I am humbled to be part of a team of educators, many of whom are esteemed peers, converging in a little under a week at Discovery Education headquarters to discuss the future of the textbook, specifically the digital textbook. As an elementary teacher, I know that my opinions and experiences with textbooks differ from those who teach high school and higher ed. However, my experience using textbooks in high school and college helps mold some of my views on the topic.
The first textbook I ever remember using was my French textbook in 6th grade. Before that, I don’t have any clear memories of textbooks. After that, my memories are that of doing the odd problems at the end of the chapter in my math textbook, reviewing my notes and trying desperately to figure out the magic in the explanation in the book that would make me able to figure out how to do a problem. I remember my textbook for AP US History, for Global Studies, and a couple of textbooks that were anthology-like. Most of these were heavy and used mostly for homework and for memorizing things that were on a test.
Once I got to college, the only textbooks I bought were for classes I took to satisfy requirements. Psychology, Astronomy, Anthropology (huge, impersonal lecture hall classes)….. As a French major, I had the delightful experience of shopping for novels and poetry each semester, all hand-picked by the professor for a particular reason (a class on French Vietnamese literature, a class on Medieval French literature). Some of my classes in other subject areas (or seminars as I guess they would be called) involved a mixture of novels picked by the professor and mini books of articles and selected chapters pulled together by the professor. I still have many of those mini books because they were like little gold mines of information and a great resource to refer to later when I was thinking of a particular class discussion.
My textbooks? I sold them back to the store or left them in the attic of my parents’ house to rot.
Moving back in time to elementary school, I am disheartened by the heavy reliance that teachers have on Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin textbooks. I am even more disheartened to hear instructional directors call these “curriculum.”
I was overjoyed to hear about a principal who collected all of the math textbooks from the teachers and told them to teach math the way they wanted to. This was in response to teachers expressing frustration with teaching math and with kids learning math. The result? After stages of anger and helplessness, the teachers figured things out. They taught math better and the kids learned math better. Very few, if any teachers, according to the story, came back for their textbooks.
So what does this have to do with the future of the textbook and digital texts?
First, we need to be careful that we don’t waste this new technology by doing the same things in a different way (similar to the way the glorious Interactive Whiteboard still remains a teacher-centric digital chalkboard in many classrooms). Second, we need to use the digital technologies available to allow for professors and K-12 teachers to build the kinds of resources that fit the needs of their classroom. No longer should educators be forced to asked their students to purchase a $100 textbook so they can use the 3 chapters that are relevant to their course.
I also see educators pooling their knowledge to crowd source courses and texts that are inexpensive, flexible, across many digital platforms, are specific to their students, their specific course and that are easily amendable should new information arise that is relevant to the course. This is already happening, and will only become easier as the technology gets better and easier to use.
Another aspect of the new digital textbook is the opportunity to display information through multimedia and interactive activities. Again, I will point back to my first statement above. These tools and mediums are amazing and match much of what brain research shows us about how people learn in different ways and through different modalities. However, let’s be smart and avoid using this new technology to embed lectures or videos that could be found with a simple Internet search or to create fancy “end of chapter” activities that are a waste of time.
I’m not trying to pretend that I have an answer for how we can leverage digital texts to truly do something different, but I won’t accept a Pearson-produced textbook with a built-in dictionary and highlighter with a few videos embedded here or there to be the limit of innovation.
What do you think?
Please share any links, resources or opinions you have in the comment area!