Friday, August 24, 2007

Textbooks, are they needed?

And so the debate continues to rage. Stephen Downes responds to my position on the question of whether schools should buy textbooks or laptops.

School Textbooks, Yes or No ~ Stephen's Web ~ by Stephen Downes
I don't think it's radical at all. The money we spend on textbooks is wasted. We could put the same content onto websites, we could do it for free (because it's not like our academics are paid much of anything by publishers as it is) and the kids would be more comfortable with it.
In rereading my comments I believe I need to further elaborate on my position. I really agree that buying textbooks is a waste of money. They represent second source materials that, especially with social studies books, are watered down so as to be unoffensive to anyone. Does that mean the government should buy laptops for every student, or even require that parents buy them for their school-age children? No, being the father of three children I know how children unknowingly can be irresponsible. Let's face it, you drop a book on the ground you can pick it up and it still works. You drop a laptop on the ground and the chances it will still work diminish.

Please note, though, I said "if you drop a book on the ground...". I didn't say "textbook." There is a wealth of first source books that teachers can now draw upon to use in their lesson plans. And I am not precluding the use of technology in the classroom and at home, but don't go pouring money into buying laptops for students.

Wow! I'm getting it from both sides, and once again I think its because I didn't express myself well. So here goes again.

To Manish's point, I am not against reading. In fact I argued that perhaps instead of textbooks teachers should use first-source books that were written by individuals who are tackling a particular topic and not trying to cover the spectrum of a curriculum. Now there are instances where, I think, textbooks are the way to go, specifically mathematics.

To Stephen's point, no technology is full-proof and while the OLPC computer is relatively inexpensive I can foresee a world of trouble when parents decide that it is not "good enough" for their child and have to buy something better. Thus, just like the sneakers wars, you see kids and their parents get into an ever escalating computer wars requiring kids to have the best laptop possible. Unfortunately, I tend to view government bureaucracies with disdain (having worked in one for three years) and I can envision school districts deciding that the OLPC computer is not enough and the budget for their purchases balloon ever upward. There is already a simmering taxpayer revolt against the money spent by school districts, I fear this would add to that revolt.

Now, I will say that flash memory drives maybe a useful alternative. I've written previously about their value as an alternative to participant guides in the corporate learning world. I could envision buying these and loading them with wiki software preloaded with links to images, video, audio, and yes, reading material that the child could use in school on classroom computers, study hall computers, and home computers.

By God, I love a lively debate!

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Manish said...

This is rather debatable. There are very strong reasons why it's not all that good to shift entirely to laptops.

1. The joy of reading from books (especially textbooks) that you can tug along anywhere with you.

2. Learning research methodology (how to research) is very very important and computers can actually spoil all that fun given Google. Before children are exposed to Google, they must go therough the primary nethods of learning by referencing.

3. Laptops are not that very light also. So, may be we should wait a while till the foldable notebooks are commonplace.


Downes said...

If you drop a book into a puddle it's ruined. That's a tough way to lose a $60 book.

If you get caught in the rain and the water soaks through your backpack, all of your books are ruined.

Let's face it - books are pretty fragile too. Much more fragile than flash memory or even CDs.

I haven't said anything thoughout this discussion about whether we should be buying all children laptops - it is, once again, a misinterpretation of my point.

And certainly, I would not wish upon kids some of the laptops I've used.

My 1999 IBM thinkpad, which has been dropped a number of times, offers a counterpoint.

And the OLPC computer is designed specifically for kids' use, being waterproof and rubberized. And they only cost $170. And yes, they probably will be available for the American market soon.

Give a child one of these $170 computers with internet access, and you have given them a library of all of the world's great books. Not just some, not just $170 worth, but all of them.

No school could afford a library like that. No parent could buy a child all those books. No child could carry them.

Demanding that schools buy books, and denying children computers and internet access, is to deny them access to the wealth of human culture and literature.