We Don’t Need Digital Textbooks, We Just Need Digital Education

Future education needs great graphics and interactive materials, but why wrap them up in a textbook?

We are a generation educated by reading textbooks, taught by teachers who relied on special editions of textbooks for answers, and effected by countless debates over what information should or should not be included in textbooks. For many of us, the concept of going to school without a textbook is inconceivable. How else would you learn? …Well, no one seems interested in answering that question. The E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is on track to create one of the most brilliant and generous projects for digital education: a series of textbooks for all ages (K-12 and college) called Life on Earth. It will be full of interactive multimedia presentations and it will be provided to anyone who wants it for free. Free. The first chapters will be rolling out for download in a few weeks. You can watch a presentation about the Life on Earth textbook, as well as a preview of some of its pages in the videos below. This is a wonderful effort, but it’s missing one crucial bit of understanding. The future of education doesn’t depend on us digitizing and updating textbooks, it will rely on us leaving the textbook format behind entirely. Let me explain why.

Old Media To New Media

I mention the Life on Earth digital textbook project because it will probably be as good as a digital textbook could be. The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation has learned many of the right lessons from the death of old media. Every page of Life on Earth will be filled with compelling animations of biological processes, real footage of organisms, and interviews with scientists. The textbook won’t be a dead piece of paper, it will be alive, constantly updated by the latest in scientific understanding. There will likely be homework servers and online forums to connect students together. Wilson’s group understands that new media requires a new pay structure, and they’ve chosen the best one of all: free. K-12 books will be available for no charge, while college level versions will be sold at 10% of traditional costs (so $8 to $15?). These are forward thinking and exciting decisions, and they come from people who really know biology education. E.O. Wilson has been teaching in this field for decades, and the other big name behind the project, Neil Patterson, is another leading bio-educator with his own future-looking publication company (RedWing Media). Listen to their ideas, and watch their examples – this project is getting many things right.

The lessons that Life on Earth learned from the transition form old media to new media, however, are all object based. Old education had printed pages so new education needs videos, websites, and digital updates. Old education took place entirely in the classroom so new education should be on a notepad computer and in online forums. …They are correct about that, these are the right things for the new education, but not the right approach. We do need videos, websites, updates, forums, etc. What we don’t need is the textbook format.

Let’s go back to that first question: How would you learn if you didn’t use a textbook? Well, how do you use one now? Most of us probably skip around, look at the pictures, maybe read the sections with the best headings or the most intriguing titles. Publishers and educators give us a linear curriculum, but we tend to access it non-linearly. We pursue those things which we find most interesting or important first. Sometimes a book is good enough, or we are fascinated enough, to read a section all the way through. However, it’s generally only for evaluations (tests, exams, teacher lead discussion in class) that we compel ourselves to read everything in a textbook.

Compare that to how you surf the web. You log on and check your landing pages – Facebook, your email account, Singularity Hub, whatever you deem most important. These are your home bases. From there, links point you out to the internet at large – maybe a friend sent you a funny video or you got an interesting headline from a RSS feed that you want to read in entirety. The first link leads to a cascade of others, which you pursue until they end or you get bored, then you bounce back to home base and move out again. Repeat until you’ve spent your entire day reading about funny, important, or random things. I’m sure you have all experienced this: you hop on the internet for just a few seconds and suddenly – POW! – hours have passed. Even when it’s not thrilling, the process of moving through information online is addictive and never ending. You could stay on there for days at a time if you didn’t have work or outside commitments.

Imagine if biology education had the same effect on you.

Life on Earth has all the right materials, but it’s tied down to an outdated educational model. Textbooks make you walk a line from A to B, and in between you get filled with all the knowledge that the writer has gathered for you. Many publishers (digital or otherwise) hype the freedom that comes from modularity. Hey, we’ll make each section stand on its own – you can read them in any order! Yet even if you read the chapters out of order, each section is still a single A to B path. There’s only one route you can take. And I know what many traditional educators are going to point out: that’s how we have to learn! You don’t just throw a bunch of facts in a box and have students pick them out randomly, you begin a lesson, teach the lesson, finish the lesson, and then evaluate how everyone learned. That’s education, it has to be! What would happen if you let everyone decide what parts of lesson they wanted to learn and where to jump from one subject to another?

They would love it. Just like they love the internet. They would become addicted to learning.

I’m proposing a new approach to education, or rather I’m pointing to the new approach that is already here. Let people trace their own path. Completely. Halfway through a sentence on microscopic worms, a student should be able to tap on the scientific name c. elegans and jump to a web page dedicated to it. From there they should be able to follow links to videos, forums, whatever. Link, link, link – the student follows their whims and interests. They return to home base, the sentence on worms, when they feel like it, and they jump out again. The Life on Earth textbook, or any other textbook, can never fulfill this kind of branching of the educational path, because it can only be accomplished on the infinitely complex web that is the internet.

At the risk of sounding trivial: this is how we learn about movies, gossip among our friends online, and humorous events around the world. This is how we intake information on the internet. Right now that data is all pretty useless – it’s not exactly educational. But if we put all the right materials online, if we found a way to link between them, then we might learn about cell membranes as well as we learn about celebrity nip slips.

Gathering the Good, Relinquishing the Remains

Has anyone done something as simple as gather good education materials on the web and linked between them? Sure, tons of people do this all the time. The truly well-maintained Wikipedia pages follow this concept very well. The Khan Academy does this, to some degree, with math education. For those who didn’t read our earlier coverage of the Academy, it’s basically just a well indexed list of hundreds of videos about math on YouTube. A single developer, Khan, makes the videos that cover topics from addition to calculus. Users watch, pause, rewind, and jump between lessons as they see fit. The Khan Academy can teach you K-12 math really well…and there’s not a textbook in sight.

The digital education of the future really only needs two things: well made materials, and connections between them. Life on Earth is creating some amazing content. Their animations look great, the video footage is wonderful, and the interview with scientists explaining topics in their field – c’mon, that’s freakin’ awesome! But the only connections between these materials are the ones they provide. We need more than that.

First, we need Life on Earth to access materials that the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation didn’t create. The future can’t rely on a single textbook, no matter how well it is made. We need to move freely between material generated by one person to another. Is a student having a hard time understanding your video on meiosis? Then she should be able to jump to lessons created by someone else, and continue to leap back and forth in case comparing the two helps.

Second, we need to learn from social media and wikis. We need to let students draw their own connections between materials and share them among peers. In the same way you up and down vote comments you can up and down vote connections between educational materials. The good connections survive, the bad ones are abandoned. Or better still, have a program that records how you vote and find other people who vote the same. Then the program can suggest the connections that fit your learning profile. Students aren’t simply going to share thoughts and concerns on forums, they are going to shape the very way that their education is put together.

Have you ever seen a grassy lawn on a college campus with a multitude of little dirt paths criss crossing it? Each trail is worn by students making the same decision, branching where someone thought to head somewhere new and others followed. That’s the right model for how we should let students teach themselves.

Of course, that same college lawn probably has sidewalks – the paved paths created by its builders. So too will the people who generate educational materials need to provide some promoted connections between them. Think of a traditional print textbook, it has one such sidewalk to follow: start at the beginning and go to the end. But these books also have an index, and I think that’s the real tool for connectivity that needs to be preserved for the 21st century. Instead of taking all your great materials and placing them in a textbook, just throw them online and index them. Cross reference them. Students will fill that broad web in with the detailed trails they need.

This approach to education won’t simply give students unparalleled freedom and interest in teaching themselves, it will also save money. The Life on Earth project is likely to require $10 million, of which they have only secured $1 million in funding (half from the Life Technologies Foundation). Part of this enormous expense is due to the creation of materials: top rated videos, text, homework, etc. The rest, however, is going to be used to tie it all together, to format it into a textbook, to design the software and operating shell needed to run a digital textbook on a computer. A lot of money is going to be spent on structure, not just content. Yet we already have all the file types, the programs, and the formats we need already – we use them all online everyday. If we threw out the textbook structure, and just placed the materials in an indexed heap online, we could save a good deal of money.

Again, the Khan Academy is a good comparison. It works basically on just enough money to pay one person’s salary (by donation). It produces videos, it puts them on YouTube, and it adds them to its table of contents. That’s about it. With a recent $2 million prize from Google, Khan should be able to amplify this process considerably. Just hire more people to do the same. Say at a very respectable $200k each. That’s 10 people generating great math videos for a year. Khan Academy scales up quickly – double the money, double the results.

Now, I’m being a little unfair making this comparison. Biology is presented with intense computer graphics and wildlife filming that math doesn’t need. But even accounting for the differences in price for creating materials, Khan still comes out ahead because each video is very simple to publish: you just post it on YouTube. Textbooks can provide well written content but they bring with them the burden of the formating, marketing, and management of traditional publication. Free flowing education does not. Kill the textbook format and with the money you save you’ll be able to make even more great content.

A World Without Publishers

We’ve seen some interesting projects aimed at transitioning textbooks from print to digital copies, but I’ve come to a realization: the only reason why we keep pursuing ‘textbooks’ is because it makes us believe that we still need publishers. We don’t.

We need writers, and filmmakers, and animators, and everyone else who generates educational content. We need editors and watchdogs to evaluate the content and make sure it is good. We need teachers who can hold students hands as they walk their educational path, and who can inspire them to explore areas they may find boring at first. We need supervisors and tests to evaluate how well this system is working. We need parents and communities to decide our expectations for that system. We need all those things.

Publishers used to sell us a shortcut, a package that put many of these needs in a single space and tied it up with a pretty bow. We paid a lot for that short cut, and we were sold on increasingly shinier and more expensive bows. It’s time for that to end.

The internet allows us to place content in one place, and to link it together in infinite combinations. If we rely on publishers, they will draw walls between content, how else can they make sure you pay for the materials in their textbooks? Instead, we need to focus on creating quality educational materials and putting them out there for everyone to use. We don’t need textbooks, we don’t really need chapters. Each student can build their own curriculum, or if that’s simply too scary, we can create an (several?) official table of contents and encourage students to follow it. That’s fine as long as we allow them to explore and create links on their own as well.

E. O. Wilson’s foundation is doing some great work, as are many others around the world. We need experts in the fields to create the mind-blowing lessons that will pull in students and inspire them to learn. Still, I will be terribly disappointed if they box that content up in a textbook. Let the material be free not just in price but in format. Let it run wild on the internet. That’s the real future of education – not digital textbooks… just digital.

[image and video credits: E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation]
[sources: Wired, E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation]

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