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The Digital Networked Textbook: Is It Any Different?

10.10.13 Digital Networked Textbook

Story provided by Dy/Dan

Let’s speculate that before this year’s cohort of first-year teachers retires from math education more than 50% of American classrooms will feature 1:1 technology. That’s a conservative prediction – both in the timeline and the percentage – and it’s more than enough to make me wonder what makes for good curricula in a 1:1 classroom. What are useful questions to ask?

Here’s the question I ask myself whenever I see new curricula crop up for digital networked devices like computer, laptops, tablets, and phones.

Is it any different?

That isn’t a rhetorical or abstract question. I mean it in two separate and specific ways.

If you print out each page of the digital networked curriculum, is it any different?

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The answer here is “sort of.”

When I look at iBooks in the iBookstore from Pearson and McGraw-Hill or when I see HMH publish their Algebra Fuse curriculum in the App Store, I see lots of features and, yes, they require a digital medium. They have a) interactive slider-type demonstrations, b) slideshows that walk students through worked examples, c) stock video in the margins instead of stock photography, d) graded multiple-choice quizzes, e) videos of Edward Burger explaining math concepts and f) probably other items I’m forgetting. None of those features would survive the downgrade to paper.

So the question becomes, “Is it different enough?”

Are these offerings different enough to justify the enormous expense in hardware, software, and bandwidth? Do they take full advantage of their digital birthright?

I don’t think so.

“Is it any different?” here means “if you were hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth, in a concrete bunker without any kind of Internet access, is the curriculum any different?”

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Here, in September 2013, the answer is “no,” which is a shocking waste of very expensive, very powerful device.

Look at the apps you have on the home screen of your smartphone and ask yourself “how many of these are better because they have a large network of people using them?” Me, I have 12 apps on my homescreen and eight of them – Tweetbot, Messages, Instapaper, Instagram, Phone, Mail, Safari, Spotify – are so much better because of the crowd of people that use them with me. When I switch off my phone’s network connection, they get so much worse. Those are the apps I care most about also, the ones that enrich my life, the ones that justify the expense of a smartphone.

When you switch off the network connection, most curriculum stays exactly the same. It doesn’t suffer at all, which means it isn’t taking advantage of the network connection when it’s on.

Digital devices should allow you to:

  • Pose more interesting problems using more diverse media types and fewer words. (eg. three-act-style tasks).
  • Replace your textbooks’ corny illustrations of mathematical contexts with illustrations from their own lives. Students: find a trapezoid from your own life. Take a photo. Tap upload. Now it’s in your textbook.
  • Progressively disclose tasks over multiple screens so students don’t have to look at pages full of questions and information like this [pdf] and can instead start with a brief video and single sentence.

Networked devices should allow you to:

  • See all your friends’ illustrations from their own lives. The teacher should be able to see that gallery of trapezoids, promote certain illustrations, and offer comments on others that are visible to everybody.
  • Start lessons with integrated, formative polling. I’m talking about Riley Lark’s ActivePrompt software built right into the textbook.
  • Create student conversations. Use student data to find students who disagree with each other, pair them up, and have them work out their differences. All of that should happen without the teacher having to facilitate it because the device is smart.
  • Combine student data for better, more accurate modeling. (eg.Pennies, where each student collects a few data points which are then instantly collected into a much larger class data set.)

There are other possibilities, of course, some of which we’ll only start to realize as these tools are developed. But don’t just sit around and wait for an industry as reactive as textbook publishing to start making those tools for you. Publishers and their shareholders react to their market and that’s you. As long as they can still profit by repurposing existing print curriculum they will. It’s on you to tell your publishing reps that the curriculum they’re selling doesn’t do enough justice to the powerful, digital networked devices they’re putting them on. It isn’t different enough.

2013 Sep 27. And here’s LA Unified buying a billion dollars worth of iPads and then wasting the network that might make that investment worthwhile:

By Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Unified officials were weighing potential solutions. One would limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed. All other applications and Internet access would be turned off, according to a district “action plan.”

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