Mar 212012

After a day and half of great conversation hosted by Discovery Education with a group of educators for whom I have the utmost respect, I’m not sure if I am able to walk away with any solutions or magic bullets.

What I am able to walk away with is a better idea of what I envision and what I don’t want to see.

When we broke out into small discussion groups it occurred to me that all of the features we were discussing already existed. It seemed that all of the tools, like bookmarking, a ‘share’ feature, access to databases, were existing technologies, and it seemed silly to overlay them on a new device or ‘textbook.’

What if, we pondered, a ‘textbook’ was really a portal to a repository of varied media resources? One that teachers could search and curate according to their needs? What if students could also log into this portal and see the resources pooled by the teacher, add their own resources and connect with classmates? Teachers could differentiate content on a student-by-student basis through the portal.

Here are some of our thoughts from the half hour discussion. We separated our thoughts into three categories, Delivery, Content, and Interactivity (hat tip to Wes Fryer for the categories).


The conundrum that I find hard to wrap my head around is how any company can embrace openness and sharing of information and still make a profit. When resources are behind a paywall, how do we make authentic learning, content and collaboration work in the most effective ways for kids?

I suggested that Discovery create a community for students similar to their DEN Network, but even then, it will be behind a paywall.

Another worry that I have is that, since many teachers will still feel lost without a book, guide or physical text, that the culture of worksheets and printing out ‘activities’ will be sustained rather than sussed. This shift will require strong and fearless leadership in order to move the culture of a school or district forward.

What is vital for the next steps of any discussion around what a learning text (or ‘resource collection,’ as I may begin calling it) looks like is to hold a student forum similar to the adult forum. Even an 8 year old can tell you what he or she does and doesn’t like about the books they use in their classroom. For some insight into what a high school student sees in a textbook, I love this video by a student at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

Overall, the day was very inspiring, and through discussion, I was able to form, re-form and question my own perceptions, beliefs and visions for the future of the textbook. I hope the conversation continues and that whatever comes of it is modular, learner-centered and pushes the envelope for not just pushing out content but for guiding the learning process.

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!