Will books become ‘less like glorified PDFs’ (and more like wikis)?

I’m anxious to see how book publishers address the challenge of enabling a more engaged classroom. Actually I’ve been watching this engagement space for years, covering employee engagement until recently.

So this statement from Pearson, about making digital content look “less like glorified PDFs” begs the question: What kinds of skin does it plan to give the information that once belonged in books? Less like PDFs and more like Videos? Games? Chat rooms? Blogs?

The gravitational pull of tablets will be hard to resist, for Pearson and its competitors McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Miflin Harcourt. Last year Pearson commissioned research on students’ tablet use and found that:

  • Seven in ten college students (70%) have read digital textbooks (from 62% a year ago)
  • Six in ten high school seniors (58%) have read digital textbooks (up from 41% a year ago)

Luyen Chou, a former teacher, and now in charge of content at the company must know this shift is happening faster than schools, publishers, and state education policy wonks could keep up.  To get a sense of where these content gardens might spring, and which engaged spaces we might be moving into, listen to Chou (who got my attention sometime back because of his reference to Maria Montessori). It’s a pre-Pearson speech at a TedTalks event.

So will the new digital books –let’s call them Un-Books for now– move fast enough so that :

  • We teachers might be able to tweak knowledge that is ‘born digital’?
  • Someone could effortlessly curate the material, enhance a chapter here, drop in a slide show, or embed a sound bite captured on a field trip?
  • I could give Peter a slightly different version of my walk down Boston’s Freedom Trail, from the version I give Paul? Could Peter and Paul add a Waymark of Benjamin Franklin’s print shop to the class wiki? (What’s Waymark? Short explanation here.)

I don’t see these un-books as a threat to the ones on our library stacks, any more than I fear that the camera phone is going to kill the SLR.

Perhaps Chou has some ideas.

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That burning E-book question: Will it change teaching?

If you are a fan of the Kindle or the Nook, and wonder what it bodes for education, you should read Jeffrey R. Young’s analysis of the impact of eBooks on teaching in the Chronicle. (The Object Formerly Known as The ‘Textbook)

He makes an important point toward the end,  that textbook companies are morphing into tech companies. I don’t think this is cause for alarm. It’s not just a necessary part of their survival, it’s about moving where the puck is headed.

I’ve got mixed feelings about books vs digital. It’s not an either-or for me. (I’m a teacher, and I also write about the digital space.) I believe that ‘born digital’ content will not only originate from the publisher’s side. Teachers will one day find it so easy to blend their lesson plans and their accumulated wisdom into one space –presentations, hand-outs, hand-made videos etc– that they will use to create the upcoming year’s ‘textbook.’ Or is it Tech-book?

For this two things need to happen:

  • Schools will need to empower us teachers to take that leap. Teachers are terrific content creators, even though they don’t think of themselves that way;
  • Publishers will begin to partner with those teachers, and (since they have the tech tools/programmers on hand) help them become part of the process. Books embedded with simple jumping off points such as QR Codes and Augmented Reality, with mobile-friendly formats etc could be customized not just to the student but to the incoming class. Jimmy’s showing interest in trigonometry? He’ll have more challenging hand-outs just for him. Kim’s excelling in robotics? She will have her math word-problems oriented around missions and electronics.

It seems like a big leap, but it’s just two removes from what we are doing now, and a quantum leap from the canned literature squeezed into the same old books and piped through the online readers.

It will be a win-win-win for publishers, school budgets and, most importantly, the students who will demand these hybrid knowledge formats… er, books.

So, will digital textbooks change teaching? Yes, in ways we don’t yet know.

Computer-based reading tools, not magic bullet

Worth a read, even if you don’t agree. Peter DeWitt’s post on The Myth About Computer-Based Reading Software?

One point that struck out: Every child talks with peers about reading and writing.

Talking! Even while reading?

This is where technology can fail, especially when we put too much emphasis on the words on screen, and too little emphasis of the words (stories) in their head. I know most software tries to solve this by asking the online reader in an intervention program to ‘re-tell the story’. But I have a huge problem with that. Typing ain’t talking. Processing words through your fingers involves a separate part of your brain. Speech involves the frontal lobe, the Broca area— that we teachers sometimes suppress just for the sake of keeping the room quiet!

But re-telling a story to an inanimate screen is like getting someone to have a conversion with Siri, just because one can.  (Siri in the classroom is a whole new topic!)

SproutsMontessori_IMThink of why we read and what we do after we finish a book. We talk about it. For weeks, sometimes! By re-constructing the story, we revisit and embed some of the best parts of the writer’s craft – the grammar, the turns of phrase,  and of course stock our reservoir with a new vocabulary. I see this happen, almost in real time, at my wife’s Momntessori school, when 4-year olds pick up a book to ‘discuss’ it!

I’m not against digital books. I’m in fact a  big supporter of ePub, and am a heavy user of a Kindle. But it does not replace my belief that the mastery of reading comes from flipping pages (not screens) and talking about the content.