), as the students are the primary users in today’s student-centric classroom.
  • Any interactive components, functions, features, etc. will require additional development and therefore additional resources or dollars.
  • Ongoing support is also a primary consideration. It’s not enough just to run updates and answer the occasional email. If teachers are expecting to use this as a daily part of their instruction, how quickly can you address and resolve issues that inevitably arise?

Another complicating factor is the adoption of Learning Management Systems (LMS) to streamline instruction. This wasn’t as important three years ago, when districts were testing the waters with various LMS’s and might have several different systems in use. In Ohio, many districts have settled on widespread implementation of Schoology or Google Classroom, with Canvas also a major player. The more ingrained an LMS is in a particular district, the more that district will want your content to integrate with the LMS. For concise learning modules, this can be possible using compatibility protocols like SCORM or Tin Can API; however, for large-scale resources it becomes unwieldy and may undercut your ability to control your content. At the very least, LMS’s have raised teachers’ expectations for digital resources, and those expectations need to be factored into your planning.

Ohio as America was originally created as a website in Joomla with some additional modules and features. For the redesign, we kept it in Joomla but dramatically increased module development. These improvements included interactive pre- and post-assessments, an automatic Gradebook, and extensive improvements to the back-end management platform. In doing so, it has evolved to include many features of an LMS, and today it exists with a foot in both worlds. We have received additional requests from districts for deeper LMS integration, and over the course of this year we are exploring ways to make that a reality.

Working with teachers: pros and cons

Tapping classroom teachers to create your content makes sense—they know the classroom better than we do, they’re up on the latest methods, and they understand how to differentiate effectively for their students. For the redesign, we devised an activity framework, created templates and guides, and then contracted with around 15 Ohio teachers to create our activities.

While ultimately successful, the process was far from perfect.  Some things to consider:

  • There was a wide variety of expertise and knowledge, resulting in an equally wide variety of activity design styles.
  • Even with template documents and specific guidelines, consistency was an enormous issue and required extensive staff time to clean things up.
  • Fact-checking was imperative. While some teachers are excellent at research, much of the information we received was incorrect.
  • Image citations and other references were rarely provided, resulting in quite a bit of primary source detective work to publish with the required bibliographies.
  • Sensitive subject matter also raises concern. For our work, representations of American Indian history are rife with inaccuracy and cultural bias, and it’s not realistic to expect the average K12 teacher to handle this with the same level of sensitivity as those working in our field.

That said, the pros far outweigh the cons. Our teachers generated some incredible lesson ideas that we would have never thought of. Teachers brought their own lists of favorite education apps, curating a list of tools that were already classroom tested, and found excellent sources outside OHC collections to incorporate. As we began marketing the new version, districts immediately responded to the fact our textbook was created by Ohio teachers, and the teachers themselves have become some of the product’s strongest advocates.

Digital vs. analog: designing lessons with a foot in both worlds

Despite all the tech talk, there’s still a lot of analog happening in today’s classrooms. For every teacher that’s fully 1:1, there are easily several more who will print lessons for students to complete by hand. This continuum of tech in the classroom is a primary consideration; designing a digital-only product precludes a wide variety of use cases, but simple designs may fail to capitalize on the opportunity that blended learning and student-centric environments present. The broader your spectrum of use cases, the wider your possible range of adoption and impact.

An environmental scan is crucial to informing this aspect of decision making. What percentage of districts are 1:1 or will be in two years? What percentage of classrooms have a SMART board or projector? Digital equity is also a concern; do a majority of students have reliable internet access at home or have devices to engage with? Let the reality of your market’s tech dictate your approach.

We designed Ohio as America 2.0 to be easily adapted for classrooms with varying degrees of technological integration. Teachers are able to engage students as an entire class through SMART boards or other display systems, 1:1 through individual electronic devices, or a combination of both. Teachers can either print the student readings, activities, and other materials as PDFs, assign them as Google Docs, or have students work directly from the webpage. Although providing different formats added to development costs and the product’s complexity, there are now very few barriers to entry, and subscriptions have increased by 24% in 2016.

Interactivity and multimedia

Games, videos, and apps are all part of the daily curriculum and provide unparalleled opportunity to engage students with your content. Regardless of your approach, all of these elements increase development costs, so consider their implementation wisely. Compatibility is a top concern; some versions of Chromebooks, for instance, may have issues with video playback, and Flash-based content can create problems on Apple devices. All content should be optimized for fast page loads. The school may have blistering-fast Wi-Fi, but students may do their homework assignment on a phone while riding in a car.

Make sure video content is grade appropriate and, whenever possible, keep the runtime under three minutes. Have your production team work closely with your educators. Let the standards drive the script and design the entire production around that one piece of information students’ need to glean from the video. Our students respond very well to first-person videos, and any documentary-style pieces are produced with an informal, informational style.

Interactive content elements cut both ways—they are certainly engaging but run the risk of taking instructional choice out of the teachers’ hands. They can also present issues with compatibility and responsive design, which may limit their usefulness. As more states move toward digital assessments, however, developing interactive assessments may be well worth the effort. They can give students the content knowledge they need while also reinforcing the digital skills necessary to succeed on tests, and providing teachers with a digital tool to assess their class will help save them precious time.

Interactivity is key to Ohio as America’s success. One of the most used features is an interactive map that allows students to select various informational overlays (railroads, major cities, American Indian tribes, etc.) to create custom maps for their own use. By far the largest improvement has been the creation of interactive assessments and an automatic Gradebook—these features have truly been a game-changer for the product because they save educators time and also help prepare the students to perform on electronic assessments as part of state testing.

Accessibility and differentiation

Differentiated instruction—providing different students with different ways to learn, often inside the same learning environment—has become a hallmark of the modern classroom. Teachers are expected to teach a wide range of student abilities at the same time, and the promise of educational technology is closely linked with individualized instruction. As you design an activity, build differentiation opportunities into the design. Include prompts and ideas on adapting the content for students with reading difficulty, or to extend the lesson and increase rigor for students with a higher aptitude. Incorporate multiple asset types to provide choice in how students obtain the information and also to allow teachers to pick and choose what will work best for a particular student. For activities that involve student-created content, it’s important to incorporate both digital and analog methods to accommodate students more comfortable with a pen-and-paper approach.

Accessibility can also take many forms; some are technology-based, and others have their roots in content design. One key feature added to Ohio as America was a screen reader, which reads passages of text aloud to students, and a font selection tool, which lets students adjust the size and typeface of fonts. If your audience requires the product to support multiple languages, a combination of content and technology must be designed to meet that need.  For Ohio as America, one improvement for next year is the creation of “social studies readers.” These are versions of student readings that incorporate more images and reduce the length and rigor of the text to make information more accessible to students reading below grade level.


Whether you pursue the creation of an electronic textbook as a free resource or a paid product, the potential impact of these projects is truly incredible. We work hard to make Ohio as America a resource both teachers and students are excited to use, and we consider it a privilege to be part of daily instruction for thousands of Ohio students. When the bell rings at the end of the day, the knowledge those students have gained stands as the embodiment of our organization’s mission.

Cite as:
Pierce, Ty. "Electronic textbooks for K12 education: Lessons learned from the Ohio as America redesign." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 1, 2017. Consulted .

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