What goes where? This is my way of imagining the role of a textbook in the educational process and of reimagining the “textbook” within a collection of resources an “author” can offer the instructor and students. This post is one in a series based on our personal experiences creating a textbook and related resources and mostly attempting to describe the logic and process of our “project”. (see initial post in this series)
Our Kindle book was created out of the frustration of getting our previous publisher to allow us to move from a large and expensive product to a different and less expensive collection of resources. This proposed collection retained a book in a format we described as a Primer. Do not continue reading if you expect me to argue there is no longer great value in some form of a textbook. We tried for several years to make a transition because the textbook industry seemed befuddled by the obvious backlash against the cost and limitations of textbooks in the present form and because we thought we had an idea that happened to be centered in a content area (the course intending to prepare preservice and in-service teachers to make better use of technology) that would be as good as any for trying something different. Advocates for technology in learning should be interacting with learners in ways that incorporate learning with technology. Anyway, given the scale of the general problem of changing an industry, some experimentation is necessary if these companies hope to survive. Given the amount of money involved in the entire commercial textbook enterprise, some R&D seemed a wise investment even if some ventures did not generate a substantial return on investment.
From the beginning, I had no intention of ridding the world of textbooks. Some probably think this position is taken as a concession to the desire of most to comprimise rather than revolt and that the real visionaries would offer something completely different. Being different just to be different seems pointless. First, you would have to prove to me that a book was an unproductive way to learn.
My general premis was that one should consider the tasks a textbook might be expected to accomplish and accept that the textbook as commonly designed is not appropriate to all tasks. The static, large, text-heavy book is not appropriate to all tasks. However, some form of a textbook is ideal for some tasks.
Why a book (digital or not)?
This is a question that is core and I think educators need to consider it seriously. Some have already reached the conclusion that a book is no longer nececessary and they can simply direct their students to various web resources – free and selected to meet the priorities of the class and the teacher. I read books, assign books, and write books and do not agree with a complete abandonment of the textbook.
The most important expertise of an educational author is the ability to externalize in a tangible and explorable format, a coherent model of a domain of study. This may sound abstract so allow a different explanation. Think of a book as an outline with context explaining how key ideas fit together. You have access to this explorable resource in a convenient form. Getting this outline out of the head of someone else is a complex process. This is what should be regarded as complex and abstract. Learning is clearly not transmission. Teachers do a different set of things associated with the same goal of assisting students in developing their own models of a domain of study. Providing experiences that are motivating and that illustrate important principles is a different goal. Getting up and talking with students day after day about a topic to encourage their building of a personal model is a different skill. However, organizing knowledge in a tangible form is a very different contribution. What are the key ideas and how do these ideas relate to each other? The tangible attribute is important. The book is the trangible product. The tanglible product takes a great deal of time to create and more time than people typically understand to imagine and research.
Authors and teachers assist learners in building their own models of the world. Whether we do our jobs well or poorly or understand what we do in this way, this is really what it all amounts to in the end. Some educators like to throw the term “constructivism” around, but I think it is commonly misrepresented. Understanding that learning is the building of personal models of the world is what constructivism assumes. It is not the experiences or resources provided, but the mental behaviors of the learner involved in processing these experiences that construct understanding. This is how some seem confused by the process. It is not necessarily constructivism if the learner gets his hands wet or dirty or cuts something with a scissors or a scalpel. The thing constructed is not the dissected frog or the log fort, it is the abstract mental representation of circulation or frontier life.
Some students will constract a great model out of any experience – great minds have obviously been present in all historical periods often relying on listening and reading. These learners constructed their models using these inputs because the sources resulted in thinking. The personal motivation and the form of the inputs were sufficient. It seems simplistic to take a position that a given resource (e.g., a book) or experience (e.g., reading, listening) cannot result in meaningful learning. It makes more sense to examine multiple resources and experiences to evaluate potential strengths and weaknesses and to offer options.
We see learning from a book one of the more learner-centered and efficient ways to offer a conceptual model to others. We read far faster than we are allowed to listen or view. We control a book in ways we have no hope of applying to a presenter, video, or life experience. We can review a book to remediate without bogging down a group experience and do so by simply redirecting our eyes to the paragraph we could not understand. No need to waste time on the parts of the experience we understand. If we happen to be bored at the moment, the experience will still be at our disposal in a few minutes or tomorrow when we may feel more like attending. A book offered by someone from a given perspective is far easier and less expensive to replace with an alternative than is an assigned mentor. It is fun to think deeply about any resource – you discover that assumed strengths and weakness are quite debatable. I obviously struggle with what seem simplistic positions to me. This is a constuctivist problem – we see the world from our personal model of how things work. However, understanding we construct understanding is a great starting point because it encourages the comparison of models allowing possible advancement in our own. This is pretty much what Piaget claimed. Challenge me with your model. I can use it to contrast with my own.
My conclusion is that a book is perfectly useful as a learning resource. Rethinking the book is not about whether I can learn from one, but whether the resource I am provided is optimal in terms of recency (probably implying accuracy), cost, ease of conceptualizing, fit with other available resources, personalization, and probably a host of other variables I have not considered. I have given some thought to some of these things and with my coauthor attempted to generate a suite of resources given these considerations. This is not a mental exercise – the suite of resources has been generated (note – recency has been considered so the suite by definition is never in final form). I will admit to another announce – those who offer advice or insight and cannot offer a product as an example. You learn a great deal trying to act on your advice. What I intend to outline in a few blog posts to follow is our thinking about what these resources should consist of and what we have found practical to offer.
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Here is an example of how others feel limited by a textbook. I obviously see the instructor as operating somewhat independently and welcome a related perspective offered by a different individual. Our perspective also is intended to counter the static (for a 3 year period) resource by offering different resources in different ways.