Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Reinventing the Textbook" (for whom?)

Andrew Nusca’s report for ZDNet on Apple’s education-based press conference, held this past Tuesday, had a bold headline:

Apple: We want to reinvent the textbook

I suppose a more honest headline would be “We want to crack the education market,” because this amounted to a pitch for a hardware-software solution worthy of any of the kingpin consulting organizations.  As might be guessed, the press conference was run by the marketing department;  and those of us who have tried to take education seriously at some time or another would do well to ask just how well any marketing department is connected to the nature of education.  After all, marketing is not about education.  It is about indoctrination (or “brainwashing” among more cynical observers);  so, no matter how good intentions may be, there is good reason to question whether or not “marketing judgment” either knows or cares about the needs of either students or teachers.  In order to take a closer look at what is really going on here, I suggest we divide the analysis into two of the basics of education:  reading and writing.

There is no doubt that Apple has had a significant impact on the nature of reading behavior.  I now know people who have used the iPad as a reading device for any number of purposes, some of which are both work-related and serious.  Nevertheless, I have had a twinge of suspicion for about a year, going back to when the marketing folks decided to mount a billboard blitz with the image of an iPad comfortably settled into a lap at the near end of a pair of outstretched legs.  The message seemed to be that reading from an iPad would be more comfortable than reading from a book, newspaper, or magazine;  and, as a corollary, it would be way cooler.

Now, while I probably would like to be comfortable when reading escapist fiction or People magazine, I am not sure that comfort is the critical factor where education is involved.  Now, while I continue to hold to the position that reading has nothing to do with “productivity” and “efficiency” (concepts that imply that reading a text is a waste of time when one can just do a Google search), I also believe that there is a “work” factor to education that should not be subverted by candy-coating the experience with “play” or the barbarism “edutainment.”  Thus, while I might question that a project on which I was a researcher was called “Productive Reading,” I feel that the project still had value through its efforts to enhance the possibilities for engagement between reader and text.  Education comes about through such engagement, and one has no motive to engage when one is too comfortably relaxed.

To Apple’s credit, they seem to “get” this concept of engagement.  The iPad is definitely an engaging device.  It can support reading by taking a rich-media approach to the text (allowing, for example, an author to make a point about a piece of music by including audio clips), enabling not only annotation but the sharing of annotations, and offering convenience features for things like checking the definition of a word without leaving the “reading space.”  To be fair, however, this is all stuff that was around long before the iPad.  The real question is how much of that stuff has been accounted for in the iPad package;  and, even if it is there, will it actually be used in educational settings?

This is not a question of the nature of reading.  Rather, it is a question of whether or not the texts being read will actually support such reading practices.  In other words it is a question of writing.

Anyone who has read a textbook of substance appreciates the value of an index.  Anyone who has had to write such a textbook knows that preparing such an index is a laborious process.  The index is not just a simplistic linking of words to pages.  At its best it is a structured text in its own right, using techniques like indentation to account not only for words but also for relationships among those words.  Now, if preparing an index demands so much of a good author, what will be the demands to prepare the text in a way that it will support all of those “engagement experiences” that Apple trumpets?

In Nusca’s report, here is how Apple addresses this question:

As for content creators, a new, free iBooks Author app allows you to create interactive e-books. The application has a drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface and default templates (math, science) so it’s easy to get existing content into the cloud. It also has a one-click glossary function.

More technically savvy publishers can use Javascript to create their own widgets and HTML 5 for layout, and thus, experience.

The point is that the textbook of the future will require an author of the future.  The writing skills driven by filling blank pages with words (even when mediated by good word processing software) will no longer be sufficient;  and there is likely to be an extended period of trial-and-error as the more adventurous authors have their first experiences sorting out techniques that work from those that don’t.  My guess, however, is that, during this period, very few of those authors will be thinking about the power of JavaScript.  More likely, they will be worrying about the fact that they now have to juggle far more resources than had previously been the case and that integrating all of those resources to make just the right rich-media student text is likely to feel more like movie production than writing a book.

Will all this be good for the currently disappointing state of education in our country?  I continue to hold that the greatest asset for education is a foundation of rich interpersonal experiences.  If the student does not have a strong base of personal engagement with teachers, friends, and family over what happens in the classroom, no amount of cool technology is going to enhance the learning experience.  Indeed, there may even be the risk that a strong “cool factor” may impede those interpersonal experiences, just because the machine is more engaging than any mere human can be.

Put another way, “reinventing the textbook” may introduce changes to the learning experience;  but they are likely to be surface-level changes.  What matters more is what happens at the “deep structure” of the experience.  That “deep structure” does not figure in Apple’s business model;  so we should not expect that they will do anything about it.  In other words the problem of education will remain with us, the mere mortals who use technology.  I cannot feel particularly confident that new technology will do much for how we learn, any more than it has been significantly beneficial in some of the more critical aspects of how we communicate in any setting.

No comments: