Discovery – #beyondtextbooks

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching

Discovery brought together an interesting mix of people to talk about the future of the textbook.1 The particular focus of this conversation was the math textbook. The repeated2 request was to aim high and describe what you would really want not to water things down to describe what would sell or what others might be willing to use.3

There is a lot to think about.


Doing digital content properly would have a parallel, intensive, and ongoing professional development element that would inform the container, tools, and the content in very specific ways.

The content would need to be very granular and editable by the teacher at a variety of levels.

The student should be able to annotate content in a variety of ways (highlighting, notes, audio/video) and associate other pieces of content (internally or externally) in a way that builds rich text connections between the notes/associated content and the original element.4

The data gathered and displayed matters quite a bit. There should be a huge amount of thought behind it and what both teachers and students see.

The search function for teachers looking to add or customize content should be internal and allow for something similar to Google’s custom search in terms of set up. A tight integration of search to the authoring tool would also be key.

I think someone else said this somewhere but “don’t pre-chew the food.” It’s gross and makes things boring. Give students interesting things to use and react to. If you’ve chewed it to bits trying to “help” them then chances are you’ve also robbed it of all taste and interestingness.

Long Ramblings

The more I read/write this, the more I add and delete. I’ve come to the point where I don’t know if it makes any sense. Read at your own risk.

Initially, it’s worth considering what people are going to expect from a textbook. Textbooks have typically served two audiences- teachers and students. Both parties received “true” content in a nice organized progression (vertically and horizontally articulated) that someone, probably multiple someones, thought about quite a bit with associated questions and activities. Today’s textbooks have all sorts of associated lesson plans, worksheets, questions, media files, PowerPoints etc. That makes things fairly messy. Even if there’s lots of really good thought behind all of that most of the thinking and rationale is opaque. The tendency is to improve directions for teachers rather than to get teachers to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Too much attention to delivery method (exercises! badges! energy points! sympathetic narrator!) and not enough attention to mathematics, not enough attention to how people learn mathematics.

Christopher Danielson

What makes things difficult is that the actual curriculum and the display/interaction mechanism are two different, yet intertwined, things. In other words, you have to decide how you want students to learn and how teachers are going to facilitate that process so that you can build both the content and the housing to provide the right kinds of interactions and information (both to students themselves as well as to teachers). As is evident in Christopher’s quote above, people tend to focus on the structure and capabilities of the “container” because it’s easier to talk about it in general terms. The actual curricular pieces tend to require very specific conversations- at least that’s how I’d think about it for history and English. There’s probably also some push back against that “digital textbooks” have been envisioned as exactly that, a digital version of the traditional textbook. There are key ways digital content can and should be different. At the same time, you have to look at when physical interactions have key advantages over digital content. In any case, poor content in a fancy shell isn’t going to help nor will good traditional content necessarily take advantage of the digital affordances that should exist in this mythological shell. It may very well be that in talking mainly in the abstract we didn’t do either enough justice.

To further simplify, if you think mathematical conversations are a key element in developing mathematical understanding, there are a number of things that have to be further delineated. Are there particular areas where these conversations are essential? How do you help teachers shape the conversations in those areas?5 Let’s assume you identify a number of places where these conversations are essential. Now a number of other questions need to be answered. What kind of conversations are these? When do you have them online verses face-to-face? When do you blend the two? What role should different media elements play in these conversations? When should it be a still image, a movie, interactive? Do particular tools play a role in furthering the conversation? etc. etc.

Sequentially, I think one might to attack it something like this.

Figure out a general pedagogical philosophy. What do we believe about learning and the experiences we want kids to have? That should fundamentally shape both the content and the container. Technology can help you build a nice Skinner box if that’s what you want. Try to make this consistent between grades, teachers, and subjects. Seems obvious but it doesn’t seem to happen much.

Once you have a general foundation, the specific and nuanced elements of instruction that are associated with the content need to be delineated.

I’d want to further break down the pieces. These actions/interactions6 are important to how people learn. These particular actions/interactions are important to how people learn math. These actions/interactions are important to how people learn this particular element of math. I think a lot of these pieces overlap but there’s important nuance as you drill down towards specific concepts where both the instructional design and the affordances of particular technology based interactions ought to come together with real intent.

To further complicate things, I’d want really powerful model lessons for teachers that are well explained on the back end. The “teacher’s version” would need to allow people to drill down to see and understand the reasoning behind the instructional choices- why this question? why this image? why this tool with this concept? This is something Darren and I spoke about a few times and the group he and Karl Fisch were with did a good job delineating.7 It’s pretty ambitious to attack both professional development and good digital content at the same time but I don’t think things work otherwise. You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. It is the only choice. Standardizing and scripting things to the point where teacher understanding doesn’t matter is a path to madness and despair. Despite the money laced wisdom of Bill Gates de-skilling the teacher and trusting in the wisdom of AI is not a legitimate solution even if you have videos of Disney Certified All-Star teachers singing catchy tunes.

I suppose Discovery could do all this for a district but I’m not sure how that would work. It would seem the process would be really important.


Here are some other things that came up that might be interesting to people.

Watch live video from umwnewmedia on
Start at the 20 minute point and watch about 10 minutes (I promise it’s worth it.)- Wesch talks about how the introduction of “new media” (paper/writing) in this case fundamentally changes a society in regrettable ways. “Media mediate relationships” is a huge statement and one we ought to keep thinking about especially as we make big shifts in educational content. In just about every way, I don’t think we have a clue what computers are doing to us as we use them more and more.

This long toed cowboy boots seem insane and evident of today’s strange culture and yet totally impractical shoes with giant toes have made appearances before. The length of the toes were even restricted by class. I loved the idea of fleeing knights having to chop off the toes of the shoes to retreat during the Battle of Nicopolis way back in 1396.8 It’s these connections to today’s world that I think good history content ought to bring out and use for larger discussions. Fashion, itself, has some really decent potential and is tied into larger issues in fairly accessible and interesting ways.

1 Full disclosure – Discovery funded my travel/room/board. Also Steve Dembo encouraged me to start my own blog in the dark ages of the early 2000s so I still like him for that.

2 Often, I confess, repeated at my insistence.

3 It’s harder to do this than you might think and that is one of my own personal fears. I worry a lot about the chains I don’t feel.

4 That may not make any sense, think something like what iBooks allows but add multimedia elements, the ability to associate external content, and some elements of social transparency. I probably need to draw it up.

5 I wonder how possible this is without a fairly massive professional development component.

6 “Things” sounded too flippant but I’m no happier with this pairing.

7 I’d agree with Karl in terms of opting for an element based check box display system (like WordPress uses) as opposed to the slider.

8 Strangely, I had that anecdote in my head but had forgotten the name of the battle.