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Apple iPad textbooks

So as expected, Apple announced their new textbooks for the iPad. Looking over the specs and what is possible to create with the iPad, it doesn’t look like they’ve offered a complete set of features for their book, but buried in their authoring features is the ability to embed HTML widgets into pages. There are some things I’d like to see improved about their digital textbook, but most schools will find the fact that they can subscribe to multiple textbook publishing companies through the same system pretty attractive.
 

Some flaws I spotted:

  • The textbook does not seem to build in the ability to translate or look up definitions of words.
     
  • No discussion on the adjusting the readability (in terms of word choice and reading level) of the texts.
     
  • No discussion on interacting with other users of the textbook, either through comments, or even sharing anotations. It might be possible to share annotations, but can you share books? Can you deep link to a portion of a textbook to share a thought with someone else?
     
  • The interactivity they have included seems somewhat limited to pseudointeractivity. Being able to manipulate an image and move it around is not as big a deal (in terms of effect on student learning) as they seem to be making it out to be. You may be able to build in games and simulations, but you’ll have to build them yourself as HTML 5 widgets. I’d like to see a textbook which includes the ability to graph data, manipulate it, and run simulations within the text itself.
     
  • The textbooks will be in a proprietary format which can only be created on a Mac. This means that it will be sometime before authoring tools come out for other OS, and then getting your textbook onto the iPad via those authoring tools looks very much like it will have to go through the iTunes store. Good luck trying to get a book that doesn’t meet the somewhat stringent requirements of the iTunes store into the app. I can imagine that courses on human sexuality and gender may find themselves using paper textbooks for some time to come, for example.
     
  • A typical complaint with traditional mathematics textbooks is that the examples given earlier in the textbook are then replicated in the exercises the students do, and the exercise becomes not about doing mathematics, but about recognizing (and memorizing the solution to) problem types. I don’t see any evidence that this will be fixed with the new textbook, especially given the companies with whom they’ve partnered. Maybe because the technology is improved, the pedagogy will improve? I’m not sure…
     
  • One of the comments from the video advertising the new iPad textbooks said that students wouldn’t even have to think about what information they’ve bookmarked or annotated in the textbook. Doesn’t this seem somewhat problematic, given that a purpose of education is to get students to think?

I don’t disagree with digital textbooks per say. For schools that can afford this option, they do have a lot of benefits. I just think we should continue to ask ourselves, how can we improve the textbook? It’s been fundamentally the same for so long, and I don’t see a huge benefit in spending extra money for the reading device for a textbook (aside from reduced weight in students’ backpacks) if we can’t also fix some of the pedagogical problems in traditional textbooks.
 

Update: An important observation for Canadian markets – the Apple digital textbooks are not yet licensed for use in Canada, and the software to manage distribution locally of the textbooks is not yet available here.

Some problems with ebooks in schools

I’ve been doing some research into ebooks for our school during this year, and I’ve come to the conclusion that ebooks are not ready for schools.

 

  • No one-stop shopping:
    Each textbook and ebook publisher seems to want to use their own system for cataloging and sharing ebooks. Worse, some publishers are unwilling to share their books with other distribution methods, and at least one publisher has opted out of the ebook business completely citing “an inability to find a workable profit model.” What this means for schools is that you can’t subscribe to one service, and get all of the electronic books you might need for your school. Compare this to the print model where you can have tremendous choice in what you buy. Imagine if a traditional library was only able to share books from a single publisher.
  • Lack of standardization:
    There is no large scale agreement on what the form of an electronic book should be in. While ePub, HTML, and PDF seem to be the most popular forms, many publishers are expecting users to use their ereader, as each of them attempts to solve the problem of digital rights management independently. Some books will work on some devices, but not on others. Some books will work on any device, but require the user to have continuous Internet access.
  • Incomplete feature list:
    With a traditional paper book you can share it, annotate it, quote it, add comments, and add bookmarks. If an ebook does not contain at least these basic features, then you are trading the portability of the ebook for the quality of the interaction one has with a traditional book. Further, there are a lot of features which are not included in most ebooks at all. Given that websites allow for videos, simulations, games, and other interactivies to be included fairly easily, one wonders why most ebooks don’t include these features. How many ebooks are updated continuously as our knowledge base is improves? How many are instead just duplicates of the static textbook in digital form?
  • Terrible pricing models:
    Many publishers are using some pretty horrible pricing models for their ebooks. Many, for example, expect schools to pay individually for each copy of the ebook, requiring schools to purchase an ebook multiple times if they need to share it with multiple students simultaneously. Some publishers offer discounts on the books themselves, but many price the ebook at exactly the same as a regular print book. Some publishers even expect the ebook to expire after a certain number of uses, requiring school libraries to repurchase books. Given that the ebook doesn’t need to be printed, costs almost nothing to transport or store, and can be shipped to schools almost immediately after it is published, there needs to be better pricing of the ebooks, or publishers are gouging customers even more. Imagine what happens if you combine problem 1 with this problem? Now you have schools paying too much to too many different publishers just to maintain their current libraries. What about all of the books schools currently own? Why can’t we get digital versions of those?
  • Access to technology:
    Many students do not have access to the technology required to even use an ebook. While some schools are equipping their students with technology, in many school districts they do so at the cost of laying off teachers, libraries, and increasing student-teacher ratios. Teachers and librarians are still critical to the curation of knowledge, so that students are directed into valid and useful sources of information, rather than wandering aimlessly through the vast graveyards of information online (like Answers (dot) com for example). Wikipedia, while a useful source of information, is rarely written at a reading level useful for k to 12 students.
  • Increasing screen time:
    Teenagers already spend vast amounts of time online. It’s not totally clear what the effect of this will be for them, but if we compare it to the problems already found in kids who watch too much television, we may want to find ways to get kids to be more active, rather than giving them more reason to sit in an awkward position reading a screen. At younger ages especially, I’d like to see schools which encourage more physical activity by kids and less seat-work.
  • Not as eco-friendly as we might like:
    While a common argument for using ebooks is that they are more ecofriendly than paper books, it is worth noting that the computers which contain those ebooks use a tremendous amount of water to produce, and contain toxic chemicals which do not yet have adequate recycling mechanisms in place. In a lot of ways, we are trading one environmental problem (the destruction of forests for pulp) for another (the pollution of our ecosystems with heavy metals).
  • Maybe students don’t learn as much from them?
    While this small study suggests that students do read ebooks with similar levels of comprehension as related print resources, this other small study by some of the same authors says they do not. One of the authors, Heather Schugar, has co-authored or authored two other articles talking about the benefits of ebooks (in contrast to this article) so I recommending reading her articles as well. Heather also pointed out on Twitter that comparing the two small studies directly is probably inappropriate given how different the platforms used are.

 

Obviously there are advantages of ebooks which are worth noting, such as reduced loads in kids backpacks, the ability of the textbook to be more current (even if this isn’t being utilized effectively), eventual access to a wider range of materials, the ability to add more interactivity to the books (again, extremely underutilized), and the ability to customize the materials to the learning needs of the student (more benefits listed here).

Do these benefits overweigh the disadvantages associated with the current ebook industry?

 

Why textbooks should be open source

In the past few years, there has been a push for open source content, and enough resources have been created so that schools can completely do away with the traditional textbook. However, adoption of open source content has been low, and the vast majority of schools are still relying on tradtional textbooks.

Here are some reasons besides "they will cost less" that school districts (and educators) should be pushing for open source content for schools.

  • Reduced cost for transportation if in digital form
    Schools can download the textbook and (if necessary) print it out on campus as they need it, which means they can pay for bandwidth, which most schools already do, instead of paying for shipping.
     
  • Authors paid for hours worked, not for uncertain future sales
    I’m an author of a textbook. It has not seen wide adoption, partially because it is a 1st edition, and partially because the market for the textbook I co-authored is pretty much saturated with a competitors product. I spent many hours writing this textbook, and have worked out that my wage for writing the textbook works out to about $2 an hour. In an open source model, you can release the book once it is published, and just pay the author for the time they’ve worked. Given the enormous savings to school districts after the restrictive license has been removed, this actually makes fiscal sense too.
     
  • Easier to keep updated since anyone can legally make revisions
    Textbooks can be immediately updated as soon as our knowledge of an area increases, or if an error is found in a textbook. Compare this to the speed it takes to update a typical textbook where the only incentive to update the textbook is to increase sales.
     
  • Can be provided easily in any format
    Most textbook are provided in one or two formats, meaning that once you buy a textbook, you are locked to the mode the textbook is available in, whether that is paper, or a pdf. When the textbook has an open source license, it can be legally reformated for any device.
     
  • You can be altruistic and provide curriculum to those who really need it
    There are lots of places in the world which can not afford to create their own resources for their schools. Although there are cultural implications to sending them our Westernized resources, the open source license means they can customize the content for their needs. The creation of open source content is therefore also a charitable activity.
          
  • Pick and choose what you want/remixable
    If the resource doesn’t work for you, you can fix it. You can mix multiple resources, and you can customize the content to whatever your needs are. Try doing that with a traditional textbook. This gives teachers more autonomy over the materials they use.
     
  • Redistribute resources
    Even if you print an open source textbook, the total cost of the textbook is maybe $10. You don’t really care as much what happens to the textbook if it only costs $10. You can take all of the people and resources that were involved in the storing, shipping, and tracking textbooks and use them more efficiently elsewhere.
     
  • Doesn’t need to be just paper
    A digital "textbook" could be so much more than just paper…
     
  • Collaborate between countries
    As someone who doesn’t live in the US, I certainly know how much licensing gets in the way of sharing resources across the border. So often we have to wait ages for resources available elsewhere in the world to become licensed for us in Canada. With an open source license, which much more easily be transfered from one country to another, this access barrier is dropped. Now we can collaborate across cultures and across borders much more easily than ever before. This will also allow for cross-cultural exchange. Imagine being able to download chapters about the American Revolution from the US and UK perspectives.
     
  • Less work for each district
    School districts can share the work for creating content. While some of these resources will be specific to a particular part of the world, much of what we teach in different parts of the world is almost exactly the same. Each school district can therefore do a little bit less work and focus on maintaining their own regional specific content.

 

Forget the future: Here’s the textbook I want now

The old paper form of a textbook is certain to die. I’m sure of it.

The new form of a "textbook" has a feature list that turns the textbook from something people read to something people experience. Note that this feature list isn’t fantasy, nearly all of these features already exist in some form.

Here are the features I think every textbook should have.

  • The textbook should be 100% searchable. No more wondering where eukaryotic appears in the text. You’ll just be able to quickly type in a search term and find all of the places it appears.
     
  • Key words in the text should be linked to explanations of these key terms. Click on the word, find out what it means in this context and what other resources exist to understand it.
     
  • The readability of the text should be individually customizable. Want to challenge yourself and improve your vocabulary? There’s a setting for that. Feel like taking it easy on the reading? There’s a setting for that too.
     
  • Everything in the textbook should allow annotations which should appear as a user generated summary of the textbook itself in another location.
     
  • Users should be able to add bookmarks and tag parts of the textbook with terms so they can self-classify the information. These tags should optionally appear for other users of the same textbook.
     
  • You should be able to comment on any part of the textbook. This could be used to flag out-of-date content or just to ask questions. Each user of a textbook should optionally be able to see everyone else’s comments on various sections of the text. These comments should happen in real time so that users can chat in real time about what they are examining.
     
  • Videos and other multimedia should be included in the textbook where appropriate. Want to talk about MLK’s I have a dream speech? You can include the entire video of his speech as part of the book.
     
  • The textbook should be customizable. Users should be able to edit the content of the textbook and share the updated version of the textbook with other users. When a customization occurs, the original author(s) of the textbook could optionally be notified so they can either accept or reject the changes to the original work.
     
  • The textbook needs to be open source and free. No longer bound by restrictive and antiquated licenses, institutions can create their textbooks and share them with the world.
     
  • Textbooks need to be translatable if they are really going to be free to use for everyone. No longer would the language learners in your class be forced to struggle in your subject just because of a lack of knowledge of the language of instruction. Optionally you could have the textbook display in the language of instruction and have real-time translation services available for any section on demand.
     
  • For any section of the text, real time search of other resources or references needs to be available. Instead of relying on just the opinion of the author(s) of the text, now you can look at other (optionally screened) resources that could help understand some perspective on the subject of the textbook.
     
  • The textbook should be device agnostic and mobile-ready. It shouldn’t matter if the person is reading it on an ereader, a netbook, an iPad, or a cell phone, the textbook should be available anytime, anywhere to anyone.
     
  • The textbook should be built with multiple models of pedagogy in mind. Instead of flatly stating the "facts" for the student reading the textbook, there should be opportunities for experiments, simulations, 3rd virtual worlds, or whatever other alternate forms of representation are available. Inquiry should be built into these textbooks.
     
  • Students should be able to click anywhere in the book and ask the question, "where is this used in the real world?" No more students asking why they are learning this stuff, because the entire learning process would be transparent.
     
  • You should be able to ask an expert on the topic from your textbook. Need more help with the topic than the textbook is providing, or have some more questions? You can call someone for help and ask for advice right through your textbook.
     
  • Your textbook could be a centre of a community of people who are all learning the same material. Not all of you need to be in exactly the same class, but as you work through the textbook and make comments, the textbook learns from you about your learning habits, strengths, and weaknesses, and connects you to the people and resources that you need to understand.
     
  • Any practice or other tasks that need to be done through the textbook should be included, if appropriate, and immediately assessed. No more waiting for feedback.
     
  • The textbook should be modular. This would allow for construction of textbooks from many different sources, potentially choosing the most effectively created resources for each section. Students could create their own textbooks for their personal study, selecting resources that they find to be the most effective for them. In fact, students could contribute modules to a textbook as part of a capstone project for their course.
     
  • The textbook content should include metatags, which should be searchable, so that over time related content can be found, and some of the connections between different content areas are made more clear.
     
  • Update: Thomas Baekdal reminded me of a couple of more important features: First that the textbook be non-linear so that the learner can access it in any order, and that the textbook should allow for embedding from sources anywhere on the web.
     
  • The most important feature I can think of in a textbook should be that it should be at most a place in the learning process, and help the learner develop further questions that they can explore for themselves. It should not be something that stops a learner from wondering.

What else would you like to see in a textbook?