Ditch Textbooks and Go Online

It’s time to put technology in the hands of students—real 24/7/365 learning opportunity.  Last year we crossed a threshold where it’s cheaper to give kids devices and stop building computer labs and buying textbooks.
I appreciate the folks producing free textbooks (CK12, Flatworld), but with the shift to digital the whole notion of a textbook—a flat one-way tightly-edited trip through a sliver of the world’s knowledge as it existed a few years ago—just seems obsolete.  Most online courses aren’t much better.
States and districts will adopt digital textbooks and review online courses for a while because it is a comfortable step into the digital world.   But that won’t last long.  Education is gradually shifting from approving inputs to focusing on student outcomes.  And the number and quality of learning opportunities online is exploding.
Most of the digital courseware being used is decidedly first generation—it’s flat and sequential, not engaging and adaptive.  But we’re beginning to see adaptive content libraries that enable personalized digital learning.  There will still be a role for curation but that will come in the form of content collections, learning games and virtual worlds, and playlists that (like iTunes Genius but smarter) that stitch objects and sequences together.
Because learning object libraries will replace textbooks, eReaders won’t be big in education.  They only make sense where there is a tight narrative.  Tablets that can support a full web experience and are also a useful input device will compete with netbooks for 1:1 supremacy.
Digital native kids and teachers expect a more social experience than ‘log in, follow directions, and email me if you have a problem.’  The shift from digital textbook to content libraries requires more flexibility than current learning management systems offers and will kick off more data than anyone is ready to handle.
Dominant learning platforms to come will combine personalized content libraries, social learning features, smart recommendation engines, and aligned services for students, teachers, and schools—sort of Facebook, iTunes Genius, Google apps, and 1-800 support services for students and teachers.
It’s exciting to look ahead a school year or two, but devices are cheap enough and content is good enough that there’s no reason to wait—ditch the textbooks and go online.  For teachers, it will unlock new opportunities to meet individual student needs. It will engage students and extend and expand learning.  And it will beat lugging a backpack of textbooks home.
Note: a skeptical HuffPost reader wondered if would all degenerate into games and plagiarized writing.  Quick response:

Good questions. I’d like to see school be combo of playlists and projects:
* playlists include mix of games, sims, virtual environments, video, online tutoring, small group instruction, and socratic seminars.  A smart recommendation engine and advisor would create and manage the playlist.
* project folders could be self contained include original texts, data sets, opinion pieces, and a set of performance tasks (like CLA exams).  Other projects would require field work and research.  Both types would require a lot of original writing (and teachers should check it with a plagiarism checker)

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Ed Jones

In defense of CK12 et al, my local school has closer to one computer per classroom than one per student. When you then look worldwide, there's a certain reality to FOS texts.
Besides, when you start to build a digital game or app, its nice to have a little content to work with.
That said, an example of the extremely stupid spending we're doing in the US:
In my small town (3,500) we're spending $600,000 in federal grants to replace perfectly good stoplights (five of them), and to add high-tech crosswalks--where there are no sidewalks.
That $600,000 would buy an iPad for every student in the high school, with money left for support and apps.

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