Embed innovation or implant potential?

This thought on etextbooks is an overflow from a conversation I was having on skype with Li and Tore about a workshop aimed at scoping what we would like the etextbooks of the future to look like. We were talking about how the idea of a textbook–its role in teaching and learning and hence (perhaps) its nature–was different in different cultures (Europe, US, Asia) and educational settings (school, higher education), when Tore said something along the lines of “why are are discussing this, shouldn’t we be talking about educational requirements”. Of course we should be talking about educational requirements and how they might be met by technologies such as ebooks, but I think there is more than that. My immediate reply was that by defining an area of interest as “etextbooks” we were implying a continuity with textbooks. I don’t think continuity implies a simple like-for-like replacement because I think the potential for etextbooks is far greater than that for paper textbooks, so moving to etextbooks should radically shift the trajectory of change. But the implication seems to be that etextbooks will pick up where paper text books leave off. That, I think is different from 20 or so years ago when we were talking about how computer based learning (or more recently online courses and technology enhanced learning) marked a step change in how education was delivered. In that case much of the talk was about how technology will radically change education. Even if my characterisation of the two cases as opposing is a bit crude (as it is), it’s worth comparing the two approaches. I’ll do that here, just briefly.

The technology-will-revolutionise-education approach runs the risk of alienating the people who you most need on your side if that revolutionary change is to be an improvement, that is the teachers and students. I remember we used to talk about technology as a Trojan Horse for introducing pedagogic improvement in HE, something that I stopped doing when I went to a presentation where the speaker pointed out that the Trojan Horse was an act of war in the context of a bloody siege, and perhaps that isn’t the way learning technologists should approach teachers. More importantly, introducing technology probably isn’t the best way to approach improving education. Introducing technology is not straightforward, it will take attention away from other matters: whatever the initial intent, it will distract from thinking about teaching and learning. If you want to improve education you should focus on that and probably not do something else that is really difficult in it’s own right at the same time.

So the start-with-something-familiar approach has an advantage here in that it simply focuses on planting a technology with higher potential into existing practice. The risk is that substitution is seen as as all that needs to be done, or that requirements that arise from this objective are over prioritised. For example, I have seen requirements for page-faithful display (i.e. the ability to reproduce on the ebook reader exactly what would be on paper) and page numbers as requirements for etextbooks. They may be desirable for marketing purposes, and there are real functional requirements relating to how content is presented and how it may be referenced, but building-in these restrictions as requirements would, in my view, be a mistake. Let’s have a strategy where we aim to embed but with a view to enhancing.

A triangle of objectives for etextbook technology; from the bottom: cost, availability, portability, functionality, innovation.
The path forward suggested for the US by the Educause/Internet 2 pilot etextbook pilot. Start with a basis aimed at increasing adoption and move forward to improvements in functionality and transformation.
Image from Grajek, Susan, Understanding what higher education needs from e-textbooks: an EDUCAUSE/Internet2 pilot (Research Report), EDUCAUSE July 2013.

I think this is the approach which is suggested by the recent report on the Educause/Internet2 pilots Understanding what higher education needs from e-textbooks, summarised in the image on the right. I must admit that I find this somewhat depressing, I am interested in getting to the peak of that pyramid as quickly as possible, but I would rather get there with teachers and learners than to be touting some theoretical improvement that is divorced from real teaching and learning. And of course, it’s important to be thinking from the outset what functionality and innovation should be built once the technology is in people’s hands.

I am presenting a session at Alt-C 2013 entitled Into the Mainstream? New developments in eTextBooks next month where I hope to discuss ideas like this.