The Future of a Dinosaur

May 30, 2006

The calculus book of the future might be a lithe guidebook peppered with Web links. It might just be downloaded to a Pocket PC. Or maybe it will be a wiki, compiled at the editorial discretion of the calculus professors, and, perhaps, students.

Those were just a few of the ideas trotted out at the National Science Foundation-sponsored “Reconsidering the Textbook” workshop in Washington last week. The invitation-only gathering -- invitees were recipients of NSF awards for a combination of teaching and scholarship, plus some special speakers and publishers -- was an effort to get science and math faculty members thinking about how technology should change the traditional textbook, which has thus far held fast to its niche in a growing jungle of technology.

Parts of the brainstorming seemed like the academy’s version of a concept-car show, running the gamut from completely digital books with animations, to virtual environments that students can experience and manipulate.

What everyone agreed on, is that the way students gather information is changing rapidly, but textbooks are not. They are less portable than ever, and students can’t sell them back to the bookstore fast enough.

“How do I reconcile that textbook, which is very static, with dynamic teaching?” asked Paul Bierman, a geology professor at the University of Vermont who helped organize the meeting. For Bierman, the answer was simply to get rid of the textbook altogether. He prefers to get his students out in the field cracking open rocks.

Faculty members agreed that the Internet has made information so easily and quickly available that the role of the textbook as a comprehensive reference has been diminished. The next evolution of the textbook, many of the attendees suggested, might be more as an island of credibility amidst the ocean of information, signifying what information is reputable.

Several faculty members used the analogy of the guidebook. “When I went to Egypt, I didn’t take the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt,” said Richard McCray, professor emeritus of astrophysics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I took Lonely Planet.” And then, McCray said, if he could spend time at a particular site of interest, and dig deeper if needed, just as a professor can linger on important topics in a class.

The way students use textbooks varies widely. There was consensus that few students diligently read assigned material before class, and that most turn to the chapter to help with homework problems.

Noah Finkelstein, an assistant physics professor at Colorado, found little or no correlation between textbook reading habits and grades when he analyzed groups of math students.

Faculty members at the workshop were insistent that technology wouldn’t drive classroom change by necessity, but that, given what appears to be the equivocal usefulness of standard textbooks in many cases, there will be opportunities for enthusiastic teachers to change the face of instruction.

The question is: what’s the best technology-driven delivery method? One problem instructors face is that technology changes so quickly, and courses are so diverse, that it’s hard to assess the impact of technology in teaching, and to make any broad statements about what works.

Ten years ago, it seemed certain that computer labs were a sound investment, so NSF poured money into them, only to see them made essentially obsolete in many cases by powerful laptops.

Some of the most heated discussions at the meeting were around whether textbook innovation should be left to the commercial world, both because industry has the means to distribute methods, and the incentive to experiment, whereas many professors – especially those without tenure – are loathe to depart from the beaten path, especially even a successful effort often does little to aid in getting tenure.

Steven Rasmussen, president of math textbook publisher Key Curriculum Press, said that, if left to publishers change might be slow. “Publishers tend to do what they can sell,” Rasmussen said. “The economics are not driving change, but the status quo. The change away from textbooks would be expensive.”

Some faculty members felt that NSF should give grants for professors to drive change. But one NSF representative said that the proposals she sees for grants for innovative teaching techniques “always say, ‘it is known that …,’” she said, “but I don’t see any data [about teaching techniques that have proven gains].” A few faculty members pointed out the catch 22; that they couldn’t get grants to do projects they could assess, because there aren’t any completed assessments available.

Elliot Soloway, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, and a proponent of in-class hand held devices, said that the institutions “promulgate the gap [between available technology and its use in the classroom] by waiting for data … we have to move first.”

Kurt Squire, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who studies the usefulness of video games for teaching, pointed out that academe is resisting progress in some cases. He pointed out a recent Associated Press article: “More professors ban laptops in class.”  

“We have the most powerful tool you can imagine, and our best response now is: let’s ban them,” Squire said.

Whether or not professors are ready to change the way they impart information, students have already changed the way the accept it.

Harry Ungar, an NSF program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education, who formerly taught chemistry at Cabrillo College in California, said that, for a course like organic chemistry, where the body of knowledge isn’t changing, the textbook provides a good narrative. “I like the textbook,” he said.

Kathleen Parson, program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education, replied: “And look at the color of your hair.” It was white.

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