#beyondthetextbook – Considering Inputs

I’ve been meaning to write more about the idea, expressed by many at DML, myself included, that we need to be paying lots more attention to our inputs in education, rather than our outputs. I wrote a note to myself near the end of the conference so I wouldn’t forget:

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  • So we need APIs that’ll help us pull our data out of the tools we use and put it into the tools that we use so that we can build dashboards of useful data
  • input information, not output information – but maybe some of both – descriptive tools – not prescriptive ones this is important and I need to write about it
  • inputs rather than outputs; experiences rather than tests
  • describing the learning by the institution – not so much on the student1

Mimi Ito, responding to Doug and my ideas, said it like this in a really solid summary of the entire DML 2012 Conference:

We need to be looking much more at the connections, relationships, and spirit of inquiry that goes into the system, and focusing less on optimizing measures and pathways that sort kids, schools, and teachers based on output metrics.

The continuing comments on my last post, as well as some of the thinking I saved to do for later, are helping me to make more sense of the notion of focusing on inputs, at least how that might relate to the #beyondthetestbook conversation.

I think the emphasis on educational outputs, i.e. test scores and not much else, is pretty wrongheaded. And it leads to the degradation of the educational environments that we should be building up. But we knock them down instead, in the name of what we get out of them.

One of the more interesting elements of John Seely Brown’s keynote at DML was his discussion of how gamers build dashboards, or collections of vital, real time information, to help them complete complex elements of the game. He referenced World of Warcraft, in particular, but I suspect this is true of many games and the gamers that play them. Certainly, this is true for me as a learner and as a grownup – I collect the necessary data that I need when I’m learning about something or making a decision about it. Brown suggested that such dashboards for learning might be things that students need to make2.

And I began to wonder what the dashboards for learning might need to look like. Certainly, the value isn’t in the dashboard so much as it is in the making of the thing – identifying what one needs to know in order to do the thing he or she wants to accomplish. And so the creation of a good dashboard for learning is certainly dependent on the availability of the necessary raw materials that someone would need to cobble together to build such a dashboard for learning.

So I went looking for those raw materials. And it’s pretty clear to me that students, in general, don’t have those sorts of materials readily available. Even if schools wanted to encourage students to make these sorts of dashboards for learning, they couldn’t do so3.

I found two places in my daily life that have useful dashboard for learning stats available. Here they are:

The first is from this blog’s WordPress Dashboard – a pretty simple collection of information. The second is from my Amazon account – which is a bit deceptive. I’m not reading 39 Clues – my daughter Ani is, but I think it’s interesting that I’ve got a limited look at what Amazon sees when they look at me.

I know it’s limited because Amazon certainly knows an awful lot more about me than they let me look back at. They know what I highlight. What page I’m on in every book I’ve used. How long I spend on each page. How often I flip back and forth. What I do on their website after I’ve read a particular book or books. And much, much more. I can get to a few of those items. Not most.

If only they’d share some of that information back with me. Imagine if schools had that sort of information about students’ reading habits? Suppose the books themselves could tell the teacher if they were being read4?

And if students could examine their own reading habits and limitations, and fiddle around with the data their devices and systems were collecting on them, then perhaps those dashboards for learning wouldn’t be so hard to create after all.

Dan Meyer said something the other day about dashboards via Twitter5. I responded that, certainly, portfolios could be dashboards for learning. He replied that portfolios aren’t so “heads up,” or words to that effect. And he was right. Portfolios are too output heavy, and not useful for quick glances along the learning way.

But building portfolios, now that’s a fine way of figuring out if you’ve learned anything.

So the question for textbooks, then, is this – how can a text provide data about its use to those who use it? How can students own and manage and fiddle with that data to track/monitor/explore their learning? And how can we create spaces within our books for students to make sense of their learning? How can our students’ inputs be privileged in the texts that we make, use and create at school?

Dan sketches out, here, how a math text might look when spaces for inputs are considered thoughtfully. I wonder about how teachers and students can meaningfully share annotations via their texts. I wonder what tools could provide this sort of input information easily – Instapaper, I’m thinking, or Evernote, have fabulous collections of data about their users. I use those tools daily to help me learn things. How could they make my data available to me in more useful ways? What sorts of infrastructures would need to exist for that data to be useful in a dashboard for learning?

And, of course, I wonder about the other inputs that are worth wondering about. What am I not considering in terms of inputs? How are you considering inputs in your work?

  1. This was in reference to comments by Gever Tulley that much of assessment in his school is done by the staff and about the experiences they’ve created – did they accomplish what they wanted them to, etc. – and there’s less emphasis on what each individual student learned. The students themselves are focused on what they’ve learned. There’s some control left for them in their learning. []
  2. And the making resonated with me – it’s less about the actual dashboard, and more about owning a process through laying hands on the data and the pieces and building something out of them. []
  3. Maybe I was wrong about this – are there data sources that I’m not thinking about? []
  4. Certainly, students would figure out ways to game these systems, but tracking inputs could be a fine way to see what a student was doing – and where they were stuck, or confused, or frustrated, or what have you. There’s potential there. There’s also danger there – tracking data and privacy concerns are important and worthy of consideration. []
  5. I looked, quickly, but couldn’t find the exact tweet. My apologies. []
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Not #beyondthetextbook. #betterthetextbook

A big bunch of friends, associates, colleagues, and interesting strangers will be sitting in a conference room in Maryland this weekend, talking about the future of textbooks. This is market research, but hopefully semi-public and sharable to others. I suspect it’ll be an interesting conversation.

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I’ve written before about some of what I think needs to happen when it comes to textbooks at schools. And my colleague, Kyle, is working very hard with our curriculum staff to prototype some of what our new curricular resources might look like. But I thought it would make sense to share some thoughts here, as grist for the mill of conversations in Maryland.

I’m hoping that folks’ll at least take some time to make sure they’re working from shared definitions when it comes to words like “textbooks” and “resources.” Might not hurt to define “curriculum.” The problem with those words, and others that are likely to come up in the conversation, is that “everyone knows what they mean.” But they know that differently. Shared definitions matter.

I’d humbly offer this definition for textbook – “A collection of information organized around thoughtful principles intended to provide support to instruction.” It’s not the best definition – I’m sure there are better1 – but before you go too far into a conversation about moving beyond something, it’d be good to have a sense of what it is that you’re going to move beyond.

I might drop “book” from the word, but I’m divided on that, as I’ve learned it’s hard enough for people to consider that video or audio are “texts.”2 The book part really bugs people. That said, a “book” has never been a codex. That’s the delivery technology.

In your conversations this weekend, try to separate the delivery technology – the way the information gets to the people – from the information you’re trying to send. If you argue that “the Internet is the textbook,” then you have failed to separate delivery from information. You can’t completely separate the two – the way something comes to you affects what you get, of course – but try to at least be aware of the two elements. And take advantage of the right delivery tools to allow for the types of stuff you want to see your textbooks do.

Also try to refrain from overgeneralization. “Textbooks are dead,” might feel good to say, or to retweet, but is a foolish statement. No, BYOD solutions aren’t the only answer. Student 1:1 environments aren’t the only answer. There is no one size fits all answer to the problems you are trying to solve. Platform and device neutrality and Web standards are pieces of the puzzle you’re trying to solve. So is on-demand printing. Or sometimes mass printing. Paper is not the enemy, nor are screens the savior.

Don’t be afraid of relying on expertise. Expertise, after all, is what you’re looking for in a textbook. The reason for textbooks is to bring a collection of human expertise on something together. But do not let that expertise lie in a publisher’s office alone.

The best textbooks moving forward are likely those that start with small building blocks from publishers, OER repositories, classrooms, websites, movie studios, and pretty much any other source for interesting information, and they become textbooks when they are hung onto a curriculum frame by a local school district. This might be done by a committee of teachers, or a small group of curriculum coordinators in a front office somewhere, but what important is that it’s not done by a salesperson seeking to please a state official in Texas or California.

The shift that I hope is coming in instructional sources is the local creation and curation of this stuff, followed by the local distribution of it to students. Some of this local curation work will be scalable and useful to other places – that is one advantage, for both business and school interests, of the Common Core State Standards. But lots of it won’t.

If textbook companies want to sell us things for and in the rest of the 21st Century, they should be selling the building blocks of content. Small pieces. They should be selling expertise and guidance in how to create these local curriculum creation teams. They might sell the platforms that help us to put the pieces together and distribute them to our communities. Discovery actually does this now – and could lead in this area.

But no publisher can sell us monolithic books written for imaginary populations of lowest common denominators. That’s why folks are so angry with and about textbooks – in the race to create One Book to lead them all, our publishers gave us stuff that wasn’t super-duper for anybody. And we bought it.

We’ve got to better the textbook. Not move beyond it.

Looking forward to seeing what folks come up with during the conversation. I suspect I’ll have more to say on the matter.

  1. Wikipedia’s isn’t bad. []
  2. Wikipedia even has trouble differentiating between the format and the content in their definition of “book.” But the entry on the term still might be useful. So, too, would “text.” []
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