Textbooks and horseless carriages

Why do my students like me and the bookreps don’t? Because I do not require a textbook for either of my large entry level courses in Statistics and Operations Research. I have found that so few students use any prescribed text, that it is pointless prescribing one. I have found other ways to engage students and help them to learn the skills, attitudes and content that I believe are necessary. The other problem was that I never found a text that aimed to develop the same skills, attitudes and content that I wanted them to. Too many of them seemed to smother all the fun and joy in unnecessary computation.

Apple’s big announcement about textbooks on the iPad made me examine my stance regarding textbooks. I’m happy about the iPad being used for educational purposes. I think it is a fabulous medium with amazing potential (not the least example being our AtMyPace: Statistics app). I’m just not sure about the whole electronic book thing. I hope it is not a “legacy” solution – like the ones in upgraded computer packages for people who can’t let go of their old way of doing things.

When cars, or should I say “horseless carriages” were invented they looked remarkably like carriages. The power was measured in horse-power, and terms like trunk and hood were inherited. A modern car bears little resemblance to early vehicles, with streamlining and creature comforts, air conditioning, remote central locking etc. But the transformation was evolutionary.

Textbooks have been around for a while, and make a teacher’s job easier. You can say, “Read Chapter 3 and answer questions 1,3 and 6”, and leave the students to it… Maybe. But the current theories of education, particularly those of constructivism, which I personally embrace, would not support this as an effective learning mechanism. Students need to actively engage with the material in order to have it integrate with (and sometimes replace) their current knowledge.

If we simply take the textbook and turn it into an electronic book, the gain is minimal. We have reduced the weight, and hopefully the price. We have made it a little more “modern” and added the gimmick factor. The wonderful Apple promotional video shows fabulous interactive aspects in the text, with excited and clean-cut students lapping up the content, totally engaged and alert. I have no doubt that there are exciting aspects to some eBook texts, but essentially they are text in a different format. And we have yet to see how much interactivity there is in the standard textbook.

A definite advantage of the electronic format is the potential to keep material current with upgrades rather than having to produce yet another edition of the increasingly bloated familiar text. And there is the potential for instructors to select parts of different texts – though that is already possible with “Made-to-measure” textbooks in paper format.

The thing is, a learning tool on the iPad can be so much more! Our little app uses video that students can control the pace of. The use of multimedia – audio and visual, allows for better learning. Then the question sets take the student through material in an interactive way, endeavoring to expose their current erroneous thinking, in order to make it easier to construct learning correctly. There are two parallel question sets so that students can assess for themselves how their learning is progressing. This is only the beginning. Our aim is to include interactive learning activities and links to deeper material. We will include adaptive testing that assesses the level of understanding and adjusts accordingly. These are not new ideas, and have been shown to facilitate better learning. There are more ideas as well.

iBooks textbooks for iPad are pretty exciting, but let’s get our horseless carriages sleek, exciting and versatile as quickly as possible.

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One thought on “Textbooks and horseless carriages

  1. Pingback: No more lectures! | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

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