What I Learned This Year: Section 3

Out here in the real world, it’s hard to escape the fact that the traditional media industry (music, television, newspapers, and more) is changing drastically, forced by the web and other digital technology to find new business model. They don’t like it, they try pushing back, but it is happening.

The only exception seems to be the multi-million (billion?) dollar textbook industry, especially in K12.

This year in our overly-large school district we’ve been experimenting with using digital textbooks, starting with those used in many of the social studies classes. The result has been, to say the least, disappointing.

For the most part the online materials provided by the publishers are little more than pdf documents, the kind of stuff that in the past has been delivered on a CD in the back of the teacher’s edition. Except that they came wrapped in a crappy interface, not even up to the quality of the standard Adobe Reader. Most of it doesn’t work well on mobile devices, and not at all on the ones kids are most likely to carrying, iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.

Even worse, there’s nothing particularly interactive or engaging about the materials and the way they are presented. Something as simple as the ability to highlight and take notes is either missing or difficult to use.

Then there’s the fact that these online textbooks are not replacements for the hard backed paper editions. The publishers won’t sell just the electronic versions of their materials without also buying the analog books. The price isn’t lower and we still cut down lots of trees.

Next school year we begin the same transition for math textbooks and, from what I’ve seen so far, the materials are only slightly improved. Some animation, a selection of Khan-style videos, but still mostly static pages duplicated from the original books and plenty of pdf worksheets for the teacher to print and copy. And most of the “enhancements” still don’t work on mobile devices.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from all this.

I already knew that the major textbook publishers were not going to give up their K12 gravy train easily. They are still in the mindset of taking basic information, not much different from what anyone can find with a little Googling, putting it into an attractive package, and selling it to school administrators.

Meanwhile, out here in the real world, non-textbook producing companies are scrambling to adapt their products to fit a culture that wants it’s media on whatever device they happen to be using, whenever they are ready for it. They want it interactive, adaptable, and socially linked. And they don’t want to pay for a version of the product they’ll never use.

That culture includes the kids in our classes. Like the seventh grader I watched working with the digital social studies textbook who told his neighbor, “I could’ve done better than this.”

If our administrators were really smart, they would take some of those millions we send to the textbook publishers and instead give that kid and his peers the chance to do just that.

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