That's the title of Tamar Lewin's NYtimes article on the changing face of education in the USA. But the title's a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, much of the article simply talks about how teachers can now access 'online' texts - known as 'flexbooks'. These open-source and federally approved online texts are seen as having a chance at revolutionising American education.
The CK-12 Foundation develops free “flexbooks” that can be customized to meet state standards, and added to by teachers. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced an initiative to replace some high school science and math texts with free, “open source” digital versions.
Well, with the quoted $100 a textbook price, this can only be a huge boost for those kids from poor families. $100 for a textbook!?!
Reading this article made me uncomfortable. It's because the author makes a common mistake - she doesn't seem to understand what the role of a teacher is.
Lewin states that 'educators say that it will not be long before [books] are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.' It praises the Beyond Textbooks initiative, which encourages teachers to create and share lessons, including PowerPoint presentations, videos and research materials. And what do teachers use to create these lessons? 'Reliable' Internet sites.
Hmmmmmm. Are the teachers being taught which websites are 'reliable' and which are not? Is there a list of 'approved' websites? How are these materials being checked? Even with the best will in the world, an author needs an editor's guidance. A teacher's bias always creeps into the classroom - it's easy enough when working from approved course materials and a strict curriculum. But when the teacher can compile lessons themselves from 'approved' sources the opportunity to weight a subject towards your bias may be irresistible. And who's training the teachers in becoming digital authors and publishers?
Lewin mentions the move to open-source materials, which is well under way in American higher education. President Obama has proposed investing in creating free online courses to help improve community colleges. The idea of 200 or 300 kids taking courses online, at night, 24/7, whenever they want is mooted. And of course this is seen as a very real threat to US schools. Bricks and mortar schools could be made obsolete by brilliant $200 courses 'made by the best teachers in the world'.
As an instructional designer, I have an issue with that statement. Brilliant online courses are not generally authored by teachers. They're authored by instructional designers, working with a team of subject matter experts, designers, coders and information architects, and overseen by an editor. Actors, video and audio engineers often have a vital role. Teachers can play the part of subject matter expert or advisor in producing e-learning courses, but a teacher producing a course from scratch on their own is about as effective as an instructional designer being plonked in front of 30 children and trying to teach.
Teachers are not instructional designers. They are not (generally) authors. They are not designers, coders or information architects. They're teachers. And don't they have enough of a job without foisting the role of digital authors and publishers on them as well?
I don't care if textbooks become history. What I hope doesn't become history is the strict editorial and academic processes that produced the content in textbooks. The trust that a child could have in the information they're being given. The expertise it takes to produce a well-crafted and authoritative learning resource. Something that has become much more complex - NOT easier - given the wealth of choice in our digital publishing age. Just because anyone can write, film, edit and broadcast a movie online now, doesn't mean that we're all suddenly Spielberg.