Nice occasion to discuss the place for textbooks in learning and teaching.
That NYT piece focuses on the financial aspects of the captive market publishers have carved for themselves in the past few decades. As someone who used to work at a publishing house made me realize, textbooks are the cashcows on which many publishers depend. The NYT article does allude to this "livelihood" issue, but I wish there had been some discussion of what the textbook represents, in terms of actual learning.
It would also have been quite appropriate for the author to discuss initiatives like RIce's CNX and even MIT's OCW.
Depending on the way we teach, textbooks can be quite useful. One thing I like about them is that they're quite straightforward. One thing I dislike about them is that they're quite linear. As purchasing costs increase, textbooks' linearity can become a real issue. When students in a class pay, in textbook costs, 300% of what the instructor is being paid, the textbook "had better be good." Textbooks are rarely that useful.
In my humble opinion, there's some confusion as to what textbooks represent, in learning contexts. Are students using the textbook as one of several tools to help them learn some material or are they merely "learning the textbook" to prepare for exams? Publishers push us to think the latter but I'd prefer the former. Social and technological changes are a good opportunity to change this dynamic.
Do we need publishers?
As we all know, there's a huge gap between access to information and the construction of knowledge. Publishers focus on access to information and learners should care about knowledge. One thing online sharing (legitimate or not) has made painfully clear is that paid access to information is a shoddy basis for business models. And this is especially true in learning contexts. As learners are constructing knowledge together (by, say, peer-teaching or "learning by doing"), paid access to information becomes irrelevant. By extension, publishers can become irrelevant.
Keep being reminded of Eco's The Name of the Rose. Or of "The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil."
Is that tree the reason teachers used to be given apples?
- in-class forms to record or prepare for interactive face-to-face discussions
- handouts of mini-lectures, good for notetaking
- a single storage point for important items to learn (binding is key--not loose handouts passed out each week, often lost)
- some kind of emotional attachment that goes with a tactile item
- a project development notebook, for building student-generated content
- just-in-time addition of pages or modification of changing information
- custom school-wide announcements, orientation advice, how-to guides (for Moodle, for our computer system, for software) included
Costs: we have four cost structures we are working with (each for a course with 20 contact hours).
- Cheapest (US$1.10): Black&white self-printed/photocopied with 50 pages, stapled and clear file cover. Assembled by teacher or school staff. 200 pages possible for under $5 but assembly time prohibitive.
- Cheaper (US$3.00): Color self-printed/photocopied with 50 pages, stapled and clear file cover. Assembled by teacher or school staff.
- Moderate (US$20.00): Self-published via Lulu.com with lovely color cover, coil spine (good for notetaking), and up to 130 pages b&w. Plus $5 for all-color. Price includes air shipping from USA to Japan.
- Expensive (US$30.00): Flexible textbook with our modified pages of a standard textbook. We are in negotiation with MacMillan Language House to do this. Cannot say yet if it will work out.
A critical assumption to this model is a collaborative teaching team that is sharing materials digitally. We assemble packages of online/paper course units or "projects". This requires a custom overhaul of Moodle. We have released the first stage of this, called the "Project Course Format". The next stage is the "Sharing Cart" which provides a roaming, cherry-picking cart for a teacher to pick-up or grab any resource or activity across a site. This cart will be available in October for 1.9.
Further reading: I really recommend Wikinomics and Democratizing Innovation. Both not about publishing or textbooks, but about user-created or user-designed goods and services. How the economics of our world is transformed when we include users in the "company" ecology.
You might have guessed that I tend to go in the other direction: as paperless as possible. But, apart from environmental impact and the fact that my handwriting is quite bad, I don't have anything against paper.
So your points are well-taken.
I think student workbooks or textbooks are an essential part of almost any learning scenario/ecology.With emphasis on "almost," I can readily agree. Because it's still very possible to think of many learning processes (even some very formal ones) which make no use of -books. It's useful to explore those processes, even if this exploration is merely a way to assess the usefulness of -books.
In ethnography, we often study orality and, through this study, we notice how circumscribed writing really is, despite the scriptural obsession in some cultural contexts. For the "knowledge people" with whom I've been working, in Mali, writing is but one tool for transmitting information. Many of them have limited functional literacy. Even then, they do use some scriptural techniques but they clearly know the power of orality. Over there, "illiterate" really doesn't mean "dumb." It's almost the opposite!
Though I get funny looks when I say this, I think modes of online communication are becoming increasingly oral-like. Writing is still the dominant medium online, but some forms of writing (including IM/SMS) are taking the "directness" of orality. At the same time, audio and video content is becoming more important, taking some of the characteristics of writing (asynchronicity, archivability, indexability, searchability...).
Going back to textbooks. The model Don describes allows for some very neat things and represents an adequate use of currently available technology. In some ways, it might be a more direct competitor to the traditional textbook pushed by corporate publishers through a top-down approach.
In other words, peer-to-peer filesharing should be the least of the worries for publishers if they wish to stay on top of the game.
But I think Alexandre makes a more critical point.... I don't see (I will go hyperbolic here for sake of argument) most students sufficient capable of reading and writing to make adequate use of such a paperless classroom. Let me put it this way; it is likely that 80 percent of high school graduates in my country can't write an effective essay of 5 paragraphs or more and have the reading comprehension of a 12 year old. However, there is a substantial involvement in oral learning, and while they can't recite anything from Canterbury Tales in Middle English (which was what I was expected to be able to do in 9th Grade) they can recite hip-hop lyrics extensively, which if not what I think may be the most appropriate target for their grey matter, is surely poetry and from my standpoint, perhaps as obtuse and obscure as can be ;=}
Is this a result of generations becoming more passive, more attuned to imagery than print, more graphically inclined than textual? Perhaps. Fellow here in Alaska who argues tribal communication versus pre-apocalyptic urban digital communication..... and while I think he is twisted up in the fallacy of the noble savage, I think folks may want to reread Jung and Campbelll etc. LOL
It doesn't have to be image OR text. What about students talking about videos, images, tv programmes? developing language skills (that may not be an overt goal for them) by talking about stuff that does capture their imagination. In this way, arguing about hip-hop lyrics becomes a way of developing skills in 'standard English (or whatever)' rather than just gaining skills in hip-hop lyrics.
Students can acquire skills in English without studying English literature - I love it but not all do!
In the playground or lunch hall, it may be a social survival skill to be able to discuss the local soaps.
One of the great things about texting/SMS/IM and forums/blogs/etc. is that those who wish to contribute have to express themselves in a natural language. One of the great things about Web 2.0 is that they can also express themselves through images (e.g. on flickr) and videos (e.g.on youtube) and also by audio.
Integrated social media - yeaaaaah!!!!! or multiplexity as Haythornthwaite would tell us.
Yes, students can obtain communication skills without studying English literature, but expressing one's emotional gestalt via a video is a far cry from being able to read a whitepaper on carbon footprint analysis so as to vote appropriately.... I am not so concerned with conveying emtional content (though I suppose innoculating students from the pandering emotional manipulation they are subject to might be appropriate for public schooling.....) as with logical and rational thought....
I often use as an exercise an in-class assignment in which students have to provide instructions to a classmate as to how to get somewhere, draw an object, complete a task, etc. It is very revealing and instructive to have the recipient then try to follow the instructions in front of the rest of the class.
It sounds like we all agree that mass market textbooks are going the way of the dinosaur--extinct! Well, the dinosaurs are still walking around collecting enormous amounts of money from hapless students who do what they are told. The great extinction period 60 million years ago did not happen in a year or a decade, but probably over a hundred thousand years or so. The extinction of the CD is taking about a decade though. I expect those brick-like micro-economics or intro to sociology books will take about the same amount of time to die.
Now back to your point on "paperless"...
I don't think there are two directions. I don't think "paperless" is a goal any more than "electricity-less" is a goal. Why is using electricity to power our computers any more desirable than using paper to learn something? The problem is in the waste. The heavy textbook I was assigned in college was read perhaps 5%. That is a waste. The electricity (likely made from carbon combustion or nuclear energy) is also largely wasted as I ponder on which word to write, browse aimlessly across sites, or leave on over the weekend. That is a waste too. I rather think that our goal is appropriate use of resources and energy. The booklets I describe are perhaps 10-20% of the size of normal textbooks. Also with just-in-time printing, you have no print overruns and no storage of warehouses full of books, and no salespersons running around promoting book sales at conventions. The booklets/workbooks I use are completely full of writing by students jotting notes, brainstorming ideas, preparing for online tasks, etc. Actually, I think of myself more as a facilitator than as a teacher (which implies conveying content).
In my list of uses of paper, notice there is very little text reproduction. I think teacher-selected content is part of ancient education processes at work--pouring content into students' heads. Keep that content on the web. Instead of pouring that selection into heads, we need students to produce the content from various resources (face-to-face interviews or web searching in my classes for example) that we facilitators provide, or ones learners discover themselves.
My conclusion: Paper is being revolutionized in structure and function; and peer-to-peer sharing of teaching tools and resources will spell the end of mass market texts in a decade or so.
Yes, I agree that we should look at paper both iconically/symbolically as well as functionally. Clay, vellum, papyrus, my cotton rag pleading paper, clay impregnated laser printer paper, or acid free bond, the medium that fuyllfils the function will undoubtedly transform and be transformed.
That is in part a substantially different question that the matter of what we currently identify as a "textbook". In the U.S I do not see the disappearance of such texts any time soon even if the current national educational croneyism is upset by the forthcoming national elections. Public education funds drive text purchases and text purchases are focused by the sticks that accompany the carrots. Public education wants a silver bullet, and that is one reason that districts spend millions buying packages like HM reading. It gets them off the hook, as it were.
Textbooks also allow districts to provide sanitized content. Presenting students with current scholarship regarding Columbus is guaranteed to get a teacher a reprimand...
Textbooks also keep teachers out of the curriculum business.
I think it fiar to argue that the current move by major text publishers to provide on-line components was driven not so much by their acknowledgement that textbooks will disappear like the dinosaurs, but by federal regulations with respect to accessibility. I argued as a SpEd attorney for on-line curriculum and text-to-speech to address the fact that in some schools some 50% of students could not read at the required text's reading level and was ignored, while the district spent thousands buying stationary minimally useful scanning stations that were, you guessed it, minimally used....
GIve me a bluetooth heads-up display with mic and audio, virtual laser keyboard and mouse (or gloves??) and something like a VIA C chip computer with no ports, flash ram drive, etc (yes, I can put it in my pocket) and now we are talking the digital age. All students have access to what their teachers want them to consider, as well as access to each other and to the world....
And, I can see teachers patting down students entering the classroom now and then so as to relieve the students of their almost bionic interfaces so as to guarantee more prosaic "interfacing" - brave new world.... LOL
My 18 yr old actually uses his cell phone to manage most of his e-mail and web.... while the Mac laptop lays on a heap opf dirty laundry calling to me like lorilei.......
Yes, I think public education will be the last to change. I speak from a university environment where a teacher has a large amount of freedom to design curriculum. A junior high school teacher in Japan would be under the same contraints you describe.
However, no one predicted single songs replacing albums as the biggest marketing channel for music in such a short time. What if single "page" selling replaces full book selling in the textbook world? Just-in-time printing with custom assembly of pages is here already, and its popularity is just around the corner.
Model don identifies allow for neat defends an adequate use of presently useable technology.
(Edited by Helen Foster to fix broken formatting - original submission Friday, 1 August 2008, 11:56 AM)
I don't know if I can agree with you on that one. I love the idea of openness but I believe that this idea also includes "old" ways of doing things, diversity like in nature. Did the dinossaurs really got extinct? Well, we still have birds. And they (most of them) can fly! The only mammal that can fly is the bat...
About this open vs controlled (I don't like the vs), this post just came up: Sic Transit Gloria Laptopi by Ivan Krstic. The posts and comments are really good to build on this.
Which, again, makes me think about the very nature of textbooks. Much of the openly accessible content that we can use in learning context has a very different form from the typical textbook. Textbook publishers see that kind of content as "anciliary material" (and often do a surprisingly lousy job at integrating it in a learning program). But I have no difficulty imagining this type of material as being completely sufficient in a large number of learning contexts, even very formal ones. A music school would be the most obvious one for me. And though many people bemoan the fact that a lot of music students aren't textually-oriented (apart from musical notation, many of them read and write much less frequently than the typical university or college undergraduate), I personally see little value in imposing textual approaches on musical training. I'm also guessing that a number of programs in other arts (apart from literature) and even some technical programs give fairly little importance to the written word.
Which doesn't mean that we should lose text altogether, in any context. Just that there are alternatives to the word-focused textbook.
I personally like the idea of combining different types of content as we see fit. A good example is the use of YouTube in courses about music. Found out last year that a good number of fellow ethnomusicologists were using YouTube (and similar online video sites) in class even though we had never had a discussion of the subject. We all have different reasons for and ways of using them in our courses. While these videos don't replace scholarly articles, they have distinct advantages over scholarly articles, including the fact that it's easy to get students to watch them (and it's often difficult to get students to read articles). Also, though there are issues with videos being pulled off, it's easy to link to or embed videos from within Moodle (and it's somewhat difficult to provide access to scholarly articles with full reference data, in any Web context). In terms of peer-teaching and learner involvement, online videos are very practical because students easily share links to videos they thought were interesting. And, as I was surprised to see, even musicians seem to prefer "watching" music performance than reading about it or even listen to it. Not to mention that those videos make wonderful conversation starters.
I always have required readings and my approach is very focused on verbal learning. But I prefer working with learners than imposing tasks on students.
Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?
That piece was mentioned on Language Log.
I do think there's a kind of latent debate, here. As should be obvious, I'm on the "side" of those who think online texts encourage a very important form of literacy which may, in fact, be more appropriate than the type of literacy which has been the focus of "primary education" in the last historical era. Call me an extremist, if you will. I do tend to have rather radical ideas about those issues.
There are extremists on the other side and, like Liberman, I would call them "curmudgeons" in this context. These are people who think that online reading deprives reading from its very essence. That the all-important literacy, which so defines industrial societies, is losing out in the online world.
And, of course, there are many people who either fall along a continuum between these two extreme positions, adopt different positions in terms of different types of text, or who simply take no part in this latent debate.
One thing which unites people at all points along this continuum is the idea that online reading is significantly different from book reading. The difference between online reading and book reading, we all agree, is consequential. Extremists on my side simply think that the consequences are appropriate for the context. Those on the other side evaluate online reading as potentially harmful in terms of some of their core values.
Though the "sides" are easy to identify, there hasn't been a manifest debate on the specific issue of online reading and literacy. There are many research projects which give some support to people's opinions on either side, but I don't see the issue being discussed openly and thoughtfully.
The New York Review of Books has an interesting piece on the Google Books angle to online reading.
Going back to the thread here... While I do think that hard copies -books (textbooks, handbooks...) are useful, I also think that it might be a good idea to design learning material online in ways which supplement the book-based model. That's one reason I'm interested in further developments of the podcasting model in education. I would even argue that "online literacy" could be integrated in curricula as an extension to "media literacy." Sure, it might mean that some of the content our students will use will be morcelled even further. But one thing this post-industrial period is getting us to understand is that finer granularity for "texts" (writ largely) can still lead to analytical depth.
But, again, I'm an extremist.
just two new links about this issue:
- http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/zoomcomic.html - a comic about fair use
- http://www.springwise.com/education/open_source_approach_to_textbo/ Open source approach to textbook publishing