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Where Do Digital Textbooks Fit Into Education?

So I’m at a conference this week, and I finally figured out why I came. I happen to have a quiet period on the third day of the conference, so I thought I’d discuss what I’ve learned.

I came to this conference not to learn about digital textbooks, but to understand how they fit into the educational ecosystem. iBooks Author and Inkling Habitat are getting all the hype in the tech blogs, but no one in the tech blogs is writing about how they will be used and what teachers think of them.

It’s not a simple question. I know how ebooks fit into things, but digital textbooks are a whole other matter.

The real role of these 2 ecosystems is much smaller than you might think from the hype. Not only is no one planning to use them, but it seems to me that Inkling and iBooks don’t even do what those down in the trenches need for their day to day activities.

The conference is called CoSN 2012, and it is hosted by the Consortium of School Networking. As you can tell from the name, it has little to do with ebooks or my normal blogging topics. It’s a fairly high level policy conference, and there’s not much technical content to write about. But that turned out to be a good thing, because I learned more about education and ed-tech than I would have learned at a technical conference.

There were a number of "gadget in classroom" programs discussed, and to my surprise none are based on the iPad. Oh, there were a couple pilots, but the several schools pushing towards system wide 1:1 programs were based around BYOT (bring your own technology). While I’m sure a lot of students have  iPads, they were by no means the core of any program.

BYOT is a variation on a term I’ve used before: bring your own device. The idea is to let parents pick the device that they are most comfortable with so the student can carry it to school. This might be an iPad, but it could just as likely me an Android tablet or something else.

Why BYOT (instead of issuing iPads)? According to a couple presenters, it’s because students are already bringing it to school. A sizable majority of K-12 students in the US already have  smartphone (even the ones on free school lunches), so it wasn’t much of a stretch to go from requiring the student to keep it in their bag to integrating the new devices into the lesson plan. It is probably a lot of work, but  a BYOT program also tended to see high commitment from students and teachers (because they’re using something they already know). Also, it puts students and parents in a position where they learn how to do their own tech support, as opposed to waiting for Monday to hand a misbehaving device to the school’s IT dept (who would be overwhelmed).

And of course BYOT also means that digital textbooks (as Inkling and iBooks present them) are out of the question, though I’m sure schools are getting online and cross-platform content. There’s also a strong undercurrent of avoiding specialized apps (that are limited to a single platform). General purpose apps (art, email, etc) are okay (even the more sophisticated ones), but closed ecosystems (like Inkling) are not because they’re not designed to work with, much less on, several platforms.

So the key takeaway today is this: If you’re not cross-platform you’re not going to get users. You might con administrators into spending the money, but students and teachers won’t be using it.

One other key takeaway is that collaboration is the future, not interactivity (Inkling & iBooks hype again). Students are learning by doing, and sharing what they’re working on. One of my questions that was never answered at the Inkling Habitat launch was how students could add external info (sensor data, observations, etc) to the textbook apps. It turns out I was right on the money.

The session I just left this morning was focused on how the 4 Cs were replacing the 3 Rs. The Forsyth County Schools  has come to see that students learn the most when they can:

  • Communicate
  • Collaborate
  • Create
  • Connect

It sounds to me like they’ve sidelined the old model of "teachers talk and students listen". I’m not saying they’ve replaced it, but it does seem less important. Here’s the fun part: all the hyped features of Inkling and iBooks are based on the old model, and at least some of the cutting edge innovators aren’t using that model anymore.

So if you’re thinking about getting a tablet for your kid to use in school, you don’t have to get an iPad. Even if you do, chances are at least some of the other students won’t be using one.

P.S. If you are an educator and you think I’m completely off the mark, please drop me a line. I’m just beginning to learn about this myself and I want to get it right,

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fjtorres March 7, 2012 um 11:36 am

Re: collaboration
Right on the money.
Coming from the techie side, I’ve always wondered why Microsoft doesn’t pitch the Sharepoint + OneNote combo as an academic solution. (Except, that the typical school district doesn’t have the budget for airlifting a proper implementation or the inhouse expertise to properly evaluate/configure a suitable configuration. Easier to drink the Apple Kool-Aid.)
Maybe with Win8 and OneNote for iOS coming out some of the more savvy districts will look in that direction.
It would definitely be cross-platform–web-based if need be–and focused on collaboration and workflow.

anonymous cowdard April 5, 2012 um 2:34 am

"It would definitely be cross-platform"???
A solution based on big M has a long way before become "definitely cross-platform" and in the last they took more work and money from your pocket than it worth

John C. March 8, 2012 um 11:20 am

But hasn’t collaboration, or group work, been part of pedagogy for some time? And wasn’t teacher-as-authority dethroned some time ago by John Dewey? (I acknowledge that his ideas haven’t been followed as much as praised.)

As for teachers creating their own curriculum and textbooks, I’m all for the freedom this gives, but hope that they’re adequately compensated. I also assume school authorities must review and pass teachers' creations.

Nate Hoffelder March 9, 2012 um 11:25 am

Based on my experiences (9 schools in 6 states), I’d say that collaboration isn’t that popular and teacher-as-authority is still alive and well. Also, I’m reporting on how the speakers talk about it. They sound thrilled with the ideas.

But thanks for putting this into the proper perspective. I’m still learning, myself.

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