In eighth-grade social studies classes at North Hills Junior High School, there's no sleeping through videos, no hiding in the back of class to avoid being called upon and no student excuses about forgetting the textbook, notes or class materials.
That's because just about everything students use for class is online, including the textbook, which was written this past summer by social studies teachers Rich Texter, Joe Welch and Larry Dorenkamp. It was edited by reading teacher Jill Brooks, who made sure it was written at the appropriate reading level.
The result is the students spend their class time multitasking with technology.
The idea of creating an online curriculum started among the teachers about three years ago, when the trio approached Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and special programs, about "starting a technology-based social studies curriculum that would revolve around no conventional textbook."
Mr. Taylor supported the idea and was instrumental in the district's $43,000 purchase of iPads and MacBooks needed for the plan.
The idea of an online social studies curriculum at North Hills Junior High School really gained momentum last spring, when the teachers discovered they could use the iBook Author technology to create their own textbook. This is the first school year the text has been in use.
"We liked the idea that there were a lot of bells and whistles you can include in the iBook. [Students] can have the book read to them. If they are struggling with a word, they can put their finger on it and get the definition, and we are able to put interactive presentations in there," Mr. Texter said.
The teachers said the "bells and whistles" keep the students more engaged in the material than a traditional textbook.
The teachers also like the fact composing the classroom materials themselves allowed them to create a course that is tailor-made for their students, who study the Colonial period up through the Reconstruction period. They also can update and revise as often as they choose rather than purchasing new textbooks.
"It focuses on what we really want them to know," Mr. Dorenkamp said, adding that it was created using the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Standards Aligned System for history.
The four teachers shared a total stipend of $8,500 to write the text. Purchasing new social studies books would have cost the district about $40,000, Mr. Taylor said. It can be updated with minimal expense.
But it wasn't just the cost-savings that motivated district officials.
"Any time you can integrate 21st-century skills into a class, especially social studies, I think it's really great," Mr. Taylor said.
The North Hills teachers appear to be ahead of the curve. In early October, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in remarks to the National Press Club, urged educators to move away from traditional texts and toward online books.
The Huntsville City School District in Alabama is believed to be among the first district to go completely digital this year, providing iPads and laptops to all students from kindergarten through 12th grade, although this year it is purchasing rather than composing its own online textbooks. The district also is planning to install Wi-Fi on school buses.
In North Hills, Mr. Taylor said, other faculty members are monitoring the eighth-grade social studies curriculum to see if the model could fit their courses.
Mr. Texter, Mr. Welch and Mr. Dorenkamp took turns writing chapters in their textbook. The teachers also chose interactive graphics and quizzes to include in the chapters.
Using the social studies iBook took little training for students, many of whom already were familiar with Apple technology because they own either an iPod Touch or an iPhone. The teachers said about 15 to 20 percent of the students own their own iPads.
Students do not take the iPads and MacBooks home. Outside of school, students can access the online textbook through a PDF version they can download onto personal computers or they can ask for a paper version of the text -- although so far only one student has done so.
"The students really like working on the iPads. They will come in during their homeroom or study hall or lunch periods to do their work because they prefer that over using a paper version," Mr. Taylor said.
Class time involves reading from the online text, which has interactive maps and graphics and chapter review quizzes that give instant results. In addition, students use MacBook laptops for projects, online class discussions and note-taking.
Student work is saved to their individual folders on the Blendedschools.net network used by the district.
The iBook textbook allows students to highlight sections of material and email it to themselves to make flash cards to study.
Interactive maps allow students to touch the screen for more detailed information about particular geographic areas.
In Mr. Welch's social studies class recently, students were reviewing a chapter on the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Some students read on their own, while others used earphones or earbuds to let the iPad read the chapter to them.
Others sat in the hallway, where they could let the iPad read to them without disturbing others. That's where eighth-grader Ruby Brunet, 13, placed herself.
"I work better like that. I guess listening to someone else helps me to learn more. I like it when someone else reads aloud," Ruby said.
Afterward, Mr. Welch showed a short video and led a discussion about the actions of the men who authored and signed the declaration. Among the graphics in the chapter was a copy of the declaration that could be enlarged for viewing.
Anton Sarazen, also 13, likes the interactivity of the iPad, with graphics and text that can be enlarged to show details. He also likes that the iPad opens the textbook automatically to the page where students left off. "You don't have to find your place," he said.
In Mr. Dorenkamp's class, students used their iPads for referencing the chapter and MacBook laptops for posting comments in an online classroom discussion while watching a video depicting the authors of the Declaration of Independence composing the document. Each student was required to ask and answer three questions about the video in the online discussion, which was monitored by Mr. Dorenkamp.
In Mr. Texter's class, students also used double-fisted technology with an iPad in one hand and MacBook in another. Mr. Texter had students referencing their texts for material they used to fill in answers on an electronic worksheet on the MacBooks.
"This certainly takes away some of the traditional excuses for not having their work with them," Mr. Texter said.
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590.