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.
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.