Words Matter | Textbook



textbookscropA book filled with text. And pictures. Textbooks are a leftover from an era when information was analog, scarce, and proprietary.

Sometimes textbooks even have math problems, and sometimes these are story problems, which still strike fear into the heart of every person who ever attended school.  I’m still not sure today how to solve this: If a train left Cleveland heading west at a rate of 72 miles per hour, and a car left Detroit traveling southeast at 63 miles per hour, they would intersect….(shudder).

Anyway, one of the hottest things out there right now are digital textbooks.  If your district is not discussing these, my guess is that they will be shortly.

Most of the discussion around digital texts focuses on cost savings to the district, and/or parents, and reducing the textbook mass most kids lug around through the hallways each day.

I’ve not seen a conversation that focuses on how they will impact learning.

That should be the first conversation.

As you know, moving a textbook from paper to digital allows for the producer (textbook company) and user (teacher/student) to take advantage of the affordance of the digital world.  Animations, simulations, video, hyperlinks, annotation, reading together, writing notes…etc.   I would imagine that a digital textbook would also update itself just like software does, with updates streaming down from the cloud.

I’ve seen several presentations by textbook companies on their new digital textbooks, and I’m not encouraged.  There’s not a whole lot of what I just described.  Frankly, I don’t believe textbook publishers understand the role that digital technologies can play in learning, and how people use them to connect to learn – in fact, I know they don’t after seeing their products and listening to their sales pitches.

To me, digital textbooks, as they exist now, are simply a new way to do an old thing.

Let’s begin with the name.  What if they were called something other than digital textbooks, something that went beyond the comfort zone of education, something that suggested new capabilities, purpose and use?  The name should be anything but “text book.”  And words matter, right?

Changing the name also means changing the design, away from the traditional linear, sequential trip through content.  The user interface design on the examples I’ve seen are cumbersome at best.  But instead of user interface design, what if the producers of these resources focused on learner interface design? Maybe it would like like this:

What if the “textbook” (we’ll call it that for now) was saavy enought to make recommendations on resources for learners, much in the same way Amazon and any of a number of other digital tools make suggestions for me right now? What if these resources were based on my pathway through the content, my interests, my passions, or even questions I might pose about ideas presented in the resource?  What if the book connected me with other learners based on my profile or interests, regardless of location, like Twitter does with their recommendations for new people to follow?  Why must my learning be limited to those I share a physical space with?

What if learners could ask the textbook to connect ideas, people, resources, websites, social media, really anything digital, in a way that ifttt.com does with their “If this happens, then do this?”statements?  If I do this, then the textbook does that.  For example, if I selected an online resource from a list provided to me by the textbook based on a question I posed to the textbook, then I could “program” the textbook to automatically post the resource to my Diigo account, and then share it with my network of learners, perhaps via Twitter, along with the tags I select.  I want an intelligent agent as my “textbook,” not just a digital version of a static collection of ink on paper.

What if I could plug my social media resources and network into my new digital resource?  Why can’t I take advantage of those?  Why should I allow a publisher to limit how I interact?

You know what, what if we just used the largest digital textbook ever invented, the World Wide Web?  

Seriously, how long would it take you to compile enough resources to replace your current textbook, at the level you use it?

Before I go further, let’s step back a bit.  How many of the school districts engaged in going digital or thinking about going digital actually studied how textbooks were currently being used in learning, and to what extent?  Shouldn’t this be done first?  And if textbooks weren’t found to be a critcial component of the learning experience, why bother with going to a digital version?  What’s to be gained other than cost savings and a reduction in sore backs?  Perhaps some schools would say that’s enough benefit.

If a school district went digital, would the learning experience become more contemporary?  Would textbooks become a critical component of learning if they were digital?  Not necessairly, in both cases. What if the resource contained undeniable benefit, and this was obvious to all?  Would they become an essential component of the learning experience?  Perhaps…but I still have my doubts.

If your school or district decides to go digital, you also have to address the device question.  And it’s a critical question.

If you expect digital textbooks to be a key factor in the learning experience, then you have to be in a 1:1 situation.  Everyone has to have the same device, with the same capability; to be fair to teachers, the teachers have to know what every kid walks into class with, and the school community has to build understanding together about the progress and impacts of the implementation.  If you don’t have a 1:1, you’ll have kids with devices without digital textbook capability (e.g. flip phone), which means that you ‘ll have some kids with digital textbooks and some without – completely unacceptable if you are concerned about about the role the digital textbook plays inlearning.

And if you still believe BYOD is the answer, imagine this scenario:  you’ve got some kids with digital textbooks and some kids without, and the kids that have digtal textbooks, have them on multiple types of devices…

Nice. That’s a recipe for success.

But if you are in cost-recovery mode, and just trying to provide some savings, then a BYOD situation might make sense, at least at first glance.  OK, those kids that have a device can use digital, but if you don’t, you go paper.  Now you’ve just intentionally introduced an inequity, and that’s problematic, big time. Imagine the kid that doesn’t have the device looking at those that do and wondering now if he’s now outgunned and consequently outmatched.  Is that what you want? We have enough have and have nots in education.

You’re also asking teachers to manage two different resources intended for the same purpose, and now one has a different look, feel, and capability.

Good luck.  They’ll ask for their paper textbooks back, guaranteed.

They’ll also resent technology.  Even more.

In many ways, I believe the emergence, development and excitement around digital textbook paralells what we’ve seen with other “replacement” technologies, such as digital projectors and interactive whiteboards.  Whiteboards replaced chalkboards, digital projectors replaced overhead projectors, and now digital textbooks replace paper textbooks.

A new way to do an old thing. When does something completely new arrive?

But all is not lost.  There are some bright spots on the horizon.

Life on Earth, a 59 chapter book on Biology, produced by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, will be free to anyone.  It will be designed from the ground up as a digital textbook unlike the many digital textbooks that are simply digital conversions of their paper parent.

Biobook is a Gates Foundation funded iPad Web-enabled biology textbook that enables teachers to select content from a national database of biology chapters written and contributed by educators themselves. Here is what is intriguing:

  • the “book” is build on the Moodle platform, which is widely distributed already, and available as an open source application.
  • the “book” encourages leaners to set their own course through biological principles, to “seek different learning paths,” with content organization based on a tree metaphor of Root, Branch, and Leaf.  Learners can take their own branch, and follow down to a specific content idea, or leaf.
  • an emphasis on socialy annotating the text.
  • a progress map provided to students that provides them with an understanding of their progress, the class progress, and a suggested progress.
  • an official book will be curated based on analytics provided by students. (Ferenstein 2011)

It will be interesting to see how these two efforts develop.

Now, if we could just do something about that train and car…

“It was the beginning and end of imagination, all at the same time…”  From the movie Seabiscuit


Literature Cited:

Ferenstein, Gregory. “BioBook, A Gates-Funded IPad Textbook, Would Create A Free Database For Customized Learning | Fast Company.” FastCompany.com – Where Ideas and People Meet | Fast Company. 30 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Dec. 2011. <http://www.fastcompany.com/1791871/biobook>.

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