educational quality

Back to School: It’s Raining Textbooks

Jane Park, September 3rd, 2009

As students around the world return to school, ccLearn blogs about the evolving education landscape, ongoing projects to improve educational resources, education technology, and the future of education. Browse the “Back to School” tag for more posts in this series.

All that matters in the news these days is health care, that is, health care and textbooks. The terms “education” and “textbook” go hand in hand, and nobody, at least at the state levels, is keen on separating the two. With California’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative recently announcing the approval of some 20 digital textbooks, a futuristic vision of Kindle kids scrolling with razor-like focus floats like bubbles before our eyes.

However, last month, the New York Times reported, “In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History,” that textbooks may be “supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.” The article pointed to Beyond Textbooks, an initiative that “encourages teachers to create — and share — lessons that incorporate their own PowerPoint presentations, along with videos and research materials they find by sifting through reliable Internet sites.” Beyond Textbooks disassociates itself from “canned curriculum”, or “vanilla curriculum,” reproaching the linear nature of textbooks– “No longer is instruction limited by the resources in one building, or even one district. Beyond Textbooks gives you the whole world!”

My own post on OnOpen.net follows a similar train of thought, and is aptly named, “Beyond the Textbook: I. The Illusion of Quality in K-12 Education“. In it, I challenge the public perception that educational quality will suffer without textbooks, and talk about whether textbooks really need saving.

Other news sources are also skeptical. The Scientific American prefaces its article, “Open-Source Textbooks a Mixed Bag in California,” with the caveat, “Downloadable and free, maybe–but the schoolhouse Wiki revolution will have to wait.” Granted, SA seems to be conflating “open-source” and “digital” here (open-source is generally associated with openly licensed textbooks, otherwise known as open textbooks, while digital is, well, digital like everything else we come across in today’s world) and it is unclear if they are skeptical of simply digitizing the “Bulky, hefty and downright expensive, conventional school textbooks” that have been persisting for years, or if they are averse to the digital revolution in education generally.

Still, the ReadWriteWeb is more optimistic, pointing out initiatives like Flat World Knowledge which focus on gaining revenue through the sale of supplementary materials surrounding their textbooks, which are themselves openly available via CC BY-NC-SA, and are therefore not only freely accessible, but adaptable, derivable, and even republishable, though for noncommercial purposes and under the same license. Co-founder Eric Frank distinguishes between traditional textbooks and open textbooks, emphasizing that open textbooks creates more options: “Traditional textbooks have clearly failed students and instructors. Similarly, digital textbook trials that force a single format, device, or price point will also fail. No single e-reading format or device will ever satisfy all students. Our commercial open-source textbook approach puts control and the power of choice in the hands of students and instructors.”

However, you can’t help but wonder if all this hooplah around textbooks is “[falling] flat.” Is the power of choice really in the hands of teachers and students? If traditional textbooks “have clearly failed” them, but that traditional textbook adoption process is not about to budge, are we simply arguing about which direction to steer the Titanic after we have already hit the iceberg?

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