02 February 2012

Textbooks and Encyclopedias and Lectures, Oh My

When I first met Dr. Rand Spiro, the man behind Cognitive Flexibility Theory, he launched an attack on Wikipedia. So, my initial reaction was,"not again." But as I listened, I realized that he was not against the crowdsourced authorship, or anonymous authority, and, in fact, he was a bit more positive after I introduced him to the "Talk" pages, what Rand was complaining about was the recreation of the Encyclopedia format.

Why, he wondered, would we reproduce this first century (AD) form in this age? Couldn't we envision anything better? Yes, Wikipedia is crowdsourced, and thus both more accurate, more diverse, and more updated, but it remains a work constructed on the oldest of classification systems.

The machine is us, Michael Wesch
Digital Learning Day 2012, and I found myself back in 1996. "WASHINGTON -- Hardbound textbooks could go the way of slide rules and typewriters in schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years. The Obama administration's push comes two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it would start to sell electronic versions of a few standard high-school books for use on its iPad tablet." In 1996 I was working with a high school librarian on developing ways to teach students about search strategies. This was, in historical perspective, at a point just before Larry Page and Sergei Brin would write:
"Some Rough Statistics (from August 29th, 1996)
Total indexable HTML urls: 75.2306 Million
Total content downloaded: 207.022 gigabytes
BackRub is written in Java and Python and runs on several Sun Ultras and Intel Pentiums running Linux. The primary database is kept on an Sun Ultra II with 28GB of disk. Scott Hassan and Alan Steremberg have provided a great deal of very talented implementation help. Sergey Brin has also been very involved and deserves many thanks.
-Larry Page page@cs.stanford.edu"

"You've got mail" The AOL home page
So, early in the process, when Page and Brin's Stanford predecessors were dominating 'web search' with Yahoo! which was, of course, a huge leap from what America On Line was offering. There were actual search engines back then, the dominant one being AltaVista, and we needed to explain to students the difference between a "web directory," Yahoo! and AOL, and a search engine such as AltaVista, Lycos, Excite and even a "metasearch engine" like dogpile. Directories were like physical libraries, we explained, curated collections organized into categories, while search engines represented something entirely new. We asked kids - high school freshmen - to find cars they could buy, finding prices, reliability reports, etc, and we asked them to try both routes.

The search engine was radical in 1996. It opened up a new kind of library, a library without walls, without curation, without limitations. And it was uncomfortable for many, including those who built Yahoo! (and who have never quite recovered). But the search engine is not new now, and I think it is time to embrace what Michael Wesch at K-State has been talking about for years, that the end of the Gutenberg Era gives us dramatic opportunities to re-think.

"They put the shelf back" - Michael Wesch in Information R/evolution
The future is not what you think...

And not just the distant future, the near future. I'm always amazed that Sears shut down their catalogue operation the year before Jeff Bezos founded Amazon. One group of corporate whizzes saw home delivery as a thing of the past, and some guy out in Seattle thought it was the future. The F.W. Woolworth (the original "five and dime") chain shut down its US operations just as "Dollar Stores" were exploding. General Motors axed their high gas mileage small Corvair (with the encouragement of Ralph Nader) just before the Arab Oil Embargo made gas mileage the number one issue for car buyers. We needn't even include the legendary Time-Warner/AOL merger...

We probably cannot expect a better track record from education leaders or politicians than we've gotten from our highest paid capitalists, of course, but we do need to challenge the decisions which are made which seem targeted to the past. And right now in education we seem to still be investing in the past in huge ways... in textbooks, in lectures, and in the teaching wall. The only reason we're not investing in encyclopedias is that now, that's free, though we still have those who oppose even that tiny change.

it is time to re-think education and what we can do with technology
The idea that the best use the US government can imagine for a digital device is to reproduce a 15th century format with a couple of 3D animations is sad, though hardly surprising. Apple is just the latest organization to try to rip off schools embracing textbook delivery. "In the early 1900s, textbook purchasing at the local level was notoriously corrupt," many scholars have noted, discussing all who profiteered at the expense of that early 1:1 initiative. That the best way to spread "ideas worth spreading" is by lecture and PowerPoint, seems equally unfortunate. That the best way to re-imagine the classroom is with an incredibly expensive projector system which reinforces the "teaching wall," is, surely, horrifying. But if you don't have a teaching wall, where will all those "sages-on-the-stages" stand? (science of school room re-design?)
Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies - it happens when society adopts new behaviors. - Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p. 160

I visit many schools that have 'new technologies,' but not enough of them also have 'new behaviors.' It's time for us educators to raise our game (leaders, I'm pointing to you first). - Scott McLeod.
There are better ways to do things like textbooks, free ways for teachers, or better, students, to assemble information. And these should be allowing us to fundamentally consider new ways to assemble information, rather than a pre-cooked, pre-arranged text.

Flat World Knowledge
California Open Source Textbooks
MIT OpenCourseware
Stanford on iTunes
Michael Thornton's Third Graders build their own Textbook in LiveBinder

And there are better, more interactive ways, to "spread ideas" than putting someone on a stage to talk, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes. And better ways to use projection technology than reinforcing the traditional classroom. When I spoke, two years ago, to Glenn Vos, a Christian school superintendent in Holland, Michigan, "he talked about rebuilding classrooms so there was no "front" anymore. He talked about wide hallways where students could gather. He talked about attendance policies which allowed students to sign into classes from elsewhere in the building if that made them more comfortable. He talked about multiple projection screens in every classroom to break "single focus learning." He talked about dropping text books for authentic materials and the acceptance of multiple - and student chosen - ways of demonstrating knowledge."

PowerPoint, circa 1958
If  we do not alter our expectations for how we expect new technologies to be used, they will be used like old technologies. PowerPoint becomes FilmStrips. Computers become typewriters. IWBs become chalkboards. And the tablet form becomes a way to enrich corporations.

We need to seize the moment, when moments like this come. We need to break the bounds enforced by old technologies, not reinforce them. So, let's forget "the textbook," they were probably wronganyway...

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

People 'invest in the past' because it's easy to think in terms of the past. Or at least easier than to think about the future.

Also I think that as the historical hierarchies of knowledge come down like the Berlin wall, hierarchies which more closely resemble our neurology will arise.

For instance, despite its title, Wikipedia exists not as an echo of a historical form (the encyclopedia), but to fill a gap in how knowledge is organized on the web. There *needs* to be a general-access page where you can gain some general knowledge about specific things, so that everyone can research it together. See Conservapedia as a by-contrast example of this. Some people need a cite for a 'conservative viewpoint,' so they find the most politically-appropriate one, rather than debate it on wikipedia itself.

I could tell you how this mimics neurology, but you've probably already figured it out. :-)


Anonymous said...

Oh, and one other thing...

The internet does, actually, exist on fixed physical media, and it's data (fixed and moving) is organized carefully and with great forethought, in all kinds of hierarchical ways.

We think of 'the cloud,' only because we don't care so much where our data is, only that we have access to it.

For instance, the data that makes up the Wikipedia is on a server in a place (probably many servers in many places). The system by which Wikipedia operates has to be maintained by humans, so it is organized by those humans in order to be more easily maintained.

In the future, librarians will be network engineers. :-)


Scott McLeod said...

I wonder if we should think about these as transitional technologies and initiatives? After all, when automobiles were invented, they first called them "horseless carriages." Perhaps this is a necessary step for most people / institutions toward what you and I can envision today?

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