Troglodyte Textbooks for Digital Natives

Why do US schools miss an apparent “No Brainer”?

For anyone who actively uses digital media to explore their world, it seems obvious that schools need to move away from the traditional “dead trees” textbook format, and begin using digital textbooks.

The advantages are many.

Inkling from Bulent Keles on Vimeo.

The digital option offers an interface that:

  • Can open from the main text to a variety of detailed supplementary information.
  • Is capable of being lavishly illustrated with zoom-enabled photos, video or audio clips, and interactive maps, charts, and graphs.
  • In the best-designed examples, allows individual users to tag, annotate, bookmark, and/or archive notes and passages.
  • Is near-instantly searchable on a wide variety of variables.
  • Costs a fraction of what a copy of a traditional textbook costs.
  • Weighs only as much as the digital device into which it has been loaded.
  • Requires no special accommodations for storage, beyond digital memory capacity.
  • Will always be a “brand new” copy to each user.
  • Can be updated frequently by authors and publishers, because updates can be done at relatively little expense.

By contrast, traditional textbooks:

  • Offer only a single “static” text with at most a few sidebars.
  • Are limited by practicality to a handful of illustrations, charts, maps, etc. on any given page–none of which can be made interactive.
  • Generally cannot be annotated by individual users without leaving a permanent mark.
  • Can only be searched via laborious visual scan or a (limited) index.
  • Cost a lot of money to buy.
  • Are often heavy and cumbersome, especially for younger children.
  • Take up a lot of storage space, when not in use.
  • Are subject to wear, tear, and vandalism.
  • Are difficult and expensive to update.
Back problems from too-heavy school backpacks reached a peak of awareness around 2005.

South Korean students in Goesan use tablet PCs as textbooks.

“Everybody” (on the blogosphere, anyway) seems to believe it’s the way of the future, the coming  trend. South Korea and Singapore already have begun riding this wave.

But the switch to digital textbooks in the US has been hit-and-miss, emphasis on the “miss.”  Why aren’t more US schools joining this trend?

I think there are several reasons, and most of them stem from the basic institution, which is structured so it must prioritize its own needs above those of students.

Politics is one major dis-incentive, in at least three ways.

Federal, state, and local education budgets have been slashed repeatedly, throughout the last decade. Digital textbooks may be a fraction of the cost of traditional ones, but schools already have storage rooms filled with traditional textbooks. And outfitting an entire school or district with e-readers is not cheap. Many schools just don’t have the money.

A significant and vocal group of voters is old enough to look upon digital devices in schools as an extravagant luxury, and therefore a waste of money. They tend to complain, and they unfortunately are more likely to vote than more moderate thinkers. Thus, their views sometimes dominate school budget battles.

Finally, US school districts have traditionally been governed by the decisions of a local school board. Unlike Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and many other nations with widely-admired educational systems, our schools are not centrally managed by the federal government so that all schools are treated the same. Local control and dependence on local property taxes for a financial base make US schools an uneven patchwork. No Department of Education recommendation can decree that all schools will use e-textbooks. You may see that as a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the way we operate. Districts will (or won’t) adopt digital textbooks individually, as they see fit.

This illustration demonstrates textbook capabilities of iPad tablets.

Another important dis-incentive to using digital textbooks is the confusion and discomfort many educators feel about e-readers. Even those who have mastered web surfing, email, and Facebook may be baffled by the dizzying array of options in the rapidly-expanding e-textbook field.

How should educators evaluate the merits of a Nook (left) or a Kindle (right)?

What kind of digital reader should they use? The wrong choice means a whole lot of money ill-used. But there are arguments both for and against using the iPad, Nook, Kindle, and a whole slew of other devices. Which give good advice? Which are just glorified ads?

Textbooks must offer sound, readable information that is aligned with the school’s curriculum–and most educators understand how to judge a traditional-format textbook. But what makes a good digital one? And if they do find a good digital reader, is it supported by all of the textbooks their school needs?

They may be dog-eared, but most schools have piles of textbooks.

No wonder so many schools are still relying on the laptop cart in the corner of the classroom, and digging their old paper-bound-in-cardboard textbooks out of the library storage room each year! Besides, with all the other things they have to pay attention to, what educator has the time to do a genuinely-rigorous comparative evaluation?

Institutionally, public schools have never had either the funding or the functional incentives to operate at the cutting edge of technology. Unlike businesses, they have faced no compelling need to compete, so they have had to be dragged, late and unwillingly, into the computer age.

Will that history repeat itself for digital textbooks?

The video clip at the opening of this post is from the iPad In Schools blog/website’s “The Future of the Textbook” post. The three views of iPads as textbooks is from the same site’s “Why the iPad Should be Used in Classrooms” post.
The cartoon panel from Lynn Johnston’s For Better or for Worse comic strip came from the Eclipse Wellness website.
The AP photo of the elementary students from Goesan, South Korea is from the Daily Herald (Chicago area, IL) online.
The photo of a textbook on a Nook is from the Barnes & Noble Booksellers website. The image of the Kindle is from the GEV website
Finally, the image of piles of traditional textbooks came from the Beaumont Enterprise (Beaumont, TX) website.
Many thanks to all of these sources!

You may also find these articles interesting:
The website’s “Digital Learning: Final Chapter for Textbooks?” page.Classroom Aid‘s post, “It’s a Digital World, Why not a Digital Textbook?”
Statistics on the Worldwide Center of Mathematics Blog website, in the post “The state of the Textbook Industry: Facts and Figures,” by Brian L.
The Kindle-adoption experiment at  Clearwater (FL) High School, as described by the Techno Buffalo site.

    Slight Delay in the “Digital Natives” Series

    Next time I’ll consider digital-vs.-dead trees

    I apologize for another slight delay in this series. I am running another art show, and it’s pulling me away from this effort a bit more than anticipated (stuff always takes longer than you think it will!).

    I hope to have the next installment of this series posted during the upcoming week!

    My topic will be the relative merits of digital textbooks vs. the dead-trees version!

    This image is from the interesting blog of Dr. Patricia Fioriello, on K-12 Education Practices and Issues. the particular post from which the image came is “Digital Textbooks Online.”

    Teaching Like It’s 1980

    Rethinking the way Schools (dis)Respect Digital Natives

    Most classrooms still look like this
    2010 photo of a 4th-grade room.

    Most of today’s educators were born too soon. We are not digital natives. Moreover, developments that you might call “market forces” in the last several decades actually have held most teachers back from fully participating in the digital revolution.

    As a result, we really don’t “get it.”

    All too many of us are still teaching as if it’s 1980 . . . except with a computer cart in the corner, to use sometimes.  Oh, sure, some of us have “smart boards” where our blackboards used to be, and some of us are required to keep in touch with parents via email.

    But most educators just fundamentally see digital media (by which they mean “computers”) as a sort of add-on.

    • We still think of textbooks as physical, printed-and-bound objects.
    • We make our students turn off or put away their cell phones when they come to class.
    • We restrict access to the Internet, except for narrowly-defined assignment objectives.
    • We often absolutely ban Facebook, Twitter, and other social media from our classrooms.
    • We demand undivided attention when we are speaking to the class.
    • We believe that, to be readily available, facts must be memorized.
    • We call it “cheating” when our students look up answers.
    • When we make websites, they are almost invariably really lame.
    I am pretty sure we have managed to get all of these things (and more) exactly backwards.
    That’s because it isn’t 1980 anymore.  I actually remember teaching in 1980, and a whole lot of my colleagues do, too. For us and for our students, that is unfortunately a problem. Today’s students have grown up using technology that never even existed when we were growing up. This has changed the way they see and interact with the world. It also has fundamentally altered the kind of world their future holds. A “1980” education is simply not going to cut it, for these kids, even if we do pull out the computer cart from time to time.
    In upcoming posts, I intend to explore each of the points I’ve listed above, and look at the reasons why we should revise our practices regarding every single one.
    Many thanks to “Gourmet Spud” for the fourth-grade classroom photo from the “Parent-Teacher Night” post on the Food Court Lunch blog. 
    Enthusiastic appreciation also is due to the Tulsa Public Schools Department of Instructional Technology for the Pirillo & Fitz cartoon.

    Gone Again!

    I may get to see this scene in person, this week!  

    By the time this is posted, I plan to be in San Francisco. Yes, I know I just started posting entries again.  Those reasons were highly stressful.  This reason is not.

    The vacation was an unexpected opportunity, not to be missed! Passionate as I am about education reform, meeting deadlines and doing my work as usual is not a helpful way to enjoy a vacation.

    So I hope you’ll enjoy this prize-winning view of the City by the Bay, until I return in a couple of weeks. While you’re at it, you might enjoy other views of US historic landmarks that won the 2005 contest, “Imaging Our National Heritage.” This view of the hillside, bay, cable cars and Alcatraz was photographed by Thomas Fake, and won first prize in the competition, which was sponsored by the National Historic Landmarks program of the National Park Service.

    By the time I return, I hope to have been in fruitful contact with all of my digital-native respondents, and have one or more posts to offer, about ways that schools can respect the needs and perspectives of the current “digital” generation.

    Respect for Military Families and their Students:

    Recent publications paint an ugly picture

    We’ve seen a lot of flag-waving recently.
    How sincere is it, really?

    Memorial Day. Flag Day. Independence Day. Elections coming soon.

    Seems as if we’ve seen a whole lot of flag-waving and “support our troops” slogans, recently.  But how is that working out for our military families?

    Anyone who’s been paying attention to the news has a pretty good idea of the answer to that.  The families of active-military personnel have been faced with repeated, extremely long deployments in recent years. Returning National Guard veterans often find their old jobs have been given to others, and all veterans are discovering than in this economy it’s extremely hard to find new ones.  Veterans’ mental health care, particularly in the case of PTSD sufferers, is frequently inadequate.

    This is a dilapidated roof at Clarkmoor
    Elementary at Ft. Lewis, WA
    . Photo by
    Emma Schwartz for iWatch News.

    Now add to all that the fact that apparently their kids aren’t being at all well served in school, either.

    Just this week, “Daddy, Why Is My School Falling Down?” was published in Newsweek. The article, based on a longer one by author Kristen Lombardi originally published in iWatch News, focuses on the dilapidated, often unhealthy and unsafe condition of many schools on US military bases.

    This closet is part of a 73-year-old Nazi
    barracks, now Boeblingen Elementary
    on a US base in Germany.  Photo by
    Jenny Hoff for iWatch News.

    Reading these articles, I was repeatedly reminded of the horrifying schools for poor children, described in Jonathan Kozol’s landmark 1991 book, Savage Inequalities.  Leaks like “Niagara Falls,” cracked bricks, termite-infested walls, and backed-up toilets all sounded hauntingly familiar.

    The principal of Geronimo Road Ele-
    mentary in Ft. Sill, OK
     can slide his
    finger into some of the wall cracks.
    Photo: Emma Schwartz for iWatch News.

    The situation is not entirely hopeless. The Department of Defense has set up a task force to inspect the schools on military bases, though of course that doesn’t necessarily mean better schools are coming anytime soon.  
    But why has there ever been a question about replacing or repairing schools on military bases in a timely way, when there always seemed to be enough money to fund billion-dollar weapons systems the generals have said they don’t even need? 

    Just a month earlier than the Lombardi report, Education Week published “The Need to Support Students from Military Families,” by Ron Avi Astor. This commentary outlines the difficulties students from military families of ten face in public schools, where there apparently is little consciousness of their situation and even less understanding.

    According to Astor, the state of California has “created a military-connected school-survey module” to aid in “understanding the experiences of military students and parents in public schools.” The fact that other states have not yet “follow[ed] California’s lead” gives us a glimpse of the remaining gap.

    Why on earth isn’t gaining such background information about all incoming students already standard operating procedure for schools everywhere? Such information is fundamental for any kind of responsive education practice, and essential for helping gauge a child’s “starting point.”

    Jill Biden and Michelle Obama have
    joined forces with Education Secretary
    Arne Duncan to help military families.

    Last January, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, launched an initiative focused on military-connected schools, which may eventually bear some fruit.

    As an example of the needs they plan to address, according to the US Department of Education it is an issue for some public schools to allow students to be absent so they can greet parents who are returning from deployments.

    I read this and wonder how anyone with an ounce of empathy can possibly question the logic of excusing such an absence. After all, one of the greatest stressors on military children is their parents’ absence–so much so, it can seriously affect grades and attendance.

    We’ve been at war for a solid decade. Why in Heaven’s name are any of these issues still a problem?  In the name of decency and our country’s honor, how is it possible that they only now are in the the earliest stages of being addressed?

    If ever a situation reeked of misplaced priorities, surely the plight of military families with school children is a prime example.

    PHOTO CREDITS: The combined image of the US flag, the Statue of Liberty, and an eagle is from All Posters, where you can buy this image in several formats.  The 3 photos of dilapidated Pentagon-run schools by Emma Schwartz and Jenny Hoff are from iWatch News. The photo of Jill Biden and Michelle Obama is from Zimbio.

    Pulled away for too long!

    I apologize for the recent lack of posts.  I plead a perfect storm of obligations pulling me in other directions–but you should know I have not forgotten this blog! 

    I’ve been at work gathering opinions from digital natives about changes they’d like to see in “the way school is done.” I think the series that will result from this could be interesting. 

    Until then, however, at least you know I still care.

    PHOTO CREDIT: Many thanks to Bradley William Whitney, and his page!

    Death of a Purple Elephant

    Respect in the Real World: Case Study #2

    Ali Spagnola‘s Purple Elephant with Flower gives the lie
    to the creativity-crushing words of my friend’s teacher.

    “I’m not creative,” she said.  “I’m not talented like that.”

    She and I talked for a while about the ways in which people develop (or don’t) into artists, and she told me about third grade, in the small town where she grew up.

    You see, third grade was where she learned most thoroughly that she was “not talented.”  In particular, she remembered the day her third grade teacher scolded her for a drawing she’d made. She’d never be a good artist, the teacher said, because she didn’t even know that elephants are not purple!  They are gray.

    The teacher said this to a child who had only seen elephants a few times in pictures, and who had never traveled more than 25 miles from her small-town Midwestern home in her whole life, so far (though she later became an enthusiastic world traveler).

    I had a sudden, powerful wish that I could reach back through time and throttle the teacher.  This woman taught my friend how to multiply and divide, how to write in cursive, how to spell dozens of words–but she also drove a big, heavy spike through the heart of her burgeoning creativity.

    I wished I could go back and tell the teacher that real artists know for sure that elephants might be purple, and here’s what one would look like, if you saw it.

    I wished I could tell her that a child’s inborn creativity grows from an imagination that learns it’s okay to look beyond accepted norms and think outrageous thoughts–and that it shrivels in blighted agony when crushed.

    I wished I could tell her how desperately we need more creative thinkers, if we are to compete as a nation in the 21st century.

    My friend’s third-grade teacher later retired and has since died, although her legacy clearly lives on.  Indeed, it is pointless to blame her without acknowledging that she was simply expressing a “truth” that surely she must have learned in the same painful way.  Without doubt, she abused her students’ creativity because her own had been just as ruthlessly stomped.

    Nor is she an isolated example.  It’s easy to find her sisters and brothers in schools, homes, churches, and many other places, everywhere.  We express respect (or the lack thereof) in all kinds of ways.  One of the most prevalent ways we disrespect students (and in the process hamstring our own society) is by devastating children’s early creative efforts.

    It is endemic in our school systems, because of the way they are currently set up to value conformity and submission above all else.  The Paradigm of “Control” kills creativity.  That is its very nature.  Only by bringing in a Paradigm of “Respect” will we and our schools be able to free ourselves from the iron grip of stunted imaginations and conventional thinking that can do nothing more than repeat the past.

    Meanwhile, let’s observe a moment of silence for all the purple elephants we never got to see.

    PICTURE CREDIT:  Many thanks to Ali Spagnola, for her painting Purple Elephant with Flower!  It is from her blog, Ali’s Art Adventure.