Digital TextbookI followed with keen interest Monday’s #beyondthetextbook Twitter chat stemming from an onsite roundtable discussion at Discovery Communication headquarters. Not only is the future of textbooks a pertinent educational topic, but this particular event (online and onsite) brought together some of the country’s leading edtech integrationists  – David Warlick, Wes Freyer, and Angela Maiers, just to name of few.

While many tweeted gleefully and expectantly about a textbook-free age and transformations wrought by “open” resources, I was struck by the lack of scrutiny of the educational textbook industry. Some might be surprised by what my colleagues and I have learned about industry efforts to leverage the affordances of digital media and the Web. EdTechTeacher has spent nearly 18 months working with McGraw Hill, a major educational textbook provider striving to include 21st century skill development and technology integration topics into its textbooks and other resources. During our visit to their corporate office, and in follow-up conversations, company officials made it clear they understand that the proprietary textbook business model is at risk in an age of freely accessible online information. Yet, the company is by no means passive in the face of the Internet and Google searches and is striving to diversify its publications and create enticing digital offerings. For instance, McGraw Hill, along with Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (the three dominant educational publishers) has joined with Apple to populate its new “Textbooks” category in iBooks 2 with high-school level textbooks and is piloting the iBooks Author app. McGraw has contributed five K-12 textbooks for the iPad 2 to date and over 50 iPad textbooks for higher education and others markets. Note that McGraw Hill is not acting alone. It joined forces with Pearson and Harcourt to create a triumvirate for its Apple partnership. And in Apple, it’s obviously tied to a worldwide technology leader with deep pockets at the forefront of the exploding e-reader market. Not only is the iPad the leading tablet platform, Apple’s iBook Author is a great first step in the development of intuitive technologies that simplify the digital textbook creation process. (More on this in the next post.)

All three major educational textbook publishers are producing rich digital resources with innovative features for multiple academic subjects and grade levels. McGraw Hill has invested in Inkling, a digital textbook provider whose products enable users to meet “on the book” to exchange notes, comments, or questions. Inkling notes are stored and displayed directly on a textbook page. Moreover, Inkling’s 3D interactive elements are among its most engaging features. For instance, its science books include 3D simulations, such as a cell structure model that one can easily manipulate on a iPad with a pinch of two fingers. Also included are various videos outlining scientific processes, interactive quizzes, and “cascading” linked images. Not all of these features will be in your digital textbook – many district administrators are wary of “socially connected” textbooks – but they will be commonplace at some point.

Yet, educators are largely unaware of these features. Many equate “digital textbook” with a PDF document – digital maybe, but essentially a static collection of text, images and links. In other words, not much different than the printed textbook. A more encompassing, robust, and up- to-date definition of a digital textbook would be strikingly different and infinitely more enticing: an interactive and social platform, constantly updated and searchable, that encourages inquiry- learning, nurtures differentiation, and builds communities of shared learners. (More on this definition in future posts.)

To be clear, I am not advocating for textbook-driven classes, but I’m cautioning those who believe that the demise of the textbook is imminent . . . or something to celebrate. With its considerable resources, entrenched market position, and name recognition, the educational textbook publishing industry is not to be underestimated.

I do sympathize with teachers mandated to use a particular textbook (or any resource for that matter), and I do believe that textbooks are limited in their ability to engage kids and provoke curiosity. Like any resource, textbooks need to be examined critically. Some textbook elements prove useful for students – clear structure, consistent prose, clean design — and if they add value for any student they should be considered for inclusion as a resource. On the Web, we find bad websites replete with faulty information and inappropriate content, but we are not clamoring to throw out the Internet. The role of the educator is to help students discover, evaluate, and incorporate a range of resources to create educational content and address problems. Instead of hurling insults at textbooks, let’s empower teachers to consider resources with an open-mind and construct combinations of media that best serve the needs of diverse learners.

Finally, I question the pervasive assumption that “open tools” will eradicate the technology access divide and (more fundamentally) the technology usage divide. (See Scott McLeod’s recent post on tech usage divide). Recent evidence suggests that open educational technologies are used less effectively in poor schools than in affluent ones. Berkman Center Fellow (and EdTechTeacher Co-Director) Justin Reich gathered data on the usage of 180,000 publicly accessible wikis and found that wikis were generally less helpful to poor schools than rich ones. At less afluent schools, wikis were often abandoned quickly and students had fewer opportunities for authentic 21st-century skill development. I hope the clear message is that increased access does not necessarily result in effective integration. Experience, guidance, structure, and leadership all count — something that many educational textbook publishers are angling to provide.


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