Sunday, August 2, 2009

Textbook Deathwatch

I've been following the discussion of "the end of the textbook as we know it." It occurs to me that, like for all change, schools and their stakeholders are going through the 7 stages of grief: shock & denial, pain, anger & bargaining, depression & loneliness, positive upturn, reconstruction, acceptance. Grieving for paper textbooks? Yes - I think what is happening is that strongly felt.

There seem to be three nodes in the discussion of what learning without paper texts might look like:
  1. digital text readers, loaded with novels, digital texts, textbook objects, text media, and internet connections, will replace paper texts - the concept of "textbook" does not really change
  2. portable digital media players (like the new mini-laptops) will hold student and teacher-created learning materials and learning products - a combination of learning journey and portfolio that would stay with the child - a student-generated text
  3. portable digital media would access resources of all media types and structure online and virtual classrooms - both on a "need to learn" basis and as a structured curriculum (see K-12 OER Concept Paper) - see also this neat little image from Speak Up (source of image above).
Each of these is an exciting alternative to text-based instruction, which is generally passive; each signals a Reconstructive change. Understood in each model are (1) ready availability of digital materials/objects appropriate to the instructional need (2) access for each student and teacher to working technologies (3) access for students and teachers to online communities of learners and teachers.

When all 3 of the the above conditions are universally true, we might have Acceptance. But for now, many educators and communities are grieving.

Not me. Try as I might, I can't find a single argument for the value of paper texts over any of the above solutions. Nonetheless, it is good to look at the reasons for keeping paper texts - the sources of shock, denial, anger, and - increasingly, it seems to me - bargaining.
  • The biggest plus paper texts have, it seems to me, is convenience for the teacher and the school. Textbooks are a many-year commitment that can be budgeted for predictably. They eliminate or reduce teacher decision-making and materials ordering. Teachers using paper texts get endless paper (and now media) support materials that can be reused for the life of the text, including assessments, organizers, and differentiation. New texts also provide "private" web-based extensions to instruction.
  • Paper textbooks create standardization and reduce the information bubble to a manageable, and controllable, size. Dovetail them to state standards and a school is on the path to good scores.
  • With technology out of the picture, districts do not have to worry that the digital divide will prevent quality and equal education for all.
  • Parents like texts, which make it easier to support schoolwork at home.
  • Voters like texts because they are (1) what adult learners know and expect education to be, and (2) cheaper than "all that technology".
  • Teachers rely on texts to provide them with the support of a knowledgeable, experienced community of educators (aka panel of authors and editors), useful in parent conferences and teacher meetings. Many teachers, without this virtual support, feel isolated and anxious (at first).
  • Textbook producers and paper companies and printing companies like paper texts - a large lobby. [I remember a phone conversation I had after I introduced digital in-house grade reporting to my school - the owner of the local printing company wept as he tried to convince me to change my mind and return to 4-part carbon forms; I was taking away the lion's share of his business].
These are all considerations that need to be voiced and discussed. There are good ways to rebut, or at least to assuage, each. Small steps are often most effective in the grieving process.

I have the pleasure of teaching in a school that is largely textbook free. That is not to say we don't have textbooks - we have 15-year old literature anthologies, two new math series, old and newer social studies texts. But because we are a 1-1 laptop school, most of us use these more as supplements than as primary teaching tools; many of us view them as a waste of money. For the most part, texts are sent home - where they stay - and digital/hands-on learning happens in the classroom. I would say we are in the reconstruction phase as teachers, while our stakeholders are still in denial.

Are we moving in the direction of acceptance of paperless? I hope so. I for one could easily teach LA with laptops, Kindles and library books only.

Do our scores suffer due to lack of a standardized, paper-locked curriculum? No, for the most part (the exception is math, where we are working hard to rebuild skills gapped in elementary school). We actually have quite a good curriculum scope and sequence, due to a several years of hard work on the part of the faculty.

Hard work - there it is again - the key to success and the way to get through a great loss.
  • One piece of work needs to be education and PR about the successes of the digital approach. Remember the science fair and the learning showcase? I say bring them on. Use student-led conferencing to show parents how technology is used for education. Give mini-classes to parents on using the students' digital tools. I say bring a 10-year budget profile to the community - post it on the school website. Show the savings. And by all means make the digital learning content and communities transparent and available - let the entire community learn together!
  • Another piece of work has to be professional development. I say replace speakers, meetings, conferences and tools workshops with time workshops - time to search out, create, and structure learning activities with digital artifacts. If my state, Maine, allowed schools to give CEU credit toward recertification for in-house PD in paperless textbook technologies, teachers would learn and students would benefit. (I'm sorry to say that most teachers want their hard work to have a tangible reward.)
Take another look at the image of the fantasy digital textbook. To me, it says self-directed learning. Students are not going to grieve the loss of the textbook. From their point of view, its death is a birth. Teachers who can get around this oxymoron are going to take an Upward Turn and begin the process of reconstructing how learning happens.

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