ABS Consulting Group, Inc.: Home | Blog | Resume | Speaking | Publications

Monday, January 26, 2015

The New Textbooks Will not be Textbooks

Screenshot from Free Ride, a simulation tool to learn
about gears. It's a learning tool I found charting "my own
path" in a social learning exercise in a MOOC last fall.
Earlier this month Esri's David DiBiase detailed the why and how of Esri's work with publishers in The Future of Web Maps in Next Generation Textbooks. I'm all for more and better maps for student use at all levels, and this work is a key step in the right direction.
I'm excited to look a few years further into the future when the whole idea of a textbook will be formulated for many teachers and learners.

Texbook Use

Textbooks, as I understand it, grew in part to "to contain and systematize the educational experience, making knowledge both portable and economical." That quote is from The Atlantic's Megan Garber, in an introduction to Apple's iBooks 2 platform in 2012. Over the years, textbooks in print or otherwise, have provided instructors and students with curated, perhaps personalized, material from an expert to guide teaching and learning. In the United States, school districts and even whole states select texts because they help standardize and scale educational content. I don't expect to see that change any time soon in the primary and secondary schools.

I agree with DiBiase that enhancing textbooks (social studies, history, geography and others) and learning management systems (LMSs) with interactive maps is a big deal. Most of the people who read this blog may find the idea that a static map or even a navigation app on a phone will soon have interactive cousin in a textbook an obvious next step in educational technology. But for a student who knows old wall maps and maybe Google Earth, it may not be as obvious. The idea that some colored layers on a tablet or laptop can help explain why languages are spoken where they are, or why cities popped up where they did, or why the United States' relationships with counties is the middle east is so complex may prompt a whole new perspective on the world. That means today's educators and instructional technologists need to start thinking about what having more eyeballs looking at maps and more fingers zooming and exploring them will mean to spatial literacy and engagement. 

The New Textbooks Will not be Textbooks

When I taught GIS topics online to graduate and certificate students, starting in 2007, I never considered a textbook. Either no one had taught what I wanted to teach or why I tackled was so new it had not yet made it to any books, let alone textbooks. I built my text into my course, as many of my then colleagues did. DiBiase and his colleagues at Penn State created a rigorous and complete open educational resource, a textbook/course titled The Nature of Geographic Information. He observes in his blog post:
... “the object formerly known as textbook” is beginning to resemble an online course more than an e-book. 
Education technology writer Audrey Watters describes her vision for the future of the textbook, or more generically, a learning device, in Beyond the Textbook, from 2014.
Me, I hope the learning device (and I would also question "device" here) of the future looks more like the open Web -- that is, connections between learners and links between hypertext documents and data that is never bound and is always changing. That's what I'd like to see in lieu of a focus on textbooks -- helping learners be able to navigate the rich resources that are available for them online, chart their own paths to discovery, one that isn't restricted or predetermined by chapter headings and section quizzes and study guides.
At least some of the things she describes were part of the university courseware instructors wrote a decade or more ago. I've seen more advanced implementations in MOOCs I've taken in the last few years. I watched videos produced by my instructors, other institutions, and conferences like TED that were assigned in the syllabi. And, in some cases, I dug up visualizations to help me understand complex concepts. I took quizzes and studied detailed answers and explanations, available whether I got the question right or wrong. I explored online learning tools. I read scholarly articles. I researched the the iron supplement I take. I learned how bike gears work with a woman from Australia. I posted my assignments on this very blog!

This mix of assigning media (text, audio, video, simulations, interactives, quizzes), encouraging social learning and guiding exploration via the Web foreshadows what textbooks, courses and learning devices might become. My sense is motivated educators and learners will love the implicit freedom. But it may not be for everyone; this vision does not seem to mesh with the current K-12 requirement for standardization and scaling. Still, I'm hopeful some parts of may soon be integrated into more traditional textbook models.

Web Maps as Metaphor

A variety of factors may keep U.S. K-12 education strongly connected to textbooks for the next few years. That makes the appearance of interactive maps in them most welcome. Not only do these new maps portend more engaged and spatial literacy, they also provide a window into the learning devices that may lie ahead. Students searching and zooming in on in-text interactive maps will get a taste of what self driven learning without boundaries might feel like.

Thanks to Diana Sinton for input on this article.