Reinventing the textbook!

Sunday 22 January 2012

A reaction to Apple's education event this week!

So the whole apple education announcement on school textbooks has really got me thinking! There are so many related thoughts and I have challenged myself to organise and present them in as few words as possible (didn't do very well on that). As usual this is probably of more benefit to me than anyone else but it helps to publish it.

When we think about re-inventing the text book we need to think about 2 key questions...

1. What is wrong with a paper text book?
2. How could/should they be reinvented?

I don't intend to list all of the obvious answers to the first question but want to focus on the most important answer. Textbooks, as we know them, are inextricably linked to our educational structure. They ally themselves to particular syllabi, exam boards and courses so that they can focus on particular objectives and appeal to schools and teachers who are judged on results for that course. They are based on the notion that if you are teaching 'Algebra 1' then you need an 'Algebra 1' textbook. They are linked to an educational philosophy. Teachers demonstrate ideas and students practice and review them with a textbook. The textbook becomes a reference for the course, not the subject. As such the textbook has long engendered resignation in students in a 'here we go again' kind of way. I have phased out textbook use where I can in favour of more general references. The best use of a textbook is as a crutch for passing an exam, which is not without value in today's education.

And so now in response to the second, I suggest that there is room for evolution and revolution. The ibooks we saw at the apple launch event are an example evolution. The intent is clearly to bring dynamic, interactive content, to add convenience, ease of use and practicality to the supply and use of textbooks. Dynamic also means that the purchased book will evolve, post purchase as well. Errors will be corrected, new content added etc. I am curious about how frequently these books will be updated though and at what point a 'New Edition' might be for sale. I welcome this evolution that has been arriving slowly over the past few years. (It is still along way from actually arriving in a significant number of schools - The announcement of the number of iPads in schools yesterday was a classic case of throwing big numbers at us - the percentage figure is still very small)

The revolution of which I speak comes in the possibility for anyone to publish an iBook. Now, educators anywhere can create and publish. Now that is exciting! It will bring with it the inevitable glut of free or dirt cheap, average efforts, but also it means someone, somewhere now has the possibility, and the stage, to reinvent learning resources. (Surely the term textbook will have to go or become ironic!). Education is the most interesting, stimulating, challenging and rewarding field I could ever have hoped to end up working in. I believe firmly that a resource will only ever be as good as the hands it is in. Learning takes place when we are motivated, engaged and interested and that is the ultimate challenge for teachers. Very few textbooks have offered much help with this over the years. Apple's presentation may have owed little to the deep consideration of issues in education, but the tool they have produced, put in the hands of educators has really exciting potential! On balance, these are really exciting developments all round!

As I think on I am pondering the following,

  • What can an iBook do that a website cant and vice-versa?
  • What makes a good reference?
  • When do we imagine students will use these books? 
  • Does the new portability change the answer to that question?
  • If yes, should that change the nature and purpose of the book?
  • Are references best when something else we are doing prompts us to look at them?
  • Interactivity is perceived as pinching and dragging. Real interactivity comes when we are prompted to think and progress, examine and conjecture.
  • Who is a textbook for? Students? Teachers? Both? Can it be both?
  • Buying, not subscribing, surely implies that eventually users will have to buy a 'New Edition' - Does this not work against some of the advantages?
  • Can any of this actually bring about changes in an educational philosophy?
Congratulations to anyone that read this far!

Natural Medium
19 Feb 2012
18 Dec 2011


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