Textbooks and tech-books – Can there be only one winner?

Having taught Physics, I am aware that the use of textbooks in STEM lessons is the exception rather than the rule. Even before the advent of digital technology in the classroom, Lunzer and Gardner (1979) observed that less than 10% of an average STEM lesson was spent reading. Of this time, over 90% was in bursts of less than 10 seconds, primarily reading from the board, worksheets or posters and NOT from textbooks. Wellington and Osborne (2001) note a similar trend. In 2011, I decided to test this myself, and observed less than 9% of lesson time was spent in reading, with a average of 1 minute 9 seconds reading the textbook per 40 minute Sixth Form lesson, of the lessons in which the textbook was actually used at all. Now, this is clearly not generalisable even to other STEM lessons, let alone to other subjects. But I do seriously question the financial sense of buying textbooks that are virtually unused. I would love to be challenged on this point – I would love to find out that every other STEM teacher in the country integrates literacy more into their lessons. My whole doctoral research is predicated on the conviction that literacy and language is crucial to learning science. However, I do question that traditional textbooks are the way to promote literacy.

Textbooks are cheaper on a singular basis, are not subject to the whims of wifi access and battery and are more likely to survive a few splashes of hydrochloric acid and other classroom hazards. Certainly, textbooks have a longevity, a permanence, a physical presence. There are many contexts in which a paper-based textbook is more appropriate and supports learning more than an electronic resource, as electronic resources currently exist. However, the very permanence of textbooks renders them prone to rapid outdating (especially when the curriculum seems to change every time you turn around) and inflexibility. You can do many more things, learn many more things, with a tablet than you can with a textbook. Educational resource availability is increasing exponentially online, with a quaquaversal array of communities and individuals creating and communicating good practice, resources and insights.

Textbooks vs. Tech-books
Textbooks vs. Tech-books

However, educational research into edtech has an unfortunate lag time in many cases – several recent journal articles I have read define ebooks as any digital text, including pdf versions of paper textbooks (even scanned versions). So, I am distinguishing here the concept of tech-books, which use a digital pedagogy to promote and enhance learning through the educationally relevant integration of electronic resources. Rather than solely textual delivery, tech-books include audio, video and interactive elements, where and as appropriate, to support learning. Currently, there is little research that directly indicates gains in reading comprehension or content learning through ebooks. However, given that this research suffers from an outdated definition of ‘ebook’, it is unsurprising that no difference in reading comprehension between textbooks and ebooks has yet been formally reported. That does not mean that tech-books, with enriched content chosen for learning and not for novelty, do not offer gains unavailable through textbooks, as outlined in the table above. All it means is that we need to keep testing, keep trying, keep learning about the tech and about our teaching.

Edtech is not about pushing digital resources, or about jumping onto a bandwagon dictated by management. It is about trying to improve the learning experiences of teacher and student. But if we don’t learn, we can’t teach. Experiment, explore and evaluate the available tech-books and textbooks and make a decision based on the needs of your students for a specific lesson and context, rather than deciding that every lesson must (or must not) be digitally based. That said, to effectively teach is to effectively learn and that is why I try to constantly learn about new pedagogies, new tools, new contexts for learning; to be a digital experimentalist and explorer rather than a digital evangelist.

The centre of education must always be learning, and that is always what we try to promote, in the most effective ways available to us – textbooks, tech-books, whatever works for your learners, in your classroom, with your level of confidence and training. If there can be only one winner, it must be student learning.

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Lunzer, E., & Gardner, K. (1979). The effective use of reading.

Wellington, J., & Osborne, J. (2001). Language and literacy in science education. McGraw-Hill International.


iBeacons and the Great War

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Imagine walking in the trenches of world war one, constructed in a student library. As you touch the torn sandbags, from your iPad rings the rattle of gunfire interrupting soldiers singing. As the sound dies – ominously – away, crouch down and read letters written by soldiers and their families. Stained with the dirt and dust and desperation of the front, they appear on your screen, with even tear-stains reproduced.

Imagine moving over to an Edwardian fire-place, with the tin soldiers, newspapers and photographs of a typical family home surrounding you. Here you could settle down to explore recipes and patterns from World War 1, with all the privations of rationing and shortages, knit socks as if for a soldier with trench foot.

Imagine seeing the uniform of a soldier, decorated with images of family by a student who never knew her ancestor. And while you see and feel the rough uniform, imagine the loss of loved ones. From your iPad sounds the measured lines of Dulce et Decorum est, recorded and animated by our students, in memory of the sacrifices of a generation.

Just imagine what we can do to bring learning to life today. Just imagine what we can do tomorrow.

Blogging for students, teachers, schools and researchers

Why do we blog? Well, to some extent, it is to validate and show off our thoughts and achievements and to communicate with like-minded others. However, while we want our students to be proud of their achievements and thinking, the main focus as educators is to shift that pride and praise towards their development as a process, rather than the outcomes. So, blogging can be used to promote a ‘look at what I did’ outlook, but is, I would argue, best applied for a ‘look at how I did it’ outcome. In this way, blogging can encourage metacognitive awareness for improved development for all stakeholders.

Broadly, metacognition is defined under two areas:

  • Understanding what you know
  • Understanding how you know

So, metacognition is, basically, thinking about thinking. Metacognition has two proposed benefits. Most importantly, that the learner knows how to use strategies effectively in learning. So, a metacognitively aware student might approach a science text by chunking, summarising and/or looking up unfamiliar terms because they are aware that this helps them to think and learn. In contrast, a less metacognitively aware student might just try to passively read it and get disheartened by a lack of understanding. Metacognition is therefore a very useful educational goal and process.

Blogging for metacognition is not a new concept. Learning Journals and so on have endlessly proposed that writing about a learning process can help students establish useful learning habits and self-discipline. It is an engaging and self-reflective process, especially when given some direction. Blogs work in a similar way, except that they further allow the teacher and public to engage with the learning process also, giving futher motivation (albeit extrinsic) for the learner. This equally applies to teachers with their CPD or political developments and academics with their research and attempts to integrate research and practice by extending to a wider audience. I have found that writing this blog has helped me consider what aspects of my working style are most useful, which are problematic and how to overcome the challenges I have faced so far.

An example of use of blogs in education is the newly established SPFTogether, a blog looking at promoting collaboration and sharing between three schools in the Stephen Perse Foundation. While at an embryonic stage and currently written primarily by teachers, it is hoped that soon students will be direct authors and editors and that this will evolve from an outcome showcase to include metacognitive awareness of process of learning. Elements of this are already to be seen in the Sixth Form Peliblog. These articles are written by Sixth Form students and blog posts can frequently be observed to describe, if only in passing, references to how that particular student thinks. I would love to see this metacognitive consciousness expanded and promoted by all students in all schools. I don’t think there are many professions that are quite as self-reflective (and often unwarrantedly self-critical) as teaching. It is this self-reflection, without the negative self-criticism, that we need to help our students to practice and express. I believe that blogging is one of the easiest methods, both for the student and teacher.

There are, of course, other benefits to encouraging blogging within the classroom – awareness of the potential and the pitfalls of the digital world, for one. All these teacher photos begging for reposting to show how easily a photo can get around the internet are, rather negatively, making an interesting point. Frankly, I think that most teenagers have the negatives of the scary internet world drummed into them enough (although I had a CEOPS lecture last year where the speaker talked about screen-munchies, frappe-ing and snape-chat, showing a deporable lack of understanding of of either the origins of the words or the dangers these can pose). Panic-mongering is not helpful. Rather, the positives of safe internet use should be emphasised and digital interaction should be integrated into formal education. Blogging can help with this, as argued above – students (and teachers) should be learning about new technologies, copyright issues and other issues supported by regular and thoughtful blogging or tweeting. I applaud the introduction of the year of code, but I feel that equally important is teaching students about how to use safe, positive and engaging learning tools such as blogging, educational apps and twitter beyond the add-on gimmickery some teachers and researchers fear. Learning is always the goal, but the digital world is both a tool and a necessary learning outcome of education.