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Monday, January 25, 2010

Digital Textbooks

This school year began with a smell of change was in the air. No it wasn't the burning of books. Not yet anyway. It was a digital change in how we get information to our students. many schools are converting to digital textbooks while abandoning the atomical textbooks. Many schools, at all levels are exploring the use of more digital texts over the physical hulks that weigh too much, cost too much, take up too much space, and require hours of inventory taking. I've been a digital classroom since 1986. Sure there are texts and books in my classroom, but the use of them is limited. When I need something from them, I scan those pages and put those converted to digits on my website for distribution to my scholars. And when needed we print digital texts so the scholars may have the atoms in hand. The key is that I'm trying to be more flexible, dexterous in my classroom, especially since my digital natives are always a step ahead of me. I'm grateful I can still stay in their rear view mirrors as they speed down this digital superhighway.

An article in August predicted where we will be going. "“In five years, I think the majority of students will be using digital textbooks,” said William M. Habermehl, superintendent of the 500,000-student Orange County schools. “They can be better than traditional textbooks.” This is a refreshing prediction and I hope it happens faster. Certainly it will if teachers take on more responsibility by building webpages and using online resources as texts in their curriculum. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.” A further move in the paradigm has to be in more virtual education, one that I have been arguing for for years, “We’re still in a brick-and-mortar, 30-students-to-1-teacher paradigm,” Mr. Habermehl said, “but we need to get out of that framework to having 200 or 300 kids taking courses online, at night, 24/7, whenever they want.” The bottom line is that this will happen when the publishing companies start doing it and money can be made. Stay tuned and follow the money.

As teachers realize the power of digitizing their classrooms more will do it and want it. When I got my first networked classroom in 1988, I was amazed at my power and the importance of this technology to education. Each scholar was working on hir own project at her own pace. I would sit at my station using my mouse to click on each scholar's screen to see what was happening. It was as close to brain surgery that I was going to get. I watched them think, make decisions, work. This was new, since rarely do students let us see this when they are sitting at a desk working with pen and paper. Also proximity stunts this kind of observation. Over the din of clicking keys, I would address a student about hir work, to hir shock. They are always shocked when I speak to them about their work from my desk. I could dial in and do work on hir page too. Sometimes they would ask me to show them something and I could do that from my desk on their computer across the room. Another neat power was I could broadcast a scholar's page onto the screen of every scholar and do a mini 30 second lesson and then return them to where they were. Now that my scholars publish online, the scholars can view classmate's pages at will. A digitized classroom is far more efficient than a non digitized classroom. A math teacher in California has realized this power, as he sits in the back of his room overseeing his scholars work on what they each need to work on and record grades at the same time. More of his time is now devoted to teaching and less to administrative tasks, better done by the computer. "This textbook-free classroom is by no means the norm, but it may be someday. Slowly, but in increasing numbers, grade schools across the country are supplementing or substituting the heavy, expensive and indelible hardbound book with its lighter, cheaper and changeable cousin: the digital textbook." Certainly a big issue is about reliability, "Keep in mind that with open-source materials, you have to ask, 'Where are they coming from?' " said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers' school division. "Is it a trusted source? Is it aligned to state standards? Is it based on real research?" Of course this comes from a publisher representative and something we would expect to hear. The point raised however is important. Textbooks haven't always proven themselves to be reliable or correct. As Ben Franklin said, "Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see." Another concern has to be the continued digital divide, "It's going to be a bit of a challenge for schools throughout the country to implement this new technology," said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association. "How do you guarantee all children have access to that kind of textbook?" We don't need a computer per student either, "This initiative is not about hardware, classrooms where there were a couple kids using laptops, several had textbooks, some had a couple chapters printed out, and the lesson was displayed on a screen in front of the class." It will be a slow process but where there is a will there is a way.

As we approach the half way point in the school year, a city and a state are converting to digitized texts in select schools. A publisher and a city, Indianapolis have teamed up to digitize all the texts in 12 schools. This pilot program is important as we begin to hear how this progresses. They announced the program at a recent FETC conference. This program is also creating ways to share the work of the scholars. This sounds like a very good program. In West Virginia, the state education department is launching a program that will use digitized textbooks. They have distributed laptops to a school and the teacher is finding the students are more on task this way then when he used books. In addition he has easier access to the daily work of the students and the use of drop boxes makes it easier for students to hand in work even when not in school.

eSchoolNews is maintaining a page of links and stories about 21st Century digital libraries. Over the years, I too, have maintained a page of sources for online texts I use in my teaching. As more and more schools use online sources, companies will crop up that sell digital texts. I have found that all the texts online I need are there since so many belong to the public domain. Added bonuses happen when we find multimedia texts available such as the readings from Librivox. What is really neat is they have some readings by the author hirself as in the case of a reading poem select poems by Robert Frost. Sure textbooks have included cassettes and the like to augment the text, but once those extras are lost or broken, the multimedia aspect is gone. Not so when we use online texts. The online libraries are growing and what Google is doing makes it even more prevalent.

Of course we must consider the downside to digital textbooks. The costs of digital texts must be much lower than the current atom form of the book. A common format is necessary for universal use. Ownership and time text stays on users computer or electronic device is a legal football that could always sink any good idea. The bottom line is always about the money, follow the money.

I wonder where John Dewey would stand on the issue of digitized texts.

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