In 1999, Ruth Jaynes was my first-year teacher mentor. Ruth was tasked with giving me the run down on the inner workings of Sunnybrook School District 171. While we were going over curriculum, we talked about all subjects since I was going to have a self-contained class. The was particular passion when talking with Ruth about science. What was then told to me as we went over curriculum was that Sunnybrook had never adopted a fifth grade science textbook series. I was a bit floored by this statement. It was explained to me that the fifth grade team felt that no science series did anything particularly well to convey the curriculum.
As a result, in my first three years of teaching, science was taught without a textbook. We taught science by actually doing things. We made trips to Indiana Dunes. We built conceptual models of a Mars base. We built toothpick bridges, with a construction budget, that we tried to break by attaching cups of pennies. We did not do science in a book, but found materials that would accentuate our lessons. Kids at all reading levels were still able to get the experience of science that cannot be found in a static textbook.
Ruth and I would joke that she should just write the science book, but keep it simple and to the point and without too much fluff.
Fast forward to the announcement today by Apple about the new iBooks/iBooks Authoring/iTunes U platform. While I was reading/watching this announcement, all I could think was, “Ruth would have had a ball writing her science textbook with this technology. She would have kept it focused. She would have addressed all types of learners with her book. This would have been her culmination of her career.”
So I walked into the office of my superintendent and said, “What if we instead of asking for a syllabus from our teachers, we instead ask the teachers to write their textbook?”
I want to leave that question hanging out there for a reason. I am reminded by a quote by Neil Postman from his 1992 book Technopoly:
and they are now witnessing the breakup of that monopoly.
What has happened in the last 20 years was the proliferation of big corporation curriculum in control of the knowledge monopoly, not so much teachers, in my opinion (and for full disclosure, I did work for McGraw-Hill as an independent quality assurance analyst for about two years). Schools shelled out big dollars for a copy of a textbook. And if you wanted ancillary materials, you paid extra. If you wanted a digital copy, you typically had to purchase the paper copy as well. And that digital copy was merely an unsearchable PDF of the same paper book.
Today, with the blessing of the big three textbook publishers (names redacted to not further promote them), Apple in one swoop shifted the entire textbook publishing world away from the control of the publishers and at least back towards the teachers (and students as well). I think that blessing and huge price drop came from the big three because they knew Apple was going to release this software anyway. Apple has just made their entire platform of products appealing to educators, even if they had gone ahead without the blessing of the big three publishers.
So, what does this mean, and how does this tie in with my opening story? What this means is that the everyday teacher can once again cut around the fluff and create meaningful content that goes right to the heart of the curriculum trying to be conveyed. The teacher has a delivery model that can be adjusted on the fly. The teacher has a delivery model that can address the needs of all learners. Why not create a book for a student with special needs, for example, written at their reading level? It could be presented in a way that allows concepts to be grasped in a completely different way. And why are the teachers the ones who can use this technology to create content? Students could certainly take ownership of creating meaningful representations of materials to be shared among other people.
To my colleagues who were bemoaning the technical minutia of this announcement, i.e. it requires Lion, it only works on iPads, it’s a closed system, this is the same shift in the right direction we saw when Apple announced the iPhone. Before the iPhone, smartphones were a completely useless mess. You may not remember that when the iPhone launched there was not even an App Store! This Apple proprietary attempt at educational content creation is their attempt to break the stranglehold by the big three on our curriculums (and maybe make a few bucks doing it). It may not be the best way to do it when we look back, but this is certainly a start.