Thursday, August 23, 2007

School textbooks, yes or no

There is a tremor within the blogosphere over the issue of school textbooks or to be more precise whether schools should continue to purchase them or re-channel the money to purchase "laptops and digital curriculum materials for students and teachers." Wesley Freyer appears to have fired the first shot with his post A call for a textbook purchasing moratorium. I'm looking at this from several different angles and I'm at a loss on where I stand on this.

As an instructional designer who creates training for corporations and government entities I see the textbooks we create--politely called "participant guides"--as close to useless. The standard approach is to take the PowerPoint slides used by the facilitator and output it with lines underneath for notetaking. I've always considered these as a waste of paper. I have advocated in the past that if we are going to go this route, then we should create them electronically and place them on an inexpensive jump drive. At least we are not overtly damaging the environment.

As a parent of three school-age children I would not want to think about the number of laptops the schools would have had to buy my children over the years. Being a proponent of technology, albeit a frugal one, I have obtained four previously-owned laptops for my children to use and only one is still working. Children are tough on laptops, just as they are tough on everything they own. A book can survive being dropped off the side of a bed a whole lot better than a computer.

Of course what makes a revolutionary, a revolutionary is his or her unbending resolution to the cause. So we have Stephen Downes disagreeing with Vicki Davis who argues that "I personally have to underline, write, rewrite, take notes in the margin and work with the text."

Stephen responds:
Now I use a computer to do this - and it's an important skill to have. Yes, some people still do it the old way. They shouldn't. And some people today just cut and paste from electronic texts. They shouldn't do that either - they are robbing themselves of their own learning if they do that.
That's a bit too radical for me. But I understand his viewpoint there needs to be a concerted effort to break old habits and I think Vicki is making that effort. I tend to agree with George Sieman who states:
I'm not convinced that technology is deterministic - i.e. that we must inexorably trudge the path down which it leads. The real call is one of systemic change - what needs to change to better prepare our students for tomorrow's world? Technology will no doubt play a part, but I'm not convinced that it must correspondingly be the tool through which the change is enacted.
Frankly, I would like to see schools stop spending money on textbooks simply because they are bland beyond compare, watered down so as not to offend anyone. Often control over what to purchase is not in the hands of the teacher, where it should lie, and instead is controlled by state boards of education who are often pressured by special interest groups.

Often the textbooks are so bad, teachers are forced to improvise and at times they improvise well. You go "electronic" as Wesley proposes will not resolve the problem. Textbooks will just migrate to e-books, the costs will probably remain the same, but the textbook publishers will just pocket the savings from not having to buy ink or paper.

The answer is not easy, but at the risk of sounding like someone who has been left on the wrong side of the digital divide, I think pencils, pens, paper, and books need to remain a piece of the overall educational puzzle. Let's not forget, these items were the first technologies introduced into the learning environment.

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