Right now, electronic versions of many traditional textbooks cost nearly the same as the paper version. That's because the textbook industry hasn't yet been transformed in the way the music industry has (see my prior article on this subject). Few people pay $20 for a music album any more - we got very tired of albums with maybe two decent songs and a bunch of mediocre stuff. Now we expect the option to buy music by the song, with only a few artists having the market power to demand that their songs be bundled in albums any more.
Will we see something similar with textbooks?
Ask most teachers, and they'll tell you that a significant fraction of the material in their current textbooks is never used. In some cases, there just isn't time to cover every chapter. In other cases, most but not all of the contents match our evolving curriculum. So the teachers use what fits, and have to find other sources for everything else.
An evolving practice is for teachers to assemble much of their material from sources other than textbooks. It may be modules available from online sources, or material written by inhouse staff. And of course teachers have been writing some of their own lesson material for years.
With iPads in the hands of every student, we have a lot more flexibility as to how to assemble course material. What doesn't make sense is for every school district in America to write their own materials for every subject.
What I think will develop is a network of content developers, some embedded within school districts but mostly independent, each specializing on various subjects, or courses, or even particular units within courses. For example, maybe Hilliard schools becomes known as an excellent producer of American History content, and we start selling that to school districts across the country. Maybe Worthington becomes the Trigonometry experts. Maybe Bexley specializes in 17th Century French Literature. A school district in Boston becomes the go-to source for Physics curriculum.
If folks like Prentice Hall, one of the major textbook publishers, are smart, they'll start to nurture and develop these independent content producers. And they'll find a way to package and sell content in a manner like iTunes, where a school district can download a math unit for a couple bucks per student.
The competition will drive content producers to figure out more and more powerful ways to present concepts, using the full audiovisual capabilities of devices like the iPad. We already see some of this with the Khan Academy material for teaching math and science.
I think we'll also see a kind of publishing standardization develop such that a course is say American History can be assembled from modules acquired from many sources without subjecting students and teachers to jarring and distracting differences between authors. That in turn will drive the device manufacturers to build more and more capability into their devices. And drive down the price.
In the process of getting stuff organized for the upcoming move of our household (still within the school district), I came across a document from my 9th grade year explaining to our parents why our school was arranging a three day trip to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here's an excerpt:
Today, we desperately need more effective science instruction, for international competition is ever increasing. Our scientific and technical knowledge is increasing and changing at at such an accelerating rate, that to cram more facts into the heads of our children is certainly not the answer. Professional scientists tell us that 1/3 of what we are teaching today will be obsolete five years hence, and what replaces this knowledge has not yet been discovered.I was in the 9th grade in 1968, forty-six years ago. Yet it's remarkable how much this educator's warning sounds like what we hear today. In those days, our personal calculating device was a slide rule, and we produced term papers on manual typewriters (footnotes were a pain!!). We had to find our information by actually going to a building called a library, looking through the card catalog (title, author, subject), checking out several promising books, searching those books for relevant information, and making dozens of note cards. "White-Out" was our best friend.
One of the casualties of our move is a set of very fine encyclopedias and a dictionary that my wife and I bought soon after we were married. Today, it's not worth making shelf space for these expensive books in our new, smaller home. Truthfully, we haven't cracked open one of these volumes for decades.
What does the future look like for today's 6th graders, the first of our students to be issued iPads? We haven't a clue. We know that they'll be expected to locate and synthesize vast amounts of information, and they won't need to be trained on the Dewey Decimal system to find it. They won't be competing with peers who are armed with facts, even though we marvel at Aaron Craft's ability to recite Pi to 60 places.
I remember a physics professor once saying that in our working lives, we wouldn't be expected to pull the differential equations of thermodynamics from our heads, but we'll need to have internalized that there has been a method developed for addressing such problems, so that when we encounter one we'll know it can be solved, and what resources to use to proceed.
That's the kind of knowledge we need to impart to our kids, whether we're talking about science and math, or philosophy and history. They need to be able to call on the great thinkers who came before them and add their own insight (a function of knowledge) and creativity to help solve problems that we today don't know exist. And as much as many like to poo-poo the value of a liberal arts education, teaching kids how to think and reason is just as important as teaching them a trade.
These iPads are both a instructional learning devices, and a portal for access to the incomprehensible amount of information out there. Will they hold up as state-of-the-art for long? No, of course not. The slide rule I mastered in high school was out of date and relegated to a drawer in my first couple of years of college. No one in my workplace used a slide rule - everyone had pocket calculators, expensive as they were.
But that doesn't mean my high school physics teacher shouldn't have taught us how to use a slide rule. In fact, I was at an advantage when I started engineering school at Ohio State - many of my classmates had never used one before.
Likewise, I have no doubt that the students of Hilliard City Schools will be advantaged by the incorporation of these devices into our methods for delivering instruction. Isn't that why most of us moved to Hilliard and continue to financially support our schools - so our kids will have a great start in life?