Sunday, May 13, 2012

Future U: The Stubborn Persistence of Textbooks

Future U is a multipart series on the university of the 21st century. We will be investigating the possible future of the textbook, the technological development of libraries, how tech may change the role of the professor, and the future role of technology in museums, research parks, and university-allied institutions of all kinds.

Textbooks are a thing of the past, says the common wisdom. Well, the common wisdom of the Technorati maybe. [snip].


So writing the obituary for textbooks would be putting the cart before the horse. But pretending like they are not changing their shape, if not their nature, is to proclaim, from one's buggy, that automobiles are a passing fad.

Once upon a time, and a very good time it was

Once upon a time, teachers imparted their knowledge through talking. Socrates famously used dialogue to inspire proprietary conclusions and correct misapprehension in his students. Socrates' student Plato taught in the Akadameia, ... [snip].

Even as texts grew in importance, with the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Hebrews, talking still took precedence. Writing became more important but was restricted to a stick and some sand. With the Romans, it was a stylus on a wax tablet.

However, when printing took off in the 17th century—and was then followed by compulsory education in the nation states of the 18th—the textbook as we knew it was born.

Fast on the heels of that birth, the herd of educational cranks, publishing pimps, and politicians thundered into the room, and they’ve yet to leave. Textbooks became an industry, sometimes connected, often utterly unrelated, to education and to that waste product of education, the student.

The ecstasy of technophilia

A visit to a college classroom showed me the disconnect between the ecstasy of technophilia and what life actually looks like for students.

In Prof. Frances Cogan's freshman and sophomore research methodologies class at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College, the most prominent tech was the spiral notebook. This was partially due to Cogan's resistance to the distraction of the technology.


"An iPad would be good," said Megan Mandell, "but I can't afford one." And those who do use either e-readers or e-reading programs on tablets to carry the texts for a class often find them to be less than optimal, despite all the advertising to the contrary. [snip].


Navigating a changing environment while avoiding getting stung is part and parcel of how today's students relate to textbooks. Not just students, but instructors as well. [snip].


Another way some students avoid the debilitating cost of required textbooks? Torrents. By general acclamation, you can find any basic lower division textbook via unofficial, and illegal, online download services. (Torrenting is not just for music and movies anymore!) The more specialized texts, they said, probably not, but all the basics, certainly. "Our generation is kind of in flux with the tangible stuff of electronics," said Kaela Thomas.


This generational flux is not thought of by these students as a revolution or a revelation, but as a development.

Cole Lendrum sees the textbooks of the future as being "more and more personalized." The textbooks that will be available to their kids will offer "more personalized formats."

Bring your own technology

Dr. Tim Clark, instructional technology specialist for the Forsyth County school district in Georgia, oversees one of the few primary school districts in the country that runs a BYOT program—bring your own tech.

This program turns students' smuggling various electronic devices into their classrooms inside out. Instead of being policed and suppressed, it is required, or at least encouraged openly. The proliferation of these devices has resulted in Forsyth's primary schools operating more like a university's upper division classes. Instead of required texts from a central source, pedagogical materials are assembled and formed around the needs of the specific classroom and its students.


The future Clark sees growing out of the experiences and expectations of his students is one of contribution, community, and collaboration.

"Student engagement and collaboration have increased in classrooms. The students work more in groups to participate in projects and activities. [snip].

"I think that the students [in the future] will be more accustomed to contributing to the body of knowledge within their classes rather than just being consumers of information."

Far, far away

When we think about anything technologically, we tend to default to our own area and our own experience. So when we think about the future of higher education, we tend to center on North America and Europe. It is far from the whole story.

Founded by former Amazon VP David Risher, Worldreader is a non-profit group that has spent several years testing the idea that e-readers can create a quantifiable improvement in literacy in the developing world. [snip].


What Worldreader's e-readers have proven is that you can deliver one box of e-readers and you've delivered an entire library to each student. Given the deals the organization has struck with both Western and African publishers to provide the texts free of cost to the students, the plan is cost-effective. [snip].

"I see a huge demand in the developing world for textbooks to be delivered electronically," Elizabeth Wood, director of digital publishing for Worldreader, told Ars. "We're working with our partner BinU to deliver the entire CK-12 series of textbooks on our app to meet the enormous need. [snip].

Wood believes the potential for e-textbooks to make a difference in the developing world's higher education landscape is enormous. The organization is currently working to develop partnerships with open source textbook developers, including OpenStax College, "to be able to make relevant materials available electronically to students all over the world."

And away we go

In much the same way that the classroom of the future is evolving away from the unidirectional transmission of knowledge via lecture and toward dialogue and project-based learning, the textbook is responding to the same strains. Like the classroom, the textbook is likely to become more collaborative and customizable.

The notion of the bound text being replaced by the e-book is not one that many people seem to be excited about. The limitations of the e-readers outweigh many of their benefits in the industrialized world, at least for now. In the developing world, however, the benefits may outweigh the drawbacks sooner than in the West.

It's not so much that the textbook is transmogrifying from lines of text on paper to lines of pixels on screens as it is undergoing a change of definition. A more exacting way to put it might be to say that textbooks are being replaced not by e-textbooks, but by curated collections of course-specific materials, ... .

The key overall, however—what makes the future of the textbook exciting—is someone, somehow, seems to have kicked the door off the hinges. We're on the verge of "anything goes." There is likely to be a lot of dross as a result, but the joy of discovery has energized something that is so often apprehended with a dull dread—the "textbook."

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