Digital Education, not Digital Textbooks

Courtesy: Singularity Hub

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.

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One thought on “Digital Education, not Digital Textbooks

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