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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Are Traditional Textbooks Dead?




Published in the May/June 2008 Issue of the National School Supply and Equipment Association newsletter last year.  I retained rights to publish on Cool Cat Teacher and since many discussions about textbooks have been circulating, (Kindle: Amazon's 6!) I'd like to share my thoughts.

                I predict that the word “textbook” will soon carry the same connotation as the word “scroll” does today.  The word “scroll” harkens to a time when scholarly materials were produced on papyrus and stored in cool vaults, to be accessed by the few elite lucky enough to have access.  Likewise, with the proliferation of scholarly works on the Internet, students and teachers are now able to create their own repositories of knowledge based upon reliable sources.  Some classes are eliminating textbooks all together, opting for sites like Curriki or creating projects where students compile, authenticate, and create information based upon their research.  
                Additionally, the green movement sweeping the planet has many educators looking down their nose at the wasteful process of printing and tossing paper textbook products.  Where do traditional textbook companies fit in this flux of change?  As a classroom teacher on the cusp of this evolution, I believe that textbook companies still have great value to add in the classroom as “content conduits” that connect students and teachers with their peers, provide content for open editing while authenticating accuracy, and knitting together the wide variety of asynchronous and synchronous communications methods available in today’s world.
                Traditional textbook content originates from relatively small set of editors who are unknown to most of the teachers who use their textbook.   Even this traditional method of publication must evolve as teachers now long to “get to know” the authors of books via electronic means.  Where is their blog?  Who are they?  Why are they an authority?  In a society that is now extremely distrustful of all authority, teachers have learned to check out their sources.  Blindly trusting textbook companies and their “so called” experts goes against the cultural shift that is happening.  By providing access to the authors via webinar, live chat, blogs, and online events, teachers and curriculum directors are able to “meet” and understand the viewpoint of the author behind the work.
                However, this traditional textbook content must evolve as well.  Curricular content must be able to evolve and be augmented by the classrooms that are using the material.  The online wiki textbook, Curriki, has evolved from teachers and curriculum directors wanting to make changes or add the most accurate information possible to ONE source.  The declassification of Pluto as a planet has done more to cause teacher chagrin over the permanent inaccuracies now present in their textbook.  Teachers hunger for ONE internet source to go to that is ACCURATE. 
                The concern of many authorities in their field in creating an online “textbook” such as Curriki is that it is too easy to edit and will become replete with error.  If we look at the largest online “textbook” in history, Wikipedia, we see that the secret to their longevity has been two ingredients:  a massive number of editors including many “super editors” who take the process of keeping information accurate very seriously AND evolution (such as reducing the number of anonymous editors allowed.)   Likewise, there is a growing knowledge of best practice for maintaining accurate wikis that is emerging and will allow textbook companies to begin producing their own wiki-book for either public or subscriber allowed access and edit. 
                Additionally, the position of “author” or “editor” will evolve from a one-time “I wrote  a book” model to that of an ongoing “supereditor” or authenticator of online content.  Ongoing, daily, expert management and interaction with these spaces is going to make top teachers a top commodity for textbook companies and alignment with well-known experts something companies seek to do.
                The evolution of textbooks into online self-correcting information sources with known contributors and super editors is one step.  The augmentation of textbooks with links to lesson plans, student work, and safe educational networks is also going to be vital.  Teachers want to find each other and if textbook companies don’t help it happen, teachers will do it on their own.  They want to link up with other classes at the same grade level and using the same textbook in spaces with common guidelines.  This is the holy grail of what textbook companies have to offer education:  content conduits.  Conduits of content AND connection.  Classrooms want connection to the expert authors.  They also want connection between their students and teachers.
                In business school, we studied about the transportation moguls who squandered a fortune propping up the railroad business.  Throughout history, businesspeople who mistook the “medium” as the “product” missed the boat.  The business of textbook companies should not be PAPER… it should be content.  Once that is clarified, it is a matter of selecting the appropriate conduit for that content. 
                There are too many conduits available to discuss them all, however, I believe that any successful model of delivery will look at two basic communication methods:  asynchronous and synchronous.  Asynchronous (meaning “not at the same time”) is what textbook companies are already pretty good at.  A book is written, published, and sold to be used by students over the next few years.  Paper is becoming more instant AND differentiated (an important thing for teachers) with the advent of devices like Sony ebook reader and the Amazon Kindle.  Additionally, paper-thin, bendable monitors are on the close horizon, eliminating our need for paper altogether.  Instantly delivered ebooks are in the immediate horizon.  But teachers and students want more than that.  The online site Librivox provides free downloads of many great works of literature so that students may listen to Hamlet’s speech on their ipod (and memorize it as happened in my classroom.)  When cell phones can replicate the power of the laptop, many schools may begin allowing these devices in order to alleviate the strain on their thin technology budgets. 
                Additionally, teachers want safe places to “share” their student videos, audio, podcasts, and their own reflections. This creates the need for educational networks of students, teachers, and administrators.  Most importantly, the wiki provides an incredibly useful platform for editing and authenticating information.  And while many textbook company executives may detest this idea, I was conversing with a teacher in Maine the other day about how we wished that such a wiki model would evolve!  We long for the ability to click a button and have the selected wiki pages of such a site delivered to us the next week in our own customized textbook.  Good online content and instant delivery options will go hand in hand with offline, printed content and I think this “wiki-push” model is just the way to do it.
                Additionally, textbook companies must move into synchronous environments.  This includes:  live streaming of events, live chats, ongoing project “contests” for digital works created in a chapter (ie. Best ones are published online).  Matching up classroom calendars based upon the topics covered and participation in ongoing projects like my own flat classroom project (http://flatclassroomproject.wikispaces.com) will become standard offerings of competitive content conduit companies.   Additionally, within the next ten years, creation of 3D environments accompanying textbook materials like the Literature Alive! Worlds created by my friend Beth Ritter-Guth will become coveted subscription driving ventures.
                I see several threats to textbook companies that are slow to undergo the transformation.  Teachers are connecting at a grassroots level at an accelerating pace.  If the companies that serve education do not connect us as we want them to, we teachers will do it ourselves.  What will emerge is anyone’s guess.  Additionally, I see many teachers very dissatisfied with the blitzkrieg-like method of changing textbooks and curriculum.  The best schools seem to have continuity and when teachers are forced to completely overhaul everything they do every 3-4 years with the introduction of a new book, it is infecting many schools with a growing dissatisfaction with the whole publication process.  Online bridges between textbook publication must become stronger and evolve WITH classrooms.  Additionally, global competition will affect both students AND companies.  Educators are seeing the value of such standards ISTE’s NETS standards for students and want to see technology tools move from “computer class” into every class.  Computers are becoming ubiquitous and content must also.  To learn more about these trends, read Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat, Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind, or Don Tapscott’s, Wikinomics.       
                Time of great turmoil also means that new companies will emerge of that dramatic market share shifts will occur.  I see several big opportunities:  finding the right people, creating the right conduits, and sharing the right information. Today’s multi-tasking teachers are now writing magazine articles, creating tutorials, and freelancing during the summer.  “I taught for 10 years” doesn’t carry as much credibility as “I teach” and there are great opportunities for businesses to link up with well known teachers in the blogosphere and online circles.  Additionally, companies have never had more access to the end users of their product in the history of creating books.  Involving strong practioners and classrooms in the ongoing evolution of your products just makes good sense.  However, these people are very busy…and their time is limited.  First come, first serve. 
                Creating the right conduits is important, however, good faith sharing of some information is part of the ethos of the well-favored organization.  Start-up companies making freeways into educational space like Elluminate and Diigo are hosting free webinars and making their executives and programmers available to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of their product on a daily basis.  I believe that strong grant programs to pull in the “super-educators” who will bring your content conduit to attention will become important and viable marketing tools.
                The simple fact, that a practicing teacher in the classroom can now blog and reach over 4,000 educators on a daily basis (see my Cool Cat Teacher blog – http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com) and be asked to cast a vision for the future of textbooks should point out that times are a changing!  The writing is not on the wall – it is on the computer screen.  How will your content evolve?
Vicki A. Davis  is a teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia and blogs at the popular CoolCat Teacher blog (http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com).  Her book, ClickSmart, will be published in the Summer of 2008.



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