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Going Beyond The Textbook

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 India.edu from Flickr, modified and used under a Creative Commons license.

Educon: Unraveling the Textbook

It’s been a week since returning from Educon1 and, although I have managed to read a few of the wonderful reflections written by others, I’m just now sifting through my notes and thoughts about the sixth edition of this remarkable event.

One session that won’t get out of my head was the Unraveling the Textbook2 discussion lead by John Pederson and Diana Laufenberg. Our starting point was the premise that access to information has changed radically in the past couple of decades but the  textbooks used by most students have not.

It’s a topic I’ve reflected on and ranted about in this space and it was great to hear from a variety of perspectives, both about why the current model is broken and how the format needs to change. But we, of course, didn’t find any solutions in only 90 minutes.

However, the comments of one teacher in the group more than halfway through the discussion stood out as both contrary to the prevailing thoughts and as a good reminder of how most of us in the room were a little bit ahead of our colleagues.

She observed, in effect, that everyone wanted to take away textbooks without having anything ready to replace them. It’s a good point and one that would probably be echoed by a majority of teachers. As we’ve experimented with online textbooks in our district, I know many in the schools would rather just have the paper versions back.3

One random idea I tossed out to begin to address that issue was to abandon the term “textbook” altogether. It carries too much baggage with most people and is too often used to define the curriculum for a particular course of study.

So, what do we replace it with? Towards the end of our short session, I wrote down some ideas that I will need to explore and expand on:

A replacement for the textbook should

  • be accessible on any device, anywhere
  • allow users to add comments
  • allow certain users (teachers, trusted students) to add and update materials
  • have a social media component to allow users to discuss the materials
  • have content controlled by educators, not publishers

Nothing particularly revolutionary, just some random thoughts. The whole topic needs the collective efforts of many smart educators like the ones who shared in our discussion at Educon.


1 Really? Where the hell did this week go??

2 Don’t bother clicking on the link for the recording on that page. For one thing the sound didn’t work. But beyond that, most Educon sessions are conversations, not presentations, and capturing those interactions on video are difficult at best.

3 Our math teachers will get that wish as our school board got tired of hearing from complaining parents and voted to buy regular books to “supplement” the online versions.

Textbook Crisis

We have a textbook crisis here in the overly-large school district.

Ok, “crisis” is probably too hyperbolic for what’s going on but there’s still lots of chatter around the topic of the electronic versions, and most of it isn’t positive. Plus the superintendent has heard from some loud and influential parents on the matter, which in turn makes the situation a “crisis” we get to fix.

The story started a few years ago when our school board decided we needed to begin using digital textbooks with an eye to replacing the paper editions, the price of which is steadily climbing. So, they waved their magic wand and told the super to make it happen.

As a result, last year social studies teachers in upper elementary and middle school got online texts for some of their classes, ones that are little more than enhanced pdf files embedded in a really crappy interface that both teachers and student found difficult to use.  But we moved on anyway and this year we have online math books which include a combination of Flash, pdf, and web-based materials.

So, what’s wrong with that?

I don’t have time or temperament to cover all the problems so let’s just hit the highlights.

First, the books are online and cannot be put on a stand-alone reader, which means they won’t work on the most affordable devices available like Kindles and Nooks. Also making the materials inaccessible in places without an internet connection, like school busses, and difficult to use in homes with multiple people all trying to access a single machine.

Then there’s the matter of the Flash and Java-based content which isn’t playable on iOS devices and, it turns out, is inconsistently supported on Android devices running a variety of different versions of the OS.

I also find it interesting that the publisher’s tech support centers close around 6pm. How many kids do you know that even start their homework before that time?

Then there’s the lack of equipment available for students to use at school, especially during times when it must be dedicated to testing. And that’s becoming all year round with our increasing craving for data (aka practice tests), a rant for another time.

However, the biggest problem has nothing to do with any of the technical problems. Or with the publishers, and the fact that they are far more interested in “protecting” their products than in providing quality instructional materials.

The worst part of this crisis is that our school board and administration are so short sighted that they continue to buy what the publishers are selling: generic, unmodifiable crap that’s written at a slightly higher interest level than most Wikipedia articles, with mediocre graphics and worksheets containing the same rote process problems that have been around for decades, if not centuries.

Math instruction in K12 needs a major overhaul and we should start by throwing out the generic textbooks (adding video and animation is just window dressing) and then take a serious look at what math skills kids need to have when they graduate.

A good chunk of what we do is irrelevant and useless, not to mention boring, just like the textbooks, digital or otherwise.

Open Sourcing Textbooks

Based on legislation signed into law this week by California’s governor Jerry Brown, the state is taking the first steps toward becoming a major player in the textbook industry. And maybe changing it completely.

The new legislation encompasses two bills: One, a proposal for the state to fund 50 open-source digital textbooks, targeted to lower-division courses, which will be produced by California’s universities. (Students will be able to download these books for free or pay $20 for hard copies.) The other bill is a proposal to establish a California Digital Open Source Library to host those books.

Even better, the law requires that all “books” in the library be released under a Creative Commons license and encoded in XML, making it easy for all of the materials to be reused and repurposed by anyone.  The potential benefits to education go way beyond just saving money.

But getting the law passed was probably the easiest part of the process. It’s not likely the textbook industry will sit by and watch their hugely profitable market dry up. Expect plenty of legal challenges.

However, lawsuits aside, once this project gets rolling, we also need for some state – or maybe an overly-large school district – to begin the same process for K12.

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.

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