In a recent post at the Fischbowl, Karl asks a good question: What job would you hire a textbook to do?, as the start to providing an overview of Discovery Education’s second Beyond the Textbook event held this past week.*

It’s a topic we’ve been thinking about a lot the past couple of years (and I’ve ranted about a few times) as our overly-large school district has been experimenting with online textbooks, first in Social Studies and then in math. Our results have been far less than stellar, Textbooksprobably because we are not aiming beyond… well, anything.

The digital textbooks sold (more like rented) by the longtime publishers of the paper versions, are also little different from them. Take a pdf version of the analog content, add a few videos, some interactive quizzes, and lock everything to the company servers so nothing can be used on the devices kids have available most often.

So, what how did the group meeting at Discovery headquarters envision what’s beyond the textbook?

Six different groups came up with six different mockups and, as you would expect, there were many commonalities as well as some differences. The main commonalities were that a “techbook” should be very customizable (by both teacher and student), media rich, provoke wonder/curiosity/inquiry, stimulate mathematical thinking/habits of mind, and have a social component. I’m not sure what exactly Discovery is going to do with these results, but I’m hopeful that we contributed at least a small part into making their next techbook better.

Good list of features, although I hope we can find a better term than “techbook”.

Anyway, Karl is right that this discussion – not to mention those that occurred prior to adoption of the online materials we are using – should have started with two essential questions. First, is curriculum necessary?

The second question only arises if you answer “yes” to the first question. So if you believe that curriculum is necessary, or even if you don’t but you think that as a practical matter it’s going to exist for the foreseeable future, then perhaps this question will be more meaningful for you. This essential question is, “What’s the purpose of a text/techbook?” (Or, because I just finished this book [How Will You Measure Your Life] by Clay Christensen, perhaps rephrase that as, “What job would you hire a text/techbook to do?”)

Our instructional people regularly insist that the textbook is not the curriculum, that we have already have a program of studies designed for our students. If so, why do we pay big money for the books, digital or otherwise? As a resource for the teacher? To provide review materials for students? A source of practice problems?

There’s nothing unique about any of those functions. A few states, or even large school districts like ours, could easily assemble a better product to meet those requirements for less money using resources we already have.

But go back to that list of commonalities: customizable, media rich, stimulating, social component. None of that sounds like the textbooks we already have or, for that matter, the versions that would likely come from most educational bureaucracies.

Maybe a non-traditional publisher like Discovery, working with the kind of smart, progressive educators who participated in this event, can create something genuinely new, something beyond what we now call a textbook.

However, even if they succeed, it won’t make much difference unless the rest of our educational system is prepared to change. We also need to go all the way back to the foundation and answer the question “What job would you hire a school to do?”.

* Right around the beltway and they never sent me an invite! Wonder if that’s fallout from our system not renewing with their Discovery Streaming product. Yeah, that must be the reason. ;-)

Image: “Ebook Vs Textbook” by from Flickr, modified and used under a Creative Commons license.