Friday, November 06, 2009

More On Textbooks

[ fixing some of the typos in the original, adding hyperlinks... ]

On Thu, Nov 5, 2009 at 5:19 PM, Robert Hansen wrote:
> Kirby, you haven't really made an argument for why online would be better than text books. The only argument I have seen so far is that they would be much cheaper. I am all for giving text books some competition, but if a district went online entirely the parents that could afford them, would buy text books for their kids. And then people would cry foul because yet again the affluent get ahead.

I'm skeptical that your model would hold true in every district. Many in my neck of the woods are down on harvesting trees for trivially wasteful activities such as toilet paper, newsprint and textbooks. Of course the lobbies come in and explain about recycling (a responsible activity), plus toilet paper is a tremendous convenience, so the average tipping point is still "lets waste lots of paper".

However the peer pressure to be cool, to walk and talk like an environmentalist, is pretty keenly experienced here in Portland, YMMV.

Affluent kids put their textbooks on memory sticks as PDFs, read 'em on Ubuntu Starling-1s from System76 running Karmic Koala or, in my case, Jaunty Jackalope. I need to check if there's a fix for the wifi glitch (or troll, gremlin) along the upgrade path.

> They have been testing the Kindle in some schools and it is bombing. And I know you are talking about something better than the Kindle but text books are going to have the edge for some time for subjects that require more than a vocational glancing blow. That is what makes your career academically based or not. Whether you only got a vocational understanding of the subject or an actual understanding.

The deeper questions revolve around the school intranet and whether the server is robust enough to store edited versions of last year's football games and theatrical performances, the occasional lecture, some instructional cartoons, lots and lots of student work.

We should remember our history: textbooks arose when industrial standards were still new and could not be taken for granted. States had this idea of a centralized Paris time or Moscow time and everyone was to march to the same drummer, get with the same beat. You hear echoes of that from national standards people of today, most of whom we feel it's safe to ignore.

Fast forward to the age of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears and you see we're glued together not by shared textbook boilerplate so much as our electronic media, and these include so-called "infotainment" as well, not just 1-800... Ginsu Knife commercials but Discovery, History... And then there's simply having a DVD player and access to stores of videos, such as Laughing Horse Books (lots on the Spanish Civil War, for those beginning a study of the early modern period e.g. Pan's Labyrinth, Into the Fire...). Read about Ernest Hemingway, with a look back at Mark Twain (likewise not into sorrows of empire).

We've got Sesame Street as an on-ramp, then shows for older kids like Bill Nye the Science Guy (dated yet timeless material in many ways, as basic science hasn't changed that much). The screen has been competing with the live performance educator for several decades by now and it's looking more and more that the screens won, and in the process have liberated future generations from needing to synchronize their schooling on the backs of some fleet o slave ships (aka the public schools), which newly unburdened institutions will now be more free to "roll their own" in the sense of coming up with a "place based" education (one sourced by local experts and faculty, in cahoots with private industry, not beholden to anyone "back east" as some still say, (sounding retro), not waiting for the next edition of some mass published textbook offering (yawn, not interested sorry)).

What your affluent kids are learning today is how to explain parabolas to each other (as cross-sections of parabolic dish antennae -- that was a bad idea to lose focus on a principal application of those 2nd degree curves) on the school intranet, or simply via YouTube if your school is liberal enough to provide unfettered access (some Portland schools are).

In sum: because our culture is now glued together outside the classroom, by electronic media, the classroom is free to localize more and make the math story problems be, you guessed it, vehicles for teaching about the local infrastructure and history.
"The aqueduct from Bull Run to Mt. Tabor is x miles long and on June 1, 2011 see y gallons per second holding steady for five hours. How many gallons of clear, clean Bull Run water did the Mt. Tabor reservoirs receive in those five hours, neglecting to factor in evaporation or leaking?"
I realize many math teachers see real world content as a drag on the subject, as math is supposed to point to this Ivory Tower world wherein the concerns of the reality-minded have been left outside the gates. The outsiders are, by definition, not privy to some inner circle set of abstractions (aka "pure" math -- versus "dirty" is the snobbish implication).

But it's not that either/or in this picture either, as the abstract stuff still comes across better if you work with Java applets, watch Flash movies, listen to competent narrations of spheres turning inside out (a two part series on YouTube featuring input from Bill Thurston, one of my profs), and otherwise partake of your electronic heritage.

Schools that stay based in wood pulp are quite literally "dark ages" comparatively speaking.

> I would like to see some better quality videos and smart board presentations out there but it is hard to create classics that fit everyone in that medium. That is why good teachers will always be an asset. You have to reach the kids.

Maybe we don't want anymore "classics that fit everyone"? We already have so many, under-appreciated. This may be the sea change some still haven't grokked.

Out here in the Silicon Forest, the math we want to teach is simply not in any of the textbooks, period. We simply have no choice but to go somewhat cold turkey, because we have serious economic concerns which involve knowing more discrete math and having more software literacy than is anywhere available from the big publishers you may be thinking about.

But hey, we have Intel, Nike, Wieden + Kennedy, Spirit Mountain... PPS, 4D. So that's a lot of talent and even funding.

We invite the State of Oregon to join us, to help us compete with other states, but also collaborate (as we've been doing with Alaska).

We could leave the State of Florida to organize its own internal affairs why not? You've got The Mouse, NASA, shouldn't have any trouble keeping your schools up to date, at least around Satellite Beach.

We don't think Obama is on the hook to deliver anything, not even stimulus checks, although we do like the WPA as a model and think Public Works ala the Roosevelts were going somewhere constructive before the derailing occurred (aka WWII).

Those of us using the Litvins text know there's a PDF version. That's on my other Ubuntu laptop which is mostly just a carcass, though I could still use that hard drive... anyway, just saying we appreciate it when a publisher just makes an agreement with the district, lets the district apply its own logo, other watermarks. Then at least if there's unauthorized redistribution, we'll have some sense of the source.