Monday, March 19, 2012

Beyond the Textbook, Beyond the Tablet, and Back to Basics

Many years ago, in what seems like a far-away universe, I rode an old beat-up bicycle in a triathlon event. The bike weighed an incredible 43 pounds, had a strange 3-speed shifter, and was a big embarrassment to the friends competing with me.

A funny thing happened that day, however. In spite of the shoddy hardware and extra weight I set a personal best for the bike portion of a race.

I was so inspired that I went out and bought a much nicer ride, a real professional dream that weighed almost nothing and had tires so fancy you couldn't even use a regular pump. I trained with that bike the following spring and summer and even rode in the same race at which I had established my personal record the year before. And yet, even with the extra technology and the diminished weight, I wasn't able to beat my time from the beat-up bike era.

Of course, the new bike had nothing to do with my lack of improvement. I had extra family and professional commitments, trained fewer hours, and was generally less motivated.

In the end, I was simply reminded of what I had always known to be true. It's the legs that make the bike go faster.

I'm reminded of that experience as I read the contributions of various folk leading up to Discovery Education’s Beyond the Textbook Forum. David Warlick asked readers of his blog to make suggestions about the future of the textbook and they responded that it will be:
  • like a quest
  • like a production studio
  • like an extension of our brains
  • like a reality game
  • like a video playlist
  • like swiss army knife
  • like a personal assistant
  • like a platform that provokes conversation
  • like a holodeck
  • like a choose your own adventure story
  • like a Palantir
  • map for a learning journey
  • like an interaction engine
  • like a Matrix up-link
  • like an aggregator that searches and updates content
  • more like a word problem than a calculation problem
Bud Hunt had a few suggestions of his own for the people attending. I really like this thought in particular.
The best textbooks moving forward are likely those that start with small building blocks from publishers, OER repositories, classrooms, websites, movie studios, and pretty much any other source for interesting information; and they become textbooks when they are hung onto a curriculum frame by a local school district. This might be done by a committee of teachers, or a small group of curriculum coordinators in a front office somewhere, but what's important is that it’s not done by a salesperson seeking to please a state official in Texas or California.
I think the reason I liked it so much is that it places the emphasis on the content end of the discussion. When we talk about the future of learning content it's easy to get caught up in devices, software, and interactive games. In the end, however, the future of textbooks will be very much like the past in many ways. It will be about better content, more structured content, and content with a new kind of narrative that can support all of the other stuff. The technologies may improve but they won't improve learning without better content to accompany them. After all, it's the legs that make the bike go faster.

Oh, and by the way, of course the future of textbooks is digital. I know no one is doubting this, but I thought it worth pointing out that Amazon digital content sales were up 21% from December to January.

As Michael Feldstein points out, the shift to digital learning content places a greater emphasis on tools for dynamic social interaction, such as highlighting and comments in the margins of textual content. Along those lines, Michael provides a nice introduction to a social highlighting solution for education -- Classroom Salon. His discussion of the potential pedagogical impact alone merits the read. Here's a portion of his comments.
While it is true that you can highlight and annotate analog books, the fact of the matter is that many students haven’t really been taught that it is fine and good to do so. To the contrary, for some students, marking up a book feels a little like vandalism. But digital highlighting feels different. First of all, it’s non-destructive and reversible, so you lose that feeling of vandalism. Second, the ability to highlight and annotate isn’t just incidental. Somebody had to put it there deliberately. It is obviously an affordance that was created for people to use. So it invites usage in a way that analog book margins don’t. The feedback that I’ve heard from instructors and students using products with digital annotation capabilities is that the students tend to mark up their content more than they did with their analog books. There is a lesson here that should infuse any attempts to add social capabilities to annotations for educational products. Whatever we add should point the way to better learning practices.
Of course, if you're still thinking of tablets as the textbooks of the future, you'll definitely be interested in the rumors of a Google Nexus tablet coming out with a price tag as low as $149.

And on another note, I enjoyed Bill Fitzgerald's post on the limitations of most current LMS platforms to address informal and non-traditional learning workflows.
In very general terms, the current crop of learning management systems are designed to reduce a complex process down to a series of manageable steps. This reduction makes it more difficult to account for informal learning alongside more traditional learning. But, as more learning occurs in informal ways or in informal settings, the shortcomings of how learning is "managed" gets in the way of people learning.
Finally, if you didn't see the "Audrey Test" (by Audrey Watters), check out her list of things every techie and aspiring edtech entrepreneur should know about education. I know I'll be passing it around to a number of colleagues and acquaintances in the near future.

Suggested Reading
Beyondthetextbook Forum : 2¢ Worth

#beyondthetextbook – Considering Inputs | Bud the Teacher

Not #beyondthetextbook. #betterthetextbook | Bud the Teacher

Amazon Digital Content Sales Up 21% In January: eDataSource - eBookNewser
Classroom Salon: Social Highlighting for Education
Rumor: Google Nexus tablet a ‘done deal’, could cost as little as $149
Why Is Your LMS All Up In My Learning? | FunnyMonkey
"The Audrey Test": Or, What Should Every Techie Know About Education?

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