How Schools Can Hack their Textbooks

A high school math teacher and instructional technology specialist at Zeeland Public Schools, Anthony DiLaura has brought together teachers in his district to build their own digital textbooks, using open educational resources and other openly licensed media. Here DiLaura writes about the move from static print to interactive content, and what it means for schools to have a more active role in “hacking” the curriculum.

In her 2013 TED Talk “Why Good Hackers Make Good Citiziens,” Code for America’s Catherine Bracy tried to demystify the term “hacker.” She described hacking as “any amateur innovation on an existing platform,” and she assured her listeners that hacking has “equal power for good as it does for evil.” She argued that hacking is a process that is “intricately connected to the democracy that lies at the foundation of our country” because it encourages participation, collaboration and empowerment of the local community to take action towards resolving issues.

While her organization Code for America focuses primarily on resolving governmental issues in local communities, I believe that we can look at resolving educational issues through a similar lens: the lens of the hacker.

“Amateur Innovations” on Existing Education Platforms

What do new technologies offer us, specifically when it comes to our approaches about textbooks?

Like government, education is an imperfect system steeped in tradition. We continue certain practices simply because history has conditioned us to think this is how things must be done. A perfect example of this fixed mindset in schools is the traditional textbook.

It seems as though we should ask: Is tradition holding us back from innovating with existing platforms? What do new technologies offer us, specifically when it comes to our approaches about textbooks? Must we simply continue to purchase textbooks, but now in digital formats? Or are there new ways we can collaborate, new ways that are more innovative and perhaps more democratic?

The Printing Press and the Textbook (A Brief History)

The invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century drastically reformed the educational system. The ability to mass produce printed text with consistency and efficiency facilitated many changes to the education system in the following centuries, if nothing else enabling a much wider distribution of content. But in time, individual authors gave way to larger more powerful publishing companies as the creators of standardized curriculum. Publishing companies soon operated as filters for information, a guide for teaching and learning, and arguably the sole authority on subject area content.

Educational institutions began spending large sums of money for the rights to use a publisher’s textbook and ancillary materials for classroom instruction. A review process and a purchasing process were developed that further entrenched the publishing industry and shaped how the education system viewed content development, management, and “delivery.”

WWW and the New Movable Type

The mechanism of the printing press was known as “movable type.” But the type produced by such a process still resulted in static text. But with the birth of Web 2.0 — the readable, writable Web — we have text that is truly movable. Print no longer has to be passive. Instead it can be interactive, enabling more engagement with the materials. Once digital, text how can be “hypertext” and can open up new pages, story lines, and activities based on the reader’s interest and involvement.

And it isn’t just reading that’s changed with the World Wide Web; it’s writing too — the ability for anyone to participate in the publishing process.

This should have huge implications for education.

Educational leaders should be feeling a push toward new ways of thinking about content management and distribution as it pertains to teaching and learning. However, each year schools continue to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to publishing companies in order to receive static content (or sometimes online versions — subscriptions often — to the PDF versions of the same textbooks).

Despite the wide range of materials now available to us thanks to the Web, these textbooks are still (often) seen as the primary source from which teachers select, interpret, and tailor individual lessons for their students.

We can do better.

Hacking a New Path Forward

New technologies can help us break free of some of the traditions about textbooks in the classroom.

New technologies can help us break free of some of the traditions about textbooks in the classroom. These technologies enable both the curation and the creation of high quality digital content, for example. There are many sites, including iTunesU, OER commons, Connexions, and CK-12, that allow teachers to curate educational content — often content that is openly licensed, meaning that teachers are free to reuse and remix it to suit their classroom’s needs.

Furthermore, as publishing has become easier thanks to Web 2.0, teachers (and students) now have professional level tools at their disposal to create their own images, media, and interactive elements that can be included in a course or e-book.

No longer need institutions rely on costly production studios or major publishers for educational materials. Educators are using free or inexpensive software in combination with in-house developers, including their own students, to create educational media: websites, wikis, e-books, videos, and so on.

So here’s a call to educators to take action: to “innovate on existing platforms,” to hack their textbooks, and to challenge the traditions of learning through static text, particularly now in an interactive, Internet-enabled era.

Teachers as Hackers

A few innovative colleagues and I have brought the teachers in our district together to collaborate on authoring interactive, mobile-based educational content. We hold what could be viewed as “textbook-authoring events” — iBook Hacks. We call the attendees “hackers,” and we work hard to instill within them the mentality that they are designers and developers of digital content that benefits others.

Now in its second summer, the iBook Hack is a 4-day event that instructs educators on using digital publishing tools like iBooks Author. We help the educator-hackers learn about the tools that are available to curate existing content or to create new content by using open educational resources and other openly-licensed materials. Participating teachers learn about creating their own media for their classrooms, but they also think about instructional design and what new technologies can afford them.

To date, we’ve had hundreds of educators participate and many amazed to realize what they can produce in a very short period of time. We have seen everything from full Algebra textbooks, to mini geography lessons, to audio-enhanced books in Mandarin.

(If you take the time to investigate the iBook Store under the education section, you will see thousands of interactive iBooks created and published by independent authors, many of whom are also classroom teachers. In most cases, this content is more granular in scope than a traditional textbook and provides an additional level of interactivity compared to printed text. Some of the content is free and usable to others, while other educators are charging a fee to utilize their work. There are also other examples of textbook hackathons, including a recent BC Open Textbook Sprint and the organization Siyavula which is working with educators to build openly-licensed textbooks in South Africa.)

Questions for School Leaders

Do we still need textbooks? Or can we rethink teaching and learning altogether now?

Does your school still rely on purchasing static textbooks? Do you have a plan to move to digital? Would you consider facilitating content creation events, to help teachers and students design their own materials?

How are we as educational leaders creating an environment that fosters teacher action to collaborate, create, and share these interactive digital materials? (One concern that often comes up is the question of intellectual property. Do you encourage educators to openly license their materials so that others can benefit?)

In her TED talk, Catherine Bracy tells the story of civic hackers who resolved an issue that was anticipated to cost the Mexican government several million dollars. As a result of presenting this issue to the hacking community, hundreds of viable solutions were proposed. Five proposals were passed on for consideration by the government, and in the end — thanks to a community of collaborators and innovators — the final bill for the Mexican government was ten thousand times less than originally expected.

Better results for less money. Could we do the same for our curricular materials?

Image credits: Amanda Munoz

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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