There’s no shortage of difficult news when it comes to California schools. But amidst the budget shortfalls and funding challenges is a tremendous achievement. California students are making history, introducing America to the future of instruction.

Since last September, over 400 eighth grade students have been part of a pilot study, using Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s award winning Holt McDougal Algebra 1 core curriculum on an iPad. In Long Beach, San Francisco, Fresno and Riverside Unified School Districts, students are learning algebra with the fully interactive HMH FuseTM: Algebra 1 App for iPad.

“HMH is transforming content delivery and the overall learning experience to take advantage of the iPad environment as well as alternate digital device platforms. These apps aren’t just digitized copies of a textbook,” said Mike Lavelle, Education Group President, HMH. “HMH Fuse‘s interactive format takes students to the cutting edge of innovative 21st century instruction. It represents the next era of digital education.”

The innovation was born from former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Digital Textbook Initiative.  Company officials were seeking to play a leading role, harnessing the very latest technology to help teachers and students. When they shared the concept with former Secretary for Education Bonnie Reiss, she was enthusiastic, so much so that she headlined the official launch of the pilot project at a Long Beach school last fall. 

HMH had already been working with digital technologies to supplement textbook lessons. Many students are well versed with cutting edge technology, so using the iPad seemed like the next logical step. 

”We (already) had fixed media, such as the Solution Finder on DVD and training videos online,” said John Sipe, Senior Vice President of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in an exclusive interview. “We looked at the iPad and saw it as a place to bring it all together.”

HMH FuseTM integrates the traditional aspects of textbooks, with all the functionality of the iPad. If a student struggles to find the answer to a question, they can watch one of more than 400 video lessons that help explain mathematical concepts. Sipe noted that it is like giving a student their very own math tutor 24/7. 

The iPad can also wirelessly transmit student progress to the teacher, providing real-time monitoring. This is invaluable, helping teachers determine when to proceed with the next concept of a lesson, or if additional time and practice is needed. Teachers note that it helps them create customized learning for every student.

“It has been really gratifying to see the students use the videos or the ‘Check It Out’ feature,” said Sipe. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve worked on in 20 years of educational publishing.”

Not only is it an interesting technology, but also preliminary results are promising. Riverside Unified School District, one of the districts participating in the pilot is noting that student performance is improving in the students who are using the app.

Riverside Unified School District Superintendent Rick Miller has been keeping a close eye on the program, and his anecdotal evidence reinforces the potential of the technology. The pilot is comparing students using the HMH FuseTM Algebra 1 App with students using the same curriculum in the traditional textbook. What they’re finding is that students in the traditional classroom are testing at a 60 percent proficiency level or above, compared to pilot students who are testing at a 90.5 percent proficiency level or above. In fact, all but six of the students learning algebra on the iPad app are consistently scoring proficient or better on practice exams. 

“Other digital texts are two-dimensional. They’re PDFs, a digital copy of a piece of paper,” Miller explained. “HMH Fuse is three-dimension and more like Wikipedia, where in the text you see keywords underlined and you can select it and see all the information about that word or concept.” 

Helping the students in the classroom is only one of the advantages that the app offers. State law dictates how often texts can be updated because of the cost associated with reprints. But because the HMH FuseTM textbook is digital, it can easily be updated or corrected. In their first printing, an extra zero was included in the copyright date, Sipe told PublicCEO. They quickly corrected the mistake by issuing an update, and the date changed from 20011 to 2011, at no cost. This ability to update instructional materials allows publishers to continuously innovate and update the curriculum while also ensuring that teachers and students always have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips.

For Superintendent Miller, the question of cost and convenience are ancillary to the main questions that he has to answer. “Does it work? Are the teachers comfortable with it? The answers are yes,” Miller said. “Teachers adapt well. Students adapt well. Parents adapt well.” 

Summarizing the program, Superintendent Miller said, “I think all of the positive assumptions people might have made (before launching) appear to have become reality.”

For their part, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt summarized the potential benefits and what the future holds in a recent news release announcing that the app was available nationally in the App Store.

“Ultimately, the HMH FuseTM: Algebra 1 App gives school districts seeking to invest in cutting-edge mobile content and technology a high-quality curriculum option that has the potential to lower costs while improving learning. As part of its digital strategy, HMH is also poised to release Geometry and Algebra 2 apps for spring 2011 availability and is optimizing its major K-12 titles for use across a multitude of digital devices,” the company concluded.

The future seems to have arrived and California is once again playing an important role.