Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beyond the Textbook

Probably none of us have gone through high school or college without some relationship to that 20th century artifact of learning called the textbook. While I remember in high school not being allowed to write in my textbook, I also remember being delighted in college when I realized that because I bought my own textbooks I could scribble notes in them and highlight with abandon. For those of us who liked to read, purchasing (mostly used) textbooks each semester was exciting because they were chock full of the promise of things we were about to learn. My nostalgia about textbooks of yore, however, directly contradicts my firm belief that textbooks are being superseded by far better forms of learning.


These days the technology exists to create open textbooks at a fraction of the cost and offers content for free, assuming the student has Internet access. The textbook publishing industry has been challenged as new open textbook publishers hired authors (often educators) to create textbooks with content that was openly licensed and free. It is not insignificant that a textbook in almost every field of study is now accessible online and free of cost. [snip]

Ironically, because teachers today can create and distribute their own textbooks, they also have the power to destroy the very notion of the textbook. Using the Internet, educators can easily co-create and share learning content. They can alter lessons on the fly. They can cut and paste and customize content for each student. They can, in other words, eliminate the textbook altogether.

Creating content -- as the act of reading once spread rapidly centuries ago -- has become a possibility for all. The Internet has disrupted many of our traditional institutions, from newspaper publishers to recording companies, and now textbook publishers. A great wave of disintermediation has done away with the notion of publisher's profits and author's royalties. Online, teachers can collaborate and create learning content that can be remixed to suit a student's particular needs. [snip].

Perhaps not surprising is that those who create or want to use open content are often asked to show proof that it works. You have to ask though, how many times has someone "tested" the learning outcomes correlated with the use of conventional textbooks. Yet we have seen that teachers who create their own materials are more engaged with their students. [snip].

The narrow focus on the open textbook is distracting us from what is potentially most important in education: the conversations about new approaches to learning that are taking place in all corners of the world, thanks to the Internet and greater access to digital resources. Once it is shown that textbooks may not be the most effective way to learn, there will be no going back. The question will no longer be open textbooks versus limited access textbooks, but instead about the ways in which education content can be created, shared, and distributed by those directly engaged in the teaching and learning process itself.

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