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.


Cyber-bulling and digital citizenship


I came across the above picture on Imgur, of a man who had just graduated from elementary school, with the caption ‘So proud of my dad’. I consider this worth highlighting for the attitudes of both the dad for going back and emphasising to his child the importance of education, perseverance and trying to improve, and the child, who recognised this achievement and wanted to share his pride. However, instead of celebrating this, most of the comments were derogatory, denigrating the man’s appearance. Bullying is as worrying in the digital world as it is in the physical. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the reluctance of some teachers and parents to interact with technology, or to allow technology into the classroom.


However, avoidance is really not the answer. A responsible parent does not respond to the potential for bullying in the playground by refusing to let their child out. Instead, they teach their child how to interact with other children and how to report incidences of bullying. So, parents and teachers aim to help students avoid being the victim or perpetrator of bullying. CEOPS and other organisations are trying to tackle the latter, but much of the teacher training in this area seems to be trying to tell teachers not to use facebook and other social media. Similarly, parents are scared by newspaper articles about worst case scenarios and often have little experience of the sites and platforms their children frequent. According to the NSPCC (2011) , 48% of young people in the UK have been effected by cyber-bullying and 28% did not tell anyone about it. If teachers, parents and other responsible adults are known by a child to not understand the platform and its cultural mores, who can the child ask for advice?


On the other hand, I was delighted to see on twitter the below Acceptable Use policy (tweeted by @IanYorston). In my opinion, this document reflects exactly what we want to be teaching our students about using the internet. Not only does it promote respect and protecting the student themselves, but also gives equal weight to treatment of others over the internet. This is vital. As parents and teachers would encourage considerate and ethical behaviour in the physical world, so too must this be taught in the digital realm. Unfortunately, the potentially faceless nature of some internet communications does mean that children (and adults) don’t always think about how their hurtful comments can effect others. Therefore, explicit reminders such as those on @IanYorston‘s poster are important steps for reducing cyber-bullying. Whether this cyber-ethics is taught at home or at school, as part of ICT, Philosophy, PSHE or other subjects, students should be made aware of the impacts of their behaviour online. The neglect of this aspect of the fight against cyber-bullying is eerily reminiscent of the assertions of anti-rape lobbyists, who insist that females (or males) are taught to avoid dangerous situations and not to dress provocatively, but that males should be taught not to rape.





To educate about the internet, teachers, staff and parents need to be aware of the possibilities, platforms, functions and forms (both positive and negative) and promote responsible use so that students not only avoid victimisation, but also avoid causing hurt to other people or infringing on their rights (such as copyright). Let’s celebrate the wunderkammer that is the digital world and the unlimited possibilities for learning and socialisation, while helping our students become considerate, full digital citizens.









iTunes U – Distance Learning II

Several people have been asking about buying a tablet, for different reasons. There are many excellent tablets out there, of varying prices and capabilities. However, if you are at all interested in using the tablet for educational purposes, I would go for the iPad. While other tablets such as the Google Nexus or Samsung Galaxy may offer several of the same or similar apps that the iPad provides, there is no equivalent to the iTunes U app.

iTunes U is an app that offers free access to unlimited courses designed by educators. Some of the most prominent universities in the world are making content available on iTunes U, including Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Oxford. The courses available cover the gamut of subjects, levels and perspectives. Schools are joining in around the world too, with outstanding courses available and more added every day.

These courses are not telling teachers what to use or how to teach – they know their classes, they know how to teach them. What they are doing, is providing a range of resources tailored to the curriculum all in one place, perhaps used individually as revision, as homework, or to support a struggling student. Alternatively, teachers can use them in class, picking the resources or tasks they think are most appropriate – if nothing else, the availability of worksheets, quizzes and other tasks can reduce the burden of  photocopying and/or marking.

The resources supported by the iTunes U platform include videos, podcasts, office documents, pdf’s, web links and so on. What makes this different from the sometimes excellent collections of resources on various websites it that each resource is tied to an instruction of not more than 200 characters. This is more than enough to say what the resource is and ask prompting questions to promote meaningful learning rather than passive consumption, while short and sweet enough to retain interest. You can also take notes that save into the course while watching a video or listening to a podcast. You can encourage students to link to a departmental twitter account to prompt succinct debate or connect them to socrative to quiz them with a report sent to your email account.

The possibilities of this platform are extraordinary. I’m making quite a few myself, but I have also watched English literature lectures from Oxford (I know, letting the side down), read textbooks from the OU, completed statistics exercises from Duke and learnt about the American Civil War from Texas Austin. At your fingertips is the collected (and importantly, directed) knowledge and learning from the brightest minds in the world. Teachers are essential to help navigate, discover and extend learning for each and every student. What iTunes U provides is a map for the teacher to use, rather than having to draft her own. Bon Voyage!