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Top 8 Digital Resources To Replace Outdated Textbooks

Written by Rochelle Tkach

Even in the 21st century, it is easy for teachers and students to pull out those heavy textbooks to find information and complete simple textbook questions. However, in today’s classroom, it just seems outdated and boring to teach straight from a textbook. With the digital age upon us, it is important to reflect and consider how these seemingly normal practices should be reconstructed to meet the needs of learning and working in today’s society.

Students are now going to be entering a workforce that does not necessarily have a pretty little textbook for students to turn to. It is therefore imperative that teachers introduce students to digital content, digital resource companies, and research strategies for students to support their own self-directed learning practices. It’s time to replace those dusty outdated textbooks and show students how the digital world can not only be interactive and motivating, but how it can further support students’ content knowledge and spark their knowledge construction.


BrainPop (Grades 4 – 10)

Topics Covered: Every subject and topics within each subject.

21st Century Learning: BrainPop offers the same type of instruction for students to build content knowledge virtually rather than through a traditional, and potentially outdated textbook. I always emphasize how BrainPop is amazing to provide simple beginning hooks to lessons. This could replace an introductory textbook read aloud or information handout. With the vast majority of instructional videos, students can also use BrainPop to research and learn about a topic they may be curious about. Rather than turning to a bunch of books to sift through, students can easily search for a video on their topic, listen to the little cartoon video (the characters are very charismatic), and even extend their understanding through a comic strip, multiple choice questions, and extention games (i.e., sorting games). This type of learning is self-directed and enhances not only students’ digital literacy skills, but further supports students’ basic content knowledge.

Differentiated Instruction: The instructional videos themselves enhance instruction through video and auditory mediums. Students are not required to read anything while learning, but the important concepts are written in words along the right hand side while the video is playing. This helps student still build an understanding of and recognize vocabulary words.


Learning Bird (Grades 6 – 12)

Topics Covered: Math, Science, English, Social Studies.

21st Century Learning: Learning Bird provides teachers and students with a learning platform to support a blended learning or flipped classroom model. With Learning Bird, teachers can select different instructional videos for students to watch and listen to either in class or at home. They can search these videos based on grade level, subject, textbook and curriculum expectation. The videos can further be compiled into a playlist for all students or just selected students. With a resource like Learning Bird, there is really no need to spend extensive amounts of money on outdated textbooks that students will most likely moan and groan about when asked to read! Learning Bird now provides a learning platform that speaks to the digital native in students and supports their unique learning styles in the 21st century.

Differentiated Instruction: Within Learning Bird, each student will have their own profile. Teachers can therefore create general video playlists for everyone in the class to watch, or they can create some specialized playlists to support students working either above or below grade level. Learning Bird does a fantastic job with making it simple and easy to differentiate between students in subtle ways. What’s more Learning Bird’s adaptive recommendation algorithm learns how each student learns, so with each search it recommends the best lessons to suit each students’ individual learning profile.


National Geographic Explorer for Schools (Grades K – 8)

Topics Covered: Every subject and topics within each subjects. This will depend on the monthly issues released. The National Geographic Explorer for Schools app provides monthly issues on topics related to animals, the environment, science, and world cultures. The monthly issues are connected to curriculum expectations or state standards in Science and Social Studies.

21st Century Learning: The National Geographic Explorer for School provides more authentic learning experiences for students to see and interact with real pictures and nonfiction stories. Learning is directly connected to real-world events, problems, and topics. Through these apps, learning becomes more relevant and meaningful. Textbooks often become outdated or contain simple basic information. With apps like National Geographic Explorer, students can not only learn this basic information, but they can further learn the information within the context of what is actually happening in the world. Examples of concepts being discussed will therefore be the most up-to-date and relevant for students to learn.

Differentiated Instruction: For students still learning to read or reading below grade level, the National Geographic Explorer for Schools app has an option for students to listen to the text. The app itself provides interactive and multi-modal features that differentiates to different learning styles. This includes media like videos and pictures.


Kids Discover (Grades 4 – 8)

Topics Covered: Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, Incas, Cells, Atoms, Ecology, Geology, Matter, Energy, Simple Machines, Electricity, Plants, Antarctica, Extreme Weather, Geography, Geology, Sun, Galaxies, Space, Sun, and American History (multiple apps). Each topic above is its own separate app.

21st Century Learning: Each app is a lot like a slideshow/textbook. However, each slide has interactive elements that make the learning experience feel like neither a slideshow nor a textbook. The app itself enhances instruction through digital content like virtual diagrams, videos, virtual objects manipulation, sounds, and other interactive infographics. While conducting a pilot study for my Master of Education research, I used the Kids Discover Energy app. I noticed that because every page had an immediate interactive element to it, students were quickly motivated and excited to read the contents on the page.

Differentiated Instruction: The app itself provides a multi-modal experience to differentiate for multiple learning styles. However, the app unfortunately does not have a read-to-me option so students will need to read the content on each page. This makes it hard to modify or accommodate students with the reading level or the way they read/listen to the text. Using Siri to read the text is always a good option.


Britannica Kids (Grades 4 – 8)

Topics Covered: Volcanoes, Rainforests, Engaged Species, Solar System, Dinosaurs, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Aztec Empire, Knights and Castles, Coral Reefs, Snakes, and U.S. Presidents. Each topic above is its own separate app.

21st Century Learning: Britannica Kids apps provide a safe learning environment for students to build their digital literacy skills. The Britannica Kids apps are nonfiction apps that enhance authentic learning experiences for students. Students can view the location on a map of where the topic under discussion took place. It is also an easy platform for students to gather general and specific information about topics and further view/use the stunning real-life images provided within the app. The app also provides videos on the topic and allows students to directly share information from the app to Facebook or Twitter. This enhances students’ understanding of a digital footprint and widespread digital collaboration.

Differentiated Instruction: There are not many scaffolding or multi-modal features within the app to help differentiate. The photo gallery does add an extra element to support different learning styles. However, the text on the page may still be difficult for a student struggling to read and who requires modifications. Using Siri to read the text is always a good option.


Emantras Inc./Punflay (Grades 9-12)

Topics Covered: Cell and Cell Structure, Frog Dissection, and Rat Dissection. Each topic above is its own separate app.

21st Century Learning: Well…I am sure many of you remember the days of real life rat or frog dissection. I remember my high school had baby pig dissection. To go along with these lessons, educators of course needed to assign extra reading to reinforce the science investigations. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a tool that could do both? Well, look no farther because Emantra’s Inc. has done  just that! This company has developed two apps to support a digital dissection experience. No animals harmed in doing so! With the clear HD diagrams and 2D/3D pictures, students are able to manipulate the dissection process. Along with dissection apps, there is also an app focused on cell and cell structure. This app has the same high quality images and 2D/3D virtual experiences where students can look inside cells, interact with them, and manipulate them to discover the different components. Within these apps, there is also text to reinforce what is going on and support the development of content knowledge.

Differentiated Instruction: Of course, as you can tell, this app already goes beyond a textbook and further differentiates the learning experience. Instead of students just reading about these science concepts, they are able to actually experience them in an interactive digital environment. As students read the text, they are able to visibly see what they are reading come to life. The readings are being reinforced by students actually experiencing the concepts. For any students this is beneficial, but it is especially beneficial for students who many struggle to process large bodies of text and further be able to understand complex processes (i.e., dissection) without experiencing them visually or physically. These apps not only provide that visual experience, but the touch interactions and manipulation of the 3D virtual images enhance that physical experience.


Touch Press (Grades 9 – 12)

Topics Covered: The Elements, Molecules, Geography, Juilliard, The Orchestra, Arcadia, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, Solar System, Dinosaurs, The Pyramids, Incredible Numbers, The Waste Land, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Gems and Jewels, X-Rays, The Liszt Sonata, Journeys of Invention, and War Horse. Each topic above is its own separate app.

21st Century Learning: The topics in general are advanced and are definitely geared towards students in secondary school. They are fantastic apps to enhance digital instruction in the content areas, which is especially true for The Arts. There are many apps made by Touch Press, unlike other app companies, that not only provide an interactive digital experience with music, drama, and dance, but further provide the necessary background information that would traditionally be seen in an Art textbook. The app however brings this text to life and allows students to interact with instruments, see virtual stages, and understand the setup of orchestras. Besides The Arts, these apps are also great to enhance topics covered only in secondary school such as Shakespeare or The Elements.

Differentiated Instruction: The apps are very interactive and provide different mediums for students to learn from. There are virtual spaces to manipulate and explore, instruments to interact with, videos, and stunning images. There is really nothing that I can type here that would truly explain the essence and quality of these apps. They are captivating and provide a unique learning opportunity for secondary students in the 21st century.


CourseSmart (Grades 9 – 12 & Post-Secondary Education)

Topics Covered: Every topic. This website/app is a digital platform to purchase e-textbooks.

21st Century Learning: Out of all the apps listed above, CourseSmart is probably the easiest quick fix to replacing textbooks for secondary school and higher education. CourseSmart helps learning become truly mobile and makes it so much easier to have on-the-spot access to textbooks. In the twitch speed world we live in today, CourseSmart supports students’ needs for speed, access, and multi-modality. All students need to do is search for their textbook, buy or rent it, and then open it up in their library.

Differentiated Instruction: The CourseSmart website/app is fantastic at providing tools to help accommodate students’ learning needs. These tools include digital highlighting, sticky notes, and bookmarking. With Siri, students can also easily select text in the e-textbook and have Siri read it aloud. Students can further stay more organized with the e-textbook compared to a regular textbook because of the immediate citing tool. Students can select text that they want to save and cite later in a paper. These citations will then show up on a separate page for students to access when needed. Overall, the fact that textbooks can now be retrieved through digital devices is differentiation all in itself. Students with physical limitations will have an easier time carrying their textbook around if it is on a lightweight tablet compared to a heavy hardcover textbook.


As you can see, the traditional model of information consumption is changing as schools try to catch up to 21st century practices and make the transition to digital content. The digital tools listed above have hopefully provided you with a more in-depth understanding of how to replace outdated textbooks to meet the needs of the 21st century and engage your digital age students. Make sure to click on each tool to check out each the developer’s web page!

About the author

Rochelle Tkach

Rochelle Tkach (@RochelleTkach) is a guest contributor to the Learning Bird blog as well as an Ontario Certified Teacher working as an Elementary Occasional Teacher for the District School Board of Niagara.
She is a passionate educator advocating for 21st century learning practices. When she is not sparking creativity in the classroom, she is working diligently to complete a Master of Education at Brock University. Her research focuses on how tablets can enhance students’ 21st century skills through the specific features and multi-modality embedded within apps. Rochelle’s mission is to place more emphasis on EdTech pedagogy and the reasons behind why EdTech should be blended into the inclusive classroom.

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