400 middle school students in California are about to get an unexpected back to school present: a shiny new Apple iPad. Textbook manufacturer Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is conducting a trial with the California school board to explore the advantages interactive teaching tools have over traditional textbooks. Randomly selected children enrolled to take Algebra I will be given an iPad preloaded with the HMH Fuse: Holt McDougal Algebra I application which not only contains the traditional textbook for the course but more than 400 videos from teaching experts, animated instructions, and a homework coach. iPad students will be compared to classmates with the same teacher who are using the HMH textbook. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss hope that the year long trial will reveal the benefits of digital tools in the classroom. I think trials like this one are long overdue. Check out the HMH Fuse algebra program for yourself in the demo video below.
HMH and the California school board are going to give public updates on the results of this trial starting in January (for the first semester) with full disclosure coming at the end of the school year. I’m going to save you the trouble of waiting, however, and give you the results now. The students with the interactive iPad program will be shown to have a noticeable, but not overwhelming, advantage over their peers. How can I command such prescience? Well, first off the HMH Fuse program looks awesome, almost everything I would want in such a program. I’d have liked to see internet connectivity and forum discussions however:
HMH, the California Board of Education, and even parents and students are going to want to switch to a digital medium. First, there are educational benefits: students are able to choose their own pacing, get customized feedback at each step, and evaluate themselves as they learn. There are also more practical reasons. Textbooks are expensive ($100s each in many cases), heavy, and hard to update without printing a new book. The HMH Fuse program is likely almost as expensive, but you can fit dozens of subjects into one iPad (if not thousands) and software updates can be pushed through quickly and easily.
There’s another reason I can predict the outcome of the trial however, and it’s because I sincerely doubt its empirical nature. Sure, they’ll be comparing randomly selected students across four school districts (San Francisco USD, Long Beach USD, Riverside USD, and Fresno USD) and looking for a variety of indicators in test scores, student satisfaction, and teacher evaluations. They’ve even hired Empirical Education, a testing firm, to judge the trials, and those guys have ’empirical’ right in their name. In the end, however, everybody in this process so far (education board, publishers, etc) has expressed the desire and expectation for the trial to succeed, and that means there’s a strong bias. That bias is going to shape the results whether or not there’s empirical evidence that digital textbooks will be better. Cynical? Oh yes.
I used to work in the textbook industry…and it is an industry, not a vocation. Educational publication companies are out to make money first, educate second. They have to – textbook adoption practices in the US mean that every time you write a textbook you are taking a multi-million dollar gamble on the whims of regional school boards. This leads to some pretty complex (some may say devious) tactics on behalf of publishers. In the case of digital textbooks, publishers are going to save money by not having to actually print their books on paper, and they are likely going to save even more money by making programs modular. Traditionally, when a publisher wants to sell books to two states, say Texas and Florida (both major markets) they may need to rewrite a book to meet the standards and expectations (and alternate histories) of each region. With digital books, they can simply mix and match the desired modules – that’s much easier and cheaper. Also, I suspect that textbook giants will make more money selling digital ‘holistic learning systems’ rather than simple textbooks – they’ve been pushing in that direction for years by packaging supplementary materials (CD-Roms, worksheets, etc) in with books as they are sold.
I’m in a complex state of mind over this trial. I believe in interactive digital textbooks and learning systems like HMH Fuse. I think they’ll actually impact students positively and I really wish I had such programs when I was in school. Digital education is the wave of the future. No doubt. …But I’m also very cynical about textbooks and their publishers in the US. These are good people who want to educate kids, but they are trapped by some very strong economic pressures into doing whatever they can to get an edge, and there are few edges as sharp as new shiny iPad technology. So, I look forward to seeing us move education into the 21st century by adopting digital lessons and interactive programs, but I’m warning everyone that we need to be very critical and vigilant in making sure that these new digital systems are providing real benefits to our students. Like so many technologies, we can only reap the positive gains of digital textbooks by working against the negative possibilities.