Textbooks | Textbook Alternatives
11 Textbook Alternatives That Teachers Love
Chris Zook is a contributing author to the AES blog. He enjoys everything about online marketing, data science, user experience, and corgis.
Textbooks are the #1 teaching tool used in the United States today.
They’re timeless. They’re trusted. They’re the status quo.
Because of this, a lot of teachers choose to stick with textbooks for all of their teaching needs. After all, if they worked for the previous generations, they’ll work for this generation too, right?
Maybe! That’s a solid line of logic that teachers and administrators regularly consider.
But they’re also antiquated, expensive, and out-of-date the minute they’re published.
With the rapid pace of progress, research, and technology in the world, is a textbook really the best tool to use to teach your class?
Plus, what do you do if you teach a class for which there is no textbook?
(We’re looking at you, middle school career readiness teachers!)
That’s where textbook alternatives come in handy.
In this blog, we’ll take a look at the top 11 textbook alternatives that are sweeping the education world today.
In our experience, teachers tend to notice three qualities about textbooks. We’ll evaluate each textbook alternative based on these criteria with one, two, three, four, or five stars:
- Popularity: One star is unpopular, five stars is incredibly popular
- Usefulness: One star is useless, five stars is ultra-helpful
- Cost: One star is free, five stars is ultra-expensive
Now that you know how we’ll compare the alternatives, let’s start with a quick evaluation of textbooks as the status quo!
From first grade all the way through post-doctoral programs, textbooks are used far and wide as the cornerstone of education materials.
Some instructors ignore the textbooks they have for a class because they want to be more creative in their lessons.
Others choose to teach straight from the textbook because it’s the most authoritative source on the class’s subject.
But most teachers fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. They may use textbooks for homework, group readings, and other teaching strategies to get students familiar with content.
From the administrative perspective, textbooks are great because there’s an enormous variety of choices for any subject, especially for common core.
For this reason (and more), textbooks are viewed as the most agreeable teaching resources for most teachers and administrators.
Teachers know what to expect, they know what their students will get, and there’s no technology that could “go down” when you need it most.
Plus, textbooks last for years! So if you’re teaching a subject that doesn’t often change — like history — you can reuse the same textbooks until the binding comes loose.
But textbooks aren’t perfect. In fact, as technology continues improving in the classroom and new education companies pop up across the country, textbooks are becoming an endangered species in some schools.
There are a lot of reasons.
The first is simple. There’s a new kind of teaching resource on the market — and it doesn’t cost a dime.
1. Open Educational Resources (OER)
Open educational resources (OER) are curriculum content that comes from a non-profit, not-for-profit, or creative commons organization without a requirement to purchase.
OERs are free for you to use, and it’s meant to give you a starting point to create specific curriculum for your own classroom, state standards, or certification needs.
This idea is relatively new. In fact, it traces its origins back to a 1994 National Science Foundation grant that inspired California State University to create a library of “free, online curriculum for higher education.”
CSU called this project “MERLOT,” and it still exists today.
Since then, the OER movement has expanded to secondary education and even elementary schools. Its growing popularity is largely because of its nonexistent price.
After all, you can’t beat $0!
Still, the usefulness of OER materials is constantly in question. You can’t always identify who created the resources, you don’t always know if they’re accurate, and you’ll probably have to change them to meet your needs.
With those downsides, OER may not cost you any money — but they can cost you a ton of time!
Luckily, there are more free options in the world than just OER. In fact, one of these options comes straight from one of the most reliable and double-checked entities online.
The United States federal government!
2. Government Sources
Government learning sources are excellent ways to add trustworthy curriculum to your syllabus.
Government educational resources typically take the form of PDFs or videos. They may also be webpages that are maintained by a certain government agency.
Many teachers like government resources because of this maintenance factor. While the US government isn’t known for working quickly, it is known for being accurate with publications.
NASA is a great example of this, creating curriculum resources that fall into grades K-4, 5-8, 9-12, and higher education.
On the downside, this only applies to science teachers and astronomy professors.
Fortunately, other government agencies cover a broad range of subjects, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The BLS has an entire section of their website dedicated to student resources and incorporating BLS information into curriculum.
Complete with games and puzzles, BLS curriculum is especially strong for career readiness and career exploration teachers.
To that end, the trick to using government resources is identifying the agency that may have information you can use. Then, it’s a matter of looking through their website for curriculum.
Some government agencies will have it and others may not.
If you find some that’s relevant to your needs, you know you’ve found some accurate and dependable content to include in your curriculum!
But what do you do if you can’t find accurate government information about your subject area?
You can always try another great group of resources — trade publications!
3. Trade Publications
Trade publications are brochures, magazines, or compilations of information that pertain to a certain industry.
For example, Forbes is one of the world’s foremost business publications. Consumer Reports is a popular healthcare publication. AdWeek is a hyper-niche publication about advertising.
The list goes on and on! Trade publications were originally formed to keep industry bigwigs informed about changes, threats, and trends in their markets.
Today, these publications have grown their circulations from a handful of high-ranking executives to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of readers!
This is great news for any teachers because it means that there are a few publications you can use to keep on top of the subjects you teach.
That makes trade publications a great source of lessons that revolve around current events and class discussion, which is ideal for differentiating your instruction.
You might even find the perfect real-world example of an idea you discuss in class!
But even with those benefits, trade publications have fairly limited use in the classroom. That’s probably why you don’t see them on every teacher’s desk.
It’s also important to note that the cost of trade publications may vary. That means you could have to shell out from your classroom budget just to get a publication that’ll be outdated in a month.
That doesn’t sit well with cost-conscious teachers (or their administrators), which is why trade publications are most often found in career readiness classes and CTE courses.
It’s also important to note that trade publications aren’t just printed anymore either! Many of them have started using a format that educators, researchers, policy-makers, and others have come to embrace.
Podcasts are streamable, episodic, and audio-only content that can be published by anyone with a good idea and a microphone.
The popularity of podcasts has surged over the past five years as celebrities, politicians, comedians, and even educators have flocked to the medium.
If you’ve never listened to a podcast before, it’s similar to portrayals of families sitting around radios in the 1940s to listen to The Lone Ranger or Walter Cronkite. The big difference is that you can listen to thousands of programs on your phone instead of only four stations on a 700-pound antique radio.
Teachers have started using education podcasts as a way to stay up-to-date with education news. They may also use podcasts as a way to generate new ideas for the classroom.
But that’s just scratching the surface of podcasts’ potential!
Because of the accessibility and ease with which new hosts can make podcasts, there’s an enormous variety of shows out there for you to choose.
Stuff You Should Know, Smart People Podcast, Mindshift, and House of #EdTech are just four of the big ones that teachers love to use.
The big benefit here is that podcasts are exclusively an audio medium. That means students can listen to them while doing other things.
But wait — multitasking isn’t great for long-term information retention, is it?
That’s true! But students can listen to podcasts while they’re riding the bus, driving to work, exercising, or playing video games.
As a result, listening to a few episodes of a podcast could be a great way to mix up your homework assignments and prep students for an in-class discussion.
They’re also a great way to show your students that podcasts exist and they can probably find several that they love.
The best part about podcasts is that they’re almost exclusively free. Some of them have gone on for so long that their historical library is only unlockable by paying for it, but those are few and far between.
The only real concern here is that your students may hear advertisements in podcast episodes. But many education podcasts — especially those made by your fellow teachers — are made as passion projects.
That means no ads — just content.
There’s more “edutainment” content available to you than just podcasts, though.
Specifically, there’s television!
Television has changed a lot since it was introduced in the mid-20th Century.
From broadcast to digital, cable to streaming, public to exclusive, and a whole lot more, TV has something for everyone in terms of educational material.
Television in the classroom used to be restricted to VHS (or Betamax, if you’re a diehard) and DVDs.
With high-speed Internet access now standard for many school districts, television has expanded to include streaming resources like Netflix documentaries.
In other words, there’s never been a better time to look for supplemental instructional materials that you can show on a classroom TV.
The hardest part is typically finding the right documentary or series to show to your students. Then, you also have to verify that it’s age- and content-appropriate for your students.
Those are the big reasons why entrepreneurship teachers flock to the show Shark Tank — it's an authoritative and school-appropriate show that illustrates the challenges facing those who start businesses.
It can take some time. But if you’re passionate about the subject you teach, you might wind up discovering some TV resources during your free time anyway!
Still, TV shares a disadvantage that we can identify in every curriculum resource so far.
Not one of them is interactive.
Fortunately, games exist!
Games have taken classrooms by storm. They’re interactive, they’re engaging, and most importantly — they’re fun!
Students love games because gamification adds an entertaining element to the learning process.
Typically, these entertaining elements are short-term goals and score-related objectives. Students focus on competitive elements of games instead of the educational elements, which can ironically help them learn more because they’re engaged.
That’s why blackboard versions of Jeopardy! and other trivia-based games are so popular. They’re also easy to make and incredibly affordable.
But digital games have infiltrated the classroom as well! Games about everything from digital citizenship to anatomy and physiology are widely available online for students to use, often for free!
The only associated expense for these is the computers or devices that your school has available.
Others may be locked behind paywalls, which could force you to use your classroom budget to unlock a game that would help your students.
Still, the cost of those games rarely gets anywhere near other teaching resources. Even when they cost money, digital games tend to be priced on the lower end of educational resources.
This is a big reason why many teachers like games. Games also help students take “brain breaks” from learning and apply what they’ve learned in new ways.
Plus, interactivity is always helpful when students start learning something new.
With all of that together, games are a solid choice for educational assets that will probably grow more in popularity as technology becomes even more affordable and available.
But there’s another interactive element that helps students learn. It’s similar to games, but it comes with a different tone and context that orient it more toward “educational” and away from “fun.”
Simulations are scenarios in which students practice skills that they would need to use in the field in a safe, controlled, and consequence-free environment.
Simulations are a staple of CTE, and they’re now making their way into other skills-based education like coding and computer programming.
They're also cornerstones of new teaching ideas like community-based learning and simulated work-based learning.
Teachers love simulations because they give students a near-identical experience to what they’ll see one day in their careers, but in the safety of a classroom.
Emergency medical technician students can attempt BLS / CPR techniques. Automotive students can work on fake engines. Marketing students can create fake pay-per-click campaigns to promote a business.
Do simulations have all of the same intensity as a day on the job? Probably not.
But do they bring students as close to the action as possible without the risk of doing something wrong? Absolutely.
As a result, non-digital simulations like CPR training can be expensive!
Digital simulations tend to be more affordable because they don’t have many real-world materials associated with them. So a digital BLS / CPR simulation may be based on a real-life situation that would prepare students for an emergency, but it also lacks a dummy that allows hands-on practice.
This tradeoff is why some teachers choose to use real-world materials and others choose digital simulation resources. There’s not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” solution — it just comes down to preference!
If you’d like to avoid relying on costly simulation resources, there are other ways to familiarize your students with real-world scenarios.
That’s why some teachers facilitate classroom visitors.
8. Classroom Visitors
Classroom visitors are mainstays of education. Whether it’s a day for students’ parents to talk about their occupations or a local CEO coming in to talk about entrepreneurship, classroom visitors provide a unique perspective to students’ education.
As a result, classroom visitors are exceptionally popular teaching “resources” that provide a lot of bonuses to the classroom experience.
First, students get to hear from an experienced adult who isn’t their typical teacher. It reinforces the fact that you’re providing students with valuable instruction that can help them improve their lives.
Second, it fills time in your syllabus that you don’t have to have planned to a T. This frees up more of your time to work on other tasks during planning periods or meet with students who need a little extra direction.
Third, you include the community in your students’ education. This allows them to see that school doesn’t just “happen.” There’s more to education than classwork and homework — there’s also real-world experience that’s rich with opportunity, challenge, hardship, and triumph.
In other words, your students learn that there’s more to the subject you’re teaching — and life in general — than they ever knew!
You’ll probably find that most classroom visitors are happy to swing by your school for free. The exception to this is professional speakers.
With that in mind, you can probably reach out to any community member experienced in your subject area and they’d be happy to talk to your students for a class period.
Some of them may be open to the idea of working with your students more, as well.
These individuals may even volunteer to do more than speak as a guest to your class.
They may offer to host members of your class for job shadowing!
9. Job Shadowing
Job shadowing is a work-based learning program that involves students going to a business to follow one of its employees (or its founder) for a few hours.
Job shadowing tends to work best for classes that directly teach career skills or career-related topics. For example, it’s harder to find a museum curator for history students to shadow than to find a nurse for health science students.
Still, the value of job shadowing is unprecedented. Some teachers may even consider it to be more valuable than simulations!
The reason is simple — students get to experience an unedited, uncensored version of someone’s workday.
It may include a lot more challenges than they were expecting. It may include a lot more pressure than they thought.
But after they shadow someone, they know what to expect.
In addition, you can often set up job shadowing opportunities for free. Students of any age are generally welcome in businesses unless there are concerns about privacy or safety hazards.
Otherwise, you may be able to create an educational resource for your students that changes their lives!
You can double-down on this experience — and others like it — by requiring students to show some work for what they’ve experienced.
This work is sometimes called an immersion project.
10. Immersion Projects / Life Experiences
Immersion projects — sometimes called life experiences — are long-term, high-cost opportunities that take students and place them in unfamiliar situations, locations, or responsibilities.
This lack of familiarity acts as a trial-by-fire method of education that requires them to learn on their feet and adapt to challenging circumstances.
Typically, these types of projects are found in higher education, encouraging college students to study abroad or serve a year in a non-profit capacity.
For K-12 students, this can take the form of job shadowing, student exchange programs, or even third-party organizations like American Music Abroad.
These projects and experiences can require students to learn about careers, different school subjects, or even themselves.
The goal is to get students to think on a level they previously hadn’t considered. The experience they have acts as a catalyst to spur their higher-level thinking and self-reflection skills.
In this regard, an immersion project is a life-changing opportunity for students.
If you can arrange them and work out all of the details, you can make an enormous positive impact on your students’ lives.
Is it expensive? Yes.
Is it time-consuming? Yes.
Is it difficult? Probably.
But is it worthwhile? Absolutely.
This may sound like the logical place to end the blog. After all, we just talked about the biggest and best possible education opportunity you could give your students, right?
But there’s one last textbook alternative we need to discuss.
It doesn’t really fit the mold of conventional education. It’s also difficult to categorize because there’s nothing else quite like it on the education market today.
We’re talking about digital curriculum.
11. Digital Curriculum
Digital curriculum is an online resource that comes with curriculum content covering different areas, helpful features like automatic grading, and collaboration opportunities to help teachers work together.
Compared to textbooks, digital curriculum is almost brand-new to the education world.
As a result, a lot of teachers haven’t heard of it yet — and that’s a shame.
Digital curriculum empowers teachers to plan, teach, and assess more quickly than they can by hand, without sacrificing accuracy or student attention.
In fact, many teachers who use digital curriculum say it helps them spend more time with students.
Almost every teacher has a different use case for digital curriculum because it’s so versatile. Some teachers use it as a supplement to their typical teaching style, which helps create an effective blended learning environment.
Other teachers choose to use digital curriculum as the core of their syllabus, using it for instruction, lecture, and even remediation.
This is possible because digital curriculum is a modular teaching resource. In fact, the curriculum content that comes with it is even called “modules.”
This means you can use the content and features of a digital curriculum however you want. You can mold it to your existing syllabus or use it to create an entirely different class in minutes.
What’s the catch?
It costs money.
It doesn’t cost much — especially compared to textbooks.
In fact, when you consider that digital curriculum developers update their content to keep up with state standards, certification requirements, and education laws, digital curriculum doesn’t cost much at all.
(This is especially true when developers release new content to their customers without charging for it!)
Still, it costs money.
But because digital curriculum is so versatile, teachers can pay for it from a multitude of different budgets.
Classroom budget? Yes.
Technology budget? Yes.
Perkins funding? Depending on the situation, yes.
So why isn’t every teacher making the switch from textbooks to digital curriculum?
It’s simple — teachers and administrators know that textbooks work, so they want to stick with textbooks.
And who can blame them?
But for the educators who take the plunge into digital curriculum, the results are clear.
More student engagement. More content variety. More time to work on other needs.
Learn More about Digital Curriculum!
If you want to learn more about digital curriculum, you’re in the right place!
At AES, we talk about digital curriculum a lot. We talk about its benefits, its faults, its uses, and its challenges.
That's because we truly feel it can change the face of education. The biggest blocker that most teachers experience is that they're just so used to textbooks.
After all, you probably learned from a textbook, so you know your students can too!
But there's so much more to education than what's available in textbooks.
You can create a new way to teach your new generation of students. That may include a textbook. It may include a digital curriculum. It may include both!
To start, you just have to learn more about it!
Click below to read a comparison between textbooks and digital curriculum!