Mar 252013

discoveryedI am thrilled to have been invited again to Discovery Education’s Beyond the Textbook discussion at Discovery’s offices in Silver Springs, MD. Last year’s event was an inspiring and energizing experience, and I am excited to continue this conversation a year later.

A lot can change in a year. One of the biggest disruptors I see in the text/techbook realm are MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). These courses, which can have thousands of students enrolled in them, are usually free and are built from online resources of all types, including video, screencasts, online articles, PDFs, slide presentations and audio recordings. Professors for these courses create their own units and course content while also sourcing from free content online. This is very similar to the way many of us at last year’s event imagined a digital textbook. We discussed a kind of portal for students and teachers that could be easily customized with free content. MOOCs have taken that concept and expanded them to thousands of students across the world.

While we have come a long way toward that vision of teacher curating their own courses from online resources, I have not seen the textbook industry transform their vision of their product to meet this changing learning ecosystem. A comment on fellow attendee, Frank Noschese’s, blog post on the Techbook refers to a site called Net-Texts. This iOS app essentially allows users to access open courses through their iOS devices. Frank brings up what is, for me, the most important aspect of any re-imagining we do for the traditional textbook. He stresses that textbooks need to be more than just consumption tools. I, too, worry that as textbooks get more ‘flashy’ by going digital, they will just continue the trend of students consuming rather than creating content. I am even more concerned by the quickness with which textbook companies have been regurgitating the same kind of texts and stamping them with “Common Core Ready,” as if that makes them bright, shiny and new.

I learn tons from doing internet searches, watching videos and reading books and articles. Most of the time, the reason I am accessing content is because I am grappling with something and I have hit a wall in my understanding of it. As a learner, I don’t access content in a vacuum. I might need to know how the compressor on my fridge works because everything in it is frozen, so I look up the make and model of my fridge and check out some of the diagrams and troubleshooting tips. Or, I might be wondering if the article I’m reading is giving me a trustworthy portrayal of an event or a concept, so I seek out articles and books on the topic. I might need help with the vector drawing program I am using, so I seek out an online video tutorial. This is how most of us learn once we leave school, there are many students still in school who learn this way outside of school, and a small percentage of students learn this way as part of their every day school experience. Very rarely, when students want to learn something, do they say, “Hey, I bet there’s a great textbook on this somewhere!”

All of the learning experiences I describe above were directly related to a real world problem. The learning led to solving a problem. Learning that is tied to experience and real world application is learning that sticks, and learning that sticks is often non-linear. For that reason, the non-linear aspect of many existing digital books is promising since it allows learners to access content whenever they need it rather than following someone else’s sequencing of content. Think of the many times a teacher you had assigned chapters out of order or skipped some all together. Content should be accessed when it is applicable to something tangible.

The text/techbook of the future should include the above considerations in its design. It should be modular to meet the learner’s needs. It should be tied to experiences and chances to apply learning in real world ways. I imagine a techbook looking like a science notebook or journal. It would be a place where students can take notes, pin articles and videos, record experiments and discussions or lectures, organize data tied to these experiences sketch out ideas in words and pictures, and send and receive emails or other messages. Articles should have highlighting capabilities, and the ‘book’ should have a built-in, editable glossary. All of the content within the ‘book’ should also be shareable with classmates or teachers. Most of this technology already exists in some form. I often find myself using a number of apps or tools to do all of the tasks that I need for working and learning. What would be truly innovative and useful for learners is to create a device or platform in which these functions are all in one place, and in which learning is constructed through content that is closely connected to real world experiences and often created by the learner.

To follow the conversation about the future of the textbook, follow #BeyondTextbooks on Twitter.

You can also share your vision of what a “techbook” could/should be below.

Mar 132012

photo by Mary Beth Hertz

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?

Two things.

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!