Beyond the Textbook

My brain is tired.

That's what you get for spending a day and a half talking about really big issues with really smart people. 

The Background:

Photo: by Wes Fryer

Discovery Education, for whom I'm now employed has been involved with digital spaces and for lack of a better word, a textbook, although we call it a techbook. We all agree, the term fails to recognize that we're trying to offer something different but it's the term for now and I suppose it has a recognizable feel that invites a larger group of educators to consider what it might do for learning. They've launched it in several states and wrapped it in loads of quality professional learning designed to help all teachers, no matter their configuration and access to use technology combined with excellent pedagogy to transform learning. That's the goal. We've had some success and feel good about what's been accomplished but recognize we need to get even better and with that invited 18 folks from across North America who are known leaders and thinkers and are willing to be critical for the purposes of making education better.  We spent the evening and a day exploring the future of learning and the role of textbooks in an event called "Beyond the TextBook".

The Format:

We began with a pretty broad couple of questions: What should a digital textbook look like and what is out there that you've seen that is worth talking about? That pretty much kick started a 3 hour conversation where folks openly and honestly shared what they saw as critical elements and ideas about learning in 2012 and beyond.

The Outcome:

For Discovery it served to gain some outside feedback and insight and see more broadly the implications of any kind of product and service development. Copious notes will serve for fodder for the next little while.

My Take Away:

There was largely consensus about several concepts. The idea that learning needs to be social and that the platform should have built in opportunities for students and teachers to connect ideas and be able to easily share. There also needs to be a way to bridge the gap between closed and open formats allowing students to bring in more open content and consider how to encourage remix. Curation was a big buzz word and while it has many implications in this context it focused on how the learner would be able to curate content easily. I suppose to simply all the conversations the three C's stood out most: Collaboration, Curation and Creation. 

I also recognized a distinct difference in perspectives. In the room where a mix of classroom teachers and administrators and consultants and higher ed folks. The focus of the teachers and administrators was more focused on the practical and immediate use in the classroom as well as concerns about access and cost. The higher ed and consultants had much broader concerns about the future of open education, the authoritarian nature of curriculum and textbooks and the pedagogical implications. Again, not that these were conflicting necessarily but it reflected the worlds they live in. 

Underlying all the conversations were two ideas that I didn't think were answered directly but certainly were influencing the discussion. First is the role of assessment and accountability. How is the testing culture influencing publishers and text books? The folks in that room as well as the people I know at Discovery are largely opposed to the emphasis of testing and are interested in simply making learning better and yet do they create and design products that ignore that reality or support it or maybe there's an in between place. 

The second issue that wasn't specifically addressed was what is the role of private, for profit companies in education? Many people everything should be free and that private has no place in public education. I've heard people suggest the Internet is the best text book. I think that's over simplying things and Tom Daccord actually does a nice job of addressing that in his post. The role of private companies will always be debated and has been for a while. Having now made the shift to working for one, I'm trying to sort out that role as well. While I don't directly have to worry about the specifics, I do feel like the intent is to create something of value, be that a service or product and empower and support students and teachers in a variety of great learning opportunities. The waters can get muddied no doubt but constantly asking the right questions about intent and purpose. I like what David Warlick says in a reply to a comment on his post:

I worried, when I left our state department of ed and started “charging money” for what I did, if I had joined the enemy . But then I realized that we’re all making a living. What’s changed is that my contracts last for a day, or three days rather than for a year. Companies create and market services and products to help. It’s a vast partnership. The problem is when any of these companies become so rich that legislation starts to wrap itself around their services, sustaining them and perpetuating how teaching and learning is done. Textbooks are certain an example of this. That said, I’ve been in this field long enough to know that I can be surprised, and that those of us who can inventively adapt to the changing needs of education are welcome. The rest will and should become obsolete and go away.

At any rate it was a fantastic couple of days.  I'd also encourage you to read for yourself what a few others have said:


#BeyondTheTextbook live feed on Twitter:!/search/%23beyondthetextbook

Tom Whitby's recap:

Wesley Fryer's posts about the Forum:

Audrey Watters' recap:

David Warlick's recap:

Karen Hornberger's recap:

Steve's ongoing bookmarks:

Bud Hunt

There were a few more than this but could give you a good taste. If you did write about it, go ahead and leave a link in the comments.  

Here's a podcast that was recorded with a few of the participants.