Thinking All Wrong About Digital

Consider this pull quote from an article titled Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?:

I strongly believe that describing digital as a tool diminishes its profound impact on the world we live in. Digital has transformed society, government, culture, business, media and more.1 Barely an aspect of our lives has not been touched in some way. Therefore, when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society.

The writer is addressing a business audience (specifically web designers) but I think that paragraph pretty much explains why all the technology we’ve poured into classrooms over the past two decades or more has had so little impact on American education.

Too many educators2 still discuss “digital” as a nice-to-have add-on, grafted onto what we’re already doing (as in “digital” learning, for example), rather than adapting the tools to fundamentally change what we do.

And until we decide to make that change, a large percentage of the money schools spend on digital will continue to be wasted.

  1. Note that he doesn’t include education in that list.

  2. and politicians, and business people, and other “experts”

I Guess It’s a Start

The title of this post pretty much tells you everything about the current state of digital textbooks: Students Find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features.

The writer is addressing the issue in colleges but that same statement applies to the online Social Studies textbooks we began using last year here in the overly-large school district.

I’ve ranted about this before but the fact of the matter is that the publisher in our case is offering little more than a digital reproduction of the hardcover book, and they still require us to purchase a minimum number of those analog versions.

The math textbooks our students will be using this year are somewhat better in that the material is largely in HTML, includes some video, and adds a few interactive features. However, as with those digital social studies books, the math textbooks are hit or miss when it comes to using them on smartphones and tablets, even those still running Flash.

I suppose you could view this in a glass-half-full manner, as a tentative start to the process of eventually having all classroom materials in a digital form. I’m just not sure that process is going to move very quickly since the publishers seem far more interested in protecting their markets and profits than they do about anything instructional.

If I was running this show, we would be putting some of the large chunk of the money spent every year on dead-tree books into creating online, open-source, accessible on any device instructional materials of our own.

It’s one of those big changes that could have incredible long-term advantages for an educational system accustomed to very short-term thinking.

The Possibilities of Digital Textbooks

Digital textbooks are all the rage these days.

They’ll save schools billions of dollars, and relieve kids from the burden of carrying around the paper versions. More than a few education “experts” have applied the “revolutionary” tag to the concept.

And on that very subject, the US Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission this week held a big meeting just up the road in Washington on that very subject, with the purpose to determine how the US can “move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years”.

So, who attended these high level discussions?

FCC Chairman Genachowski and Secretary of Education Duncan hosted a discussion with CEOs, senior executives, and other leaders from the education technology ecosystem to develop ways the industry and states can meet their challenge to move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years.

Representatives included senior executives and leaders from Apple, Aruba Networks, Chegg, Discovery Education, Idaho Department of Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Inkling, Intel, Knewton, Kno, the LEAD Commission, McGraw-Hill, News Corp, Pearson, Samsung, Sprint, and T-Mobile. [emphasis mine]

Education technology ecosystem?

Anyway, with the exception of the participants from Idaho (a known leader of instructional technology innovation, right?), do you see any actual educators in that list? Or any organizations representing the various educational open source initiatives?

No, what you see are the very large companies that already control the printed textbook business, some major tech companies, plus a few tech startups with interests in digital distribution. All of which stand to reap large profits from controlling the digital textbook business.

That’s what Duncan, Apple, Pearson and others really mean when they talk about the “possibilities” of digital textbooks.

Textbooks Don’t Work

In a recent post on his Class Struggle blog, Jay Mathews explains why textbooks don’t work and hurt schools. His conclusions are based on a new book called “Tyranny of the Textbook” that discusses “why the $4 billion-a-year textbook business is so much a part of our schools’ mediocre performance”.

Textbooks don’t work well. Research shows that with rare exceptions they do not help improve student achievement much. They are not effective because effectiveness doesn’t sell.

Jobrack [the author] argues, rightly, that textbooks can help students learn well only if they are part of a curriculum designed by educators who know what works in the classroom and tested by comparing the level of achievement under one curriculum to another. There is research on which curricula are most effective, but textbook companies don’t use it because their customers aren’t interested in that.

“Publishers are incentivized to create materials that appeal to teachers who don’t want to change, so curriculum materials that could have a significant impact on education reform are less profitable,” Jobrack said.

Despite all that “not very effective” stuff, here in the overly-large school district we are in the process of doubling down on textbooks, by adopting the online/digital versions of the same materials being pushed by the publishers.

However, simply swapping out paper books repackaged in a digital format – written and distributed by the same companies, usually with the same content – is not “revolutionary”, “innovative”, “reform”, or whatever other term our administrators have applied to the transition.

The digital versions of these instructional materials are hardly unique, usually wrapped in a convoluted interface and/or DRM, and often cost the same or more than the paper versions, and there are few good reasons to continue supporting this branch of the education business.

The Silver Lining of Digital Textbooks

The Washington Post writes glowingly about an initiative here in the overly-large school district to provide online textbooks for students in middle and high school social studies classes.

A few details the article fails to mention:

The digital books may be cheaper than the paper versions but the publishers are still requiring the system to buy a large number of them before also purchasing the online version.

The interface for the online books is poorly designed, doing little more than replicating the paper version.

The online versions do little to take advantage of the interactivity and flexibility possible in a digital format. Adding the ability to take electronic notes is only a minor improvement.

None of the books will work on the iPad, Kindle or Nook, the e-readers students are most likely to own.

However, I’m not going to complain.  Online textbooks is one major spark behind our system-wide bring your own device program, as well as motivation for schools buying additional portable computers.

And all those devices can also be used for far more creative and interesting purposes than simply reproducing the same old textbook and digitizing the traditional assignments that go with it.

Moving Thoughts

Well, this is the week of our big move. By Wednesday afternoon, my little group and our colleagues in the same building, must be packed up and ready for the movers.


As I’ve mentioned before, most of our department, along with large chunks of two others in our overly-large school district, are being moved from various locations to a single building in another part of the county.

From a 50’s era former elementary school with a leaky roof to a generic cube farm elsewhere in the county, formerly occupied by a dot com survivor.

While I’m actually looking forward to the new environment and the opportunities/challenges the altered working relationship will bring, the process of actually packing up all the crap in my current space has been interesting.

As I was going through the stuff in my current cube, I realized there isn’t much to move.

So little that I’m almost tempted to just trash everything that is there and start over in the new location.

I also recalled a similar move to the current building our group made about ten years ago and how, at that time, I had to move many shelves packed with binders and books, plus lots of drawers full of paper.

This time around, no binders, few books, and little paper. Almost everything I now use is in some kind of digital format and is on my laptop or some node on a network.

Which is why this move is causing little stress, certainly not at the level it is for some of my other colleagues.

Because I’ve learned to make my work space almost anywhere I have a computing device linked to a good wireless connection. Not even sure I care where the printers are.

Bring on the change!

Picture: van by penelopejonze, used under a Creative Commons license

We Don’t Do PowerPoint

On the drive home, listening to a segment from On The Media (an excellent podcast from NPR) that illustrates just how far behind the federal government is when it comes to the digital world.

Well, almost everything in the Pentagon, if it’s a briefing on a war plan, on a weapons procurement, it’s all done on PowerPoint these days. And the National Archive is currently unable to accept and process either PowerPoint slides or Microsoft Word documents.

So the National Archives are basically telling all the federal agencies, listen, we can’t do anything with these now so just hang onto them and file them rationally until we get around to it.

Until a few years ago, they could not accept email with attachments, digital photos or PDF documents. That’s just in the last few years. They supposedly are putting together an electronic record archive, but it will not be ready for at least three years.

It sounds incredible that an agency tasked with archiving all the records of our government is unable to handle the most common digital formats for documents used anywhere in the world.

You have to imagine the archivists in DC must be going nuts over the fact that the president’s weekly address to the nation is in H.264 Flash video on YouTube.

Among many other things, President Obama pledged during the campaign and since taking office to “Open Up Government to its Citizens” and “Bring Government into the 21st Century”.

Considering PowerPoint and Word are relics from the 20th century, his technology people could have a more difficult task ahead of them than his economics team.

The Analog Candidate

A writer in the New York Times discusses why so many people gave McCain a hard time for basically admitting that he was computer illiterate.

So why have Mr. McCain’s admissions of digital illiteracy sparked such ridicule in wiseguy circles?

Computers have become something of a cultural marker — in politics and in the real world. Proficiency with them suggests a basic familiarity with the day-to-day experience of most Americans — just as ignorance to them can suggest someone is “out of touch,” or “old.”

“We’re not asking for a president to answer his own e-mail,” said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley futurist who teaches at Stanford. “We’re asking for a president who understands the context of what e-mail means.”

The “user experience,” Mr. Saffo said, brings with it an implicit understanding of how the country lives, and where it might be heading. As Mr. McCain would lack this, he would also be deficient in this broader appreciation for how technology affects lives.

Exactly. Certainly no one expects the president to spend hours on line.

However our leaders do need to have a good understanding of the public policy issues involving telecommunications that will need to be addressed very soon.

Not to mention some idea of why many of us believe the web is important for something other than boosting the bottom line of the big telecoms (and other large campaign contributors).

Scrubbing Your Digital Image

We tell students to be careful about what they put online since the web is very persistent. Those posts may come back to haunt you when you’re looking for work later in life.

A recent survey by ExecuNet, a networking organization for business leaders, found that 83 percent of executives and corporate recruiters research job candidates online, and 43 percent have eliminated a candidate based on search results.

However, it seems that there are entrepreneurs who can repair all those MySpace indiscretions of youth and “clean the skeletons out of your digital closet”.

For a price, of course.

To dig yourself out, you may have to get a pro to create new Web pages that accentuate your positives. Figure that it will cost at least $1,000 to bump all the negative hits off your first three search-results pages. But prices vary according to the number of hits and how difficult they are to move, so shop aggressively.

I wonder just how many positive web pages I’d have to pay for to counteract the ranting I’ve done around here.