Thursday, May 10, 2012
Winn(ow)ing the Textbook Revolution
Vikram Savkar > 1/24/2012 @ 2:37PM
Anyone who regularly follows education news would assume that it goes without saying that we simply must revolutionize the textbook. Apple’s recently announced plans for the textbook space are founded on this assumption, as are new developments over the past few years by established companies like Amazon and Google and start-ups like Inkling and Chegg. Sometimes, though, consensus can run ahead of reality, or at least distort it. Today I will explore the question of whether it is really true that we must revolutionize the textbook. Why must we?
Contrary to what some people write, it’s not because traditional textbooks are inadequate to prepare students for the modern world. There are many obvious counterexamples to this idea. To list just one, today’s most radically innovative and successful companies in nearly every vertical are run by people who were largely educated using traditional textbooks. And it’s not because traditional textbooks are out of synch with how education really works “in the trenches.” On the contrary, textbooks are created almost without exception by highly accomplished instructors, people who work with real students every day and therefore understand well how to motivate and teach them. And it’s not because students hate traditional textbooks. Though students are uniformly unhappy with the price and weight of most textbooks, they do tend to appreciate their quality and educational value.
One thing is clear: if textbooks need revolutionizing, it’s not because there is something fundamentally wrong with them. It’s because, given the state of today’s technology, there are now ways to make the textbook much more right, to bring deeper and more lasting value to teachers and students.
So if we want to authentically reinvent the textbook, we have to be clear about what these real opportunities to create stronger experiences are. We also have to discard some popular notions about the textbook that I believe have no relation to the situation on the ground.
Misconception #1 > The problem is that traditional textbooks are in print; whereas instructors and students today want digital materials.[snip]. Digital is just a medium; no one does or should get really excited about a medium itself. It’s the impact that that medium can have, the way it can transform user value, that is the authentic motivation for reinvention. [snip].
Misconception #2 > The answer to the textbook problem is to find the best technology. The right combination of format and device will instantly lift classrooms from the 1950s into the 21st century. [snip].
Misconception #3 > The key is to figure out how to make textbooks free, so that everyone can have them. There’s a fairly broad consensus throughout the education community that textbooks are too expensive, and need to become more affordable. [snip]. Aiming at free just makes the reinvention of the textbook much, much more complicated than it needs to be.
With these misconceptions out of the way, we can now focus on the chief goals that the textbook revolution should focus on. I believe there are four fundamental goals, the first three of which are each a twist on one of the ideas I previously discarded.
Goal #1 > The textbook experience must be designed to more powerfully fulfill education’s central mandate: to give each student a genuine chance to achieve her potential by, first, deeply understanding her individual strengths/weaknesses, learning styles, and ambitions, and, second, constructing a rich, individualized tutorial experience based on these characteristics.
Goal #2 > Textbooks of the future must be radically adaptable to a very broad range of user environments, in order to facilitate not just some but all classrooms, regardless of what technologies they use, philosophies they adhere to, or environment they operate within.
Goal #3 > Textbooks must be affordable, priced proportionately to the value that customers perceive they derive from them.
The fourth goal is quite different, in that it’s fundamentally conservative, though it might sound radical to anyone who is used to thinking that a quick and dirty approach to content creation, which is good enough for social media, should also be good enough for textbooks. [snip].
Goal #4 >. Textbooks must continue to preserve and clearly display all of the characteristics that have always been explicitly and highly valued by customers, including exceptional quality, careful pedagogical design, and superb production values.
So now that we’ve dug into the background, let’s return to the original question: are textbooks in need of revolutionizing?
My answer, as I hope you can see by now, is decidedly yes. [snip].
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