Tomorrow, a stellar group of brilliant, dedicated educators is meeting at Discovery Education in Maryland for a session titled, “Beyond the Textbook.”
This follows on the heels of the recent SXSW Edu conference that featured more than a dozen sessions on Open Education Resources (OER).
Clearly, the long-predicted demise of the physical textbook is imminent (though “imminent” has a much different meaning in the education field than elsewhere).
Unfortunately, when it comes to discussions of “Beyond the Textbook,” many people cling to the familiar, comforting and convenient notion of a textbook, albeit one in digital form. Apple’s introduction of the iBook several months ago was met with great fanfare.
However, digital textbooks suffer from one fatal flaw: they are textbooks. As education professor Alec Couros Tweeted last recently, “as long as there are textbooks of any sort, there will be no reform.”
Digital textbooks are, in the words of Pete Townsend, a case of “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss.”
- Digital textbooks, if created by education companies, are still susceptible to politically driven agendas. This is a phenomenon that has been around for decades, and perhaps centuries, not merely since the 2010 Texas controversy;
- Even when created by educators, digital textbooks likely will reflect the perspective of a small number of authors, rather than the collective wisdom of thousands of experienced educators, and they are likely to draw on a more limited pool of open education resources than they might otherwise;
- We may find that educators using digital textbooks do not update them as often as they should to leverage newly available content or learning tools;
- Like conventional textbooks, digital textbooks are likely to be geared towards requiring students to memorize particular "facts" and viewpoints, rather than encouraging them to explore the full range of a topic on their own, think for themselves, and form their own perspectives; and
- Digital textbooks largely impose a "one size fits all" approach to learning on a diverse group of students, with different interests, abilities and needs.
What should come next?
Hopefully, it will not be something created by large education publishers desperately seeking to replace their textbook revenue. At SXSW Edu, Pearson presented an early version of its OER solution; it clearly had a very different concept of “open” than most of the attendees in the session. Pearson plans to charge a substantial sum for access to its platform, another concept that was met with groans from the audience.
Discovery has also introduced a digital textbook, with all of the above limitations, and I presume it intends to charge a significant sum for it. If this is the spotlight of tomorrow’s meeting, I’ll be curious to see the reaction of the educators attending, whose “buy-in” Discovery may be seeking.
I also have my doubts about the successor to textbooks being created under the auspices of a state department of education. I saw several OER platforms created by state education departments on display at SXSW Edu. They all offered some very promising features. However, a common thread is that all of them currently lack a critical mass of high quality OER resources. In other words, they have built it, but not enough educators have come. In each case, I sensed the platforms relied heavily on a database-driven design that was simply too cumbersome for the average, overwhelmed teacher to use. I had the same visceral reaction when I was given an overview of NYC Schools’ ARIS System in 2008 – in addition to its data tracking capabilities, it had a platform for educators to bookmark and share digital resources, albeit one that was clearly far too unwieldy to be used widely. While the ARIS platform is still in use, one writer has deemed it a “$100 million white elephant,” and reported that some schools are instead paying to license another system – one built by teachers.
Indeed, what comes after textbooks should be something created to leverage the wisdom of a crowd of 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.
How can educators collaboratively develop a tool that solves all of these problems?
For many years now, a rapidly growing number of innovative educators around the world have been using the Web to deliver the best educational experience to their fortunate students. They 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. This information is the virtual version of a "course pack" of articles that many college professors curate for students.
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. They teach students how to effectively use the Web resources they'll use the rest of their life.
Many of these educators post their assignments on the Web. Unfortunately, it is probably a rare case where people outside of the educator’s own students see the great work the educator is doing.
What is needed is a single, central repository that aggregates the work of great educators and makes it easily searchable. Teachers should be able to access assignments created by other teachers, learn from them, build on them, and then contribute their own, improved versions to the repository. For example, once a few dozen U.S. History teachers create innovative, resource-rich assignments relating to the U.S Civil War, a new teacher entering the fray can synthesize the best of the existing lesson plans to create his or her own.
To put a smiley face on a despised term, it would create a "Race to the Top," but one unburdened by federal oversight.
We’ve created a prototype of such a repository, called findingEducation (a name unlikely to endure). It's in Alpha stage, but in its current form, it has several useful features:
- Its back-end helps includes selective tools that help educators find the best online resources about any subject – the first critical step in educators creating OER;
- Its “My Library” enables teachers to save the links they find to a bookmarking tool, which can be viewed by other educators;
- Educators than share the links with students on a blog-like assignment page, called a “digital classroom.” All of the content on this platform is chosen by educators;
- Teachers are welcome to "frame" the page for the digital classroom so that it appears integrated into the school Website, and yet remains on the central repository so that it is easily discoverable by other educators;
- Educators must be permitted to make use of each other’s work, without restriction;
- For findingEducation, or any other tool, to replace textbooks, it needs a critical mass of educators from one subject using it regularly; we’ve had advanced conversations with a group of educators who may help us attract 2,000-5,000 other educators to begin using the platform; and
- While we likely won't be able to offer the platform free of cost forever, we don't envision charging more than $20 per user per year.
We’ve spent five years creating resources to help educators teach students how to use the web effectively. Our mantra from the beginning has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. While we believe that findingEducation is far simpler to use than any other OER platform we’ve seen, we actually have been ruminating about ways to make it even easier to use and search, and will be implementing them this year.
We have a number of modules and additional features that can be introduced into findingEducation once it develops a meaningful user base, and of course will create other features based on user feedback.
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.