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After the Beyond the Textbook Forum

Photo by Joyce Valenza, who came in spite of her broken knee

I had originally intended to append yesterday’s blog post with more information about, and from the forum.  But I think that I have a little more to say than I left room for yesterday.

First of all, I left the Discovery Communication Headquarters yesterday with one of those deliciously contradictory sensations of both exhaustion and exhilaration. It was certainly an echo chamber of people who have the room, by choice or by definition of job, to think about and talk about the future of education. But even though we have largely drawn the same conclusions, when you get these familiar ingredients together in the same pot and stir vigorously, new flavors often comes out.

I’m not going to present a comprehensive report of the conversation here.  I would point you to better reporters, Audrey Watters (Hack Education) and Wes Fryer (here, here, here and here) and others who will come linked in the #beyondthetextbook Twitter thread that certainly continues.  Essentially, its all about rethinking education, being educated, teaching, learning, and curriculum.  I can’t add much to that.

Here, I want to focus in on just a few outlying ideas that I walked away with, especially from my internal efforts to put myself in the shoes of our hosts and an industry that has become one of the definers of education.

One of those ideas got pried loose when a Discovery person asked the un-askable, “How do we monetize this?”  It was the only time that the business of selling textbooks came up — and I can’t fault anyone for making a living.  It’s an important question, because they know that they need to be doing things differently, and I suspect that they are sincerely trying to get on the other side of just digital textbooks with animations, videos and flash games.  There were suggestions of repackaging the conversation, thinking in terms of selling pages (modules), or talking more about digital libraries that children take with them after graduation.  This intrigues me, that being educated is knowing, doing, and cultivating tools that help you to continue to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Much was said about resistance from many teachers.  Many feel that a classroom without a textbook starts to look like a classroom without a teacher.  In addition, few teachers have the time to construct their digital textbooks or supervise student-constructed learning materials.

But another barrier became evident to me that gave me – and this is going to open some eyes – a new sympathy for the textbook industry.  I’m for the kids and the future, and I don’t fault an industry for making a living from this endeavor.  Who among those of us in that room are not.  I do fault efforts to influence the shape of education in order to perpetuate a control-model that is clearly no long relevant.

I want to welcome anyone who wants to be a part of this new adventure.

My sympathy comes from the fact that the only way Discovery could run a sustainable education support business is to go where the money is, and the most uninterrupted money has traditionally been textbook budgets.  So Discovery has to frame its service as a textbook, as defined by legislation. It’s easy to say, we don’t need textbooks, that “..the Internet is the best textbook.”  But when many politicians hear, “We don’t need textbooks,” what they may be seeing another avenue for slashing education funding.  It’s one of those, “Becareful what you wish for…”

So, I think I may unapologetically continue to call it a “textbook.”  I could be writing this blog on my tablet (do a Google image search for tablet).

It just seems to me that with some imagination, a product, either commercial or open, could be designed to help children to develop the literacies of learning from their world and the authentic record of that world — and our world has never ever been so recorded.

I think that we could see something come out of this, that, as Steve Jobs might say, “We didn’t know we couldn’t live without,” and part of the compellingness of that product will not be so much in what it is, as in what it can become.

It’s what excites me about today’s tablets, their capacity to become new things.





  • http://todddonteedm310.blogspot.com/ Donte Todd

    Hi my name is Donte’ Todd. I am currently enrolled in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I think you are one hundred percent correct about the textbook industry and politics. As much as we would like to believe that schools are in the hands of the teachers and administrators, it’s not. Politics play a huge role in students’ education. Politician’s control the amount of funding and time that goes into education. If educators present a way for politicians to cut funding for education then we should be prepared for them to take it and run with it. I am a firm believer of your quote “being educated is knowing,doing,and cultivating tools that help you to continue to learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Therefore we must keep creating ways for our students to learn, learn, and learn some more.

  • http://edtechteacher.org Tom Daccord

    David, I’m glad you’re highlighting one of the financial realities of the #beyondthetextbook debate. I’ve spent (as EdTechTeacher Co-Director) nearly 18 months working with a major educational textbook provider striving to include 21st century skill development and technology integration into its textbooks and other resources. During my visit to their corporate office, and in follow-up conversations, they made it clear they understand that their proprietary business model is at risk in an age of freely accessible online information. Yet, they are by no means “rolling over” in the face of the Internet and instead are striving to diversify their publications (ie. new online resources) and services to meet the challenge. With their considerable resources, entrenched market position, and name familiarity/comfort, educational textbook publishers are well positioned in the access-quest “to develop the literacies of learning.” To be clear, I am not advocating for textbook-driven classes. But I’d caution those who believe the demise of the textbook industry is imminent that the textbook industry is not to be underestimated (and neither is the hold textbooks have on today’s teachers).

    On a related note, I also question the pervasive assumption that “open tools” will eradicate the technology access divide and (more fundamentally) the technology usage divide. (See Scott McLeod’s recent post on tech usage divide). There is growing evidence that open educational technologies are used less effectively in poor schools than in rich ones. Berkmann Center Fellow (and EdTechTeacher Co-Director) Justin Reich gathered data on the usage of 180,000 publicly accessible wikis and found that wikis were generally less helpful to poor schools than rich ones. At poorer schools, wikis were abandoned quickly and students had fewer opportunities for authentic 21st-century skill development. I hope the clear message to all is that access does not necessarily result in effective integration. Experience, skill and leadership all count — something that many educational businesses are striving to provide.

  • Pam Moran

    The new work of learning should drive the work of those who sell to education farther up the “food chain” in terms of the value and complexity of what they have to sell to educators. When I look at the majority of “made for education” print resources marketed to educators, much of what we are pitched is of poor quality. Educators now have the opportunity to find and use high quality online resources that are essentially free except for time invested in curating or setting up situations for students to find and use. I’d rather spend “textbook” funds on teachers who can help create or help others than pay the $$ to companies. They are quick to mine the intellectual property of educators and turn around and sell the result back to education. Hope you were paid well for sharing yours.

    • http://blog.idave.us/ David Warlick

      @Pam Moran, I do know of instances where companies charged money for content that I had given away. But I figured out, not to long after I left traditional employment, that it’s not about us against them.

      I worried, when I left our state department of ed and started “charging money” for what I did, if I had joined the enemy . But then I realized that we’re all making a living. What’s changed is that my contracts last for a day, or three days rather than for a year.

      Companies create and market services and products to help. It’s a vast partnership. The problem is when any of these companies become so rich that legislation starts to wrap itself around their services, sustaining them and perpetuating how teaching and learning is done. Textbooks are certain an example of this.

      That said, I’ve been in this field long enough to know that I can be surprised, and that those of us who can inventively adapt to the changing needs of education are welcome. The rest will and should become obsolete and go away.

    • http://edtechteacher.org Tom Daccord

      @Pam Moran, I applaud you for investing time in teachers who wish to find and create educational resources. But I wouldn’t dismiss educational textbook publishers so readily and I think you should investigate their digital offerings. See: “Thoughts on the Realities of Moving #beyondthetextbook ” http://edtechteacher.org/blog/

  • http://transparentlearning.blogspot.com Bethany Smith

    I’ve been working with my faculty and a textbook company to build a “traditional” textbook in what I view as an unconventional way. Although I believe technology and engagement are hug tenants of being “beyond the textbook,” I feel the heart of the movement is in the curating of information that is put into the almighty textbook. The faculty I am working with are doing this, they are choosing book chapters, articles, and writing a few chapters themselves to BUILD the textbook they want. The publisher will make money by offering that textbook to not only our students, but to other schools as well. It is cheaper than most textbooks and provides a level of customization and sharing that I wish every teacher could experience. And in the end I feel that going “beyond the textbook” will be all about choice and curating information, by both our teachers AND our students.

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  • menard-a

    This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the science textbook selection committee for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in Austin. What an experience! There were so many publishing companies trying to get meet the criteria and be a part of the selection process for schools and districts that it wasn’t even funny. It is true that most publishing companies are moving away from the traditional textbook routine and are centering more on online learning and hands on application in the areas of math and science. The sad part about the process is that most of the information provided from the publishers was junk. Stuff that I would not use with my students or it took too long/expensive to implement with my class. What is the solution? I don;t know but I do know that a solution must be obtained in order to reach the new minds of our students in this day of technology.

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Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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