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Teaching History: Out With The Old, In With The New

In Fairfax County, Virginia, (where some of the Mead descendants are negotiating the county’s excellent public schools) paper textbooks are becoming a thing of the past. New online social studies textbooks are cutting costs, lightening backpacks and upping student achievement. From the Washington Post:

It is the Washington area’s most extensive foray into online textbooks, putting Fairfax at the leading edge of a digital movement that publishers and educators say inevitably will sweep schools nationwide…

The online books are generally cheaper than their hard-copy cousins and look similar, but they’ve been souped up with interactive maps and links to primary sources and History Channel video clips.

Unlike printed books, which the system purchases about every six years, the online versions can be updated regularly to correct errors and reflect current events. Students can take notes in the margins, highlight important ideas and prompt the computer to read passages aloud.

Those are helpful features, [seventh-grade history teacher Mark] Stevens said, but the online books won’t revolutionize teaching by themselves. They’re only textbooks, after all — “just one tool,” he said, “not the magic bullet.”

The switch to e-textbooks isn’t moving as quickly as the e-book trend in the rest of publishing. According to the piece in the Post, the market share for online textbooks is still less than 10%. It’s an inevitable shift, but it ought to happen more quickly. Online textbooks can reduce overhead costs and they appear to increase student satisfaction and achievement. Successful local experimentation will help speed along the national shift. Well done Fairfax County.

Sure it’s a small change, but education reform is going to come a piece at a time.  There is no Big National Fix; it is about school systems, teachers and parents figuring out new ways to perform one of humanity’s oldest jobs: giving the next generation the knowledge and values they will need to make their way through this sometimes difficult world.

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  • Toni

    I wondered about cost for the e-reader and found this in the article:

    “But questions remain about whether the least-privileged children will have equal access to required texts. Many don’t have computers at home, or reliable Internet service, and the school system is not giving a laptop or e-reader to every student.”

    Ah, but both competition and Moore’s Law is bringing down e-reader prices!

    When I bought my Kindle in July 2010, a Wi-Fi version cost $139 and a 3G version cost $189. Now someone willing to accept discreet ads can get those items for $99 and $139 respectively. And there are other versions ranging in price from $99 to $199.

    The $199 version is the Kindle Fire, which is Amazon’s bid to compete with Apple’s iPad.

    Moore’s Law helps enormously. In simplistic terms, it means that if X amount of computing power costs $100 today, you’ll be able to buy 2X — twice as much computing power — for $100 in 18-24 months.

    And if my memory of Moore’s Law is not quite accurate, I know a better-informed reader will correct me.

  • http://www.heartland.org Bruno Behrend

    We need to dump the ‘book’ paradigm, and move toward a ‘subscription service’ paradigm.

    To the extent that district survive (I think they are engines of greed, and entirely worthless in regard to educating a child), they should bargain with “content providers” over a period of time. These providers can sell a content subscription service, not a book.

    As new information or other information comes on-line, they can update their content. The idea of carrying a substandard and overpriced book around is something from the 19th century.

    Every state should have a law that mandates schools or districts review their content providers on a yearly basis. If a better service comes along at a lower price, the lower-cost, higher value provider should be chosen over the legacy system.

    Of course, the same should go for teachers. It’s time to find the best value for students and taxpayers, not coddle a protected class of public employees.

  • dearieme

    “online social studies textbooks are cutting costs…”: oh good
    “…lightening backpacks..”: excellent news
    “… and upping student achievement”: what’s the evidence?

  • lhf

    Does no one think this is a bad idea? The book is a marvelous technical achievement. It goes anywhere, does not require power to operate, can last almost forever without requiring any updates, is easy on the eyes and more. How about an e-text at the beach? Does that work? What about sand and water in your electronics?

    E textbooks are just another diversion. Making learning “fun.” It would be better to focus on the content of the texts and/or abandon textbooks entirely for primary sources.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Whether the eclipse of physical books by electronic information delivery is a good or bad idea is debatable, but irrelevant. The book, like clay tablets, scrolls, and illuminated manuscripts, are a technology that events will overtake. They won’t disappear, except for those printed on acidic paper, but the situations in which they are the preferred technology will drastically diminish.

    Of more interest is how the information will be conveyed. Today’s textbooks are already more akin to television than to what I think of as a book. Short sections of unintegrated text stitched together with lots of pictures and graphics to accommodate limited attention spans and reduced concentration ability. The shift from text to image based transfer of information, underway for almost 100 years already, is accelerating and will have substantial unintended consequences for culture and society. Goodbye Gutenburg.

  • Jim.

    @lhf:

    Amen to that! The physicality of the humble Book has advantages that no e-reader can ever match.

    Despite the cost of lugging them around, my college textbooks have proven an invaluable auxiliary to my memory. Chances are if you forget something, you’ve forgotten what you’ve forgotten; if you rely on a service-based system, that knowledge is frequently gone forever. Rely on a search engine, and you have the blank Google page staring at you. Rely on computers, and you have forgotten passwords, crashed / dead hard drives, interrupted / discontinued services, incompatible systems, and old (now unreadable!) media frustrating your efforts to access knowledge from only 10 years past.

    Rely on a physically-based system, and you are constantly reminded of things you’ve forgotten, that are there at your fingertips again merely by picking up a book from your bookshelf.

    Another problem stems from the fact that a large proportion of human knowledge only exists in Dead Tree Format. Who is going to digitize all the useful information printed since Gutenberg? One of my friends is the librarian at a major newspaper; I have tried to convince him that digitizing their old stacks is the way to go, but he’s managed to convince me that there isn’t enough money to pay people with the necessary skills to do it right. Teaching a 100% reliance on computers risks throwing away this enormous legacy — *Poof*, down the Memory Hole.

    And what, online, can replace browsing through your favorite parts of a bookstore looking for something new? What computer has a user interface the size of a bookshelf? What “books you might like” algorithm has ever given you anything but near-clones of what you’re currently looking at, or absolutely irrelevant texts that happen to be popular with people who share none of your interests? This is the steep and slippery slope to groupthink. Add to that the potential for interested parties to shape the searches and availability of information to eliminate points of view other than their own, and you have a potential catastrophe in human knowledge on your hands.

    Add to this the distraction factor. Send a kid to his room with a textbook, and he gets his homework done. Send a kid to his room with an Internet connection, and you even the brightest of kids will end up wasting most of their time.

    The goal of education is to give people information that they can keep and use over the decades that make up their lifetimes. No computer system yet invented can replace the physical book in this regard. The ephemerality of computer systems is their fatal flaw.

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