This summer, The New York Times featured yet another article on how to replace textbooks. Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems, estimated that the U.S. education system spends $8-$15 billion per year on text books. One study claims that only 11% of this expenditure actually goes to creating content. Of course, printing, distributing and disposing of textbooks also comes at an enormous environmental cost.
The primary alternatives discussed in the NYT article are open-sourced, digital textbooks that can be customized by an educator.
But while the successors to textbooks surely will be digital, they won't be a textbook at all:
- They won't be created by an education company that bends to politically driven agendas, a phenomenon that has been around long before last year's Texas controversy;
- "chapters" won't reflect the perspective of just a few writers and editors, but rather the voices of thousands of educators;
- in subjective areas, they won't require students to memorize particular "facts" and viewpoints, but rather will encourage them to think for themselves, and form their own perspectives; and
- they won't impose a "one size fits all" approach to learning on a diverse group of students, with different interests, abilities and needs.
The successor to textbooks will be created by a group of passionate educators who, in the words of John Carver, superintendent of Van Meter (Iowa) Schools, collectively decide that no one should have "ownership" over what is taught in schools.
There are a number of approaches that could render a product that meets the above objectives. However:
- A Wiki that is subject to the whims of a narrow band of editors with a lot of time to devote to winning ideological battles would preclude the involvement of the contributors with the most to offer;
- a "silo" approach to publishing, where educators post work only on their own school sites, will inhibit the collaboration necessary to develop depth, breadth and scale quickly; and
- there must be some central administration to continually enhance the solution in response to educator feedback.
At the recent Techonomy Conference, Bill Gates predicted that in five years, the best college education will come from the Web. But in many subjects, innovative educators are already using the Web to deliver the best educational experience to their fortunate students. Thousands of teachers and librarians around the world are finding, and sharing with their students, outstanding Web resources - including primary sources, expert analysis and countervailing viewpoints - that dwarf the information available in any textbook. These teachers are also creating lesson plans and assignments that test students' critical thinking and relevant communication skills, rather than prepare them to fill in bubbles on a standardized test. And they teach students how to effectively use the Web resources they'll use the rest of their life, and not a textbook that will soon join a landfill.
Many of these educators post their assignments on the Web; often on a school Web site, sometimes on a blog or other platform. This spring, when my daughter and her friends became concerned one of their teachers wasn't adequately preparing them for an Advanced Placement Exam, they sought out materials on the Web, and eventually settled on a teacher in Northern Virginia as having the best exam prep materials. Everyone in my daughter's group passed the exam, while several of their classmates did not. I recently learned about a remarkable site for teachers and students of English created by Sandra Effinger; I foresee AP test takers from all over the country accessing her resources in coming years; here is a similar site for high school psychology.
The number of sites like the ones offered by these two educators will grow exponentially in coming years. What is needed is a central repository that collects many of them, so that teachers can access assignments created by other teachers, and learn from, and build on them. And if that repository was also one that made it easy for teachers to find great resources in the first place, and provided a free mechanism for sharing the resources and assignments with their students and colleagues, well, all the better. And if it promised a whole host of new features in the near future? It could very well become the successor to textbooks.
And that is what our free product, findingEducation, offers. It's in Alpha stage, and we can do a lot to make it better, but in its current form, the potential for it is clear. Its back-end is powered by SweetSearch and the content of findingDulcinea to help educators easily find the best online resources about any subject. Its My Library enables teachers to save the links they find to a bookmarking tool, and then share them with students on their assignment page. It combines assignment management and quality resource discovery into a “digital classroom.” Teachers are welcome to "frame" the page for the digital classroom so that it appears integrated into the school Website, with their own look and feel.
The ultimate value in findingEducation comes when it becomes heavily used by outstanding educators. For example, once hundreds, or thousands, of U.S. History teachers create assignments for, and provide links to materials about, the U.S Civil War, then a new teacher entering the fray can create a new assignment that synthesizes the best of the predecessor works. Teachers can identify other teachers who consistently create outstanding assignments, and use them as a model for their own.
What will it take for findingEducation to create a critical mass that will turn it into a "must use" tool? Sponsorship by a large education entity or organization that will encourage use by a substantial number of members. We can even create a separate file for these organizations to co-brand the offering and make it easy for members of the organization to find each other's work. Organizations such as AASA, NSSSA, NCSS, and ALA should have a keen interest in discussing this possibility with us, as should state and regional education departments.
We have a number of modules and additional features that can be introduced into findingEducation once it develops a meaningful user base.
For more information on findingEducation:
See a sample page: http://markskillman.findingeducation.com/
Take our site tour.
Mark E. Moran
Founder & CEO
Dulcinea Media, Inc.