It was a fun and thought-provoking two days at Discovery Education's Beyond the Textbook event. Thanks so much to Steve Dembo, Dean Shareski, Hall Davidson, Laura Wenograd, and all the other folks at Discovery who not only planned this thing, but took very good care of us while we were there (Full Disclosure: I did not get paid to attend, but Discovery covered all expenses). And thanks to my fellow attendees for making this a great learning experience. (Oh, just a reminder Dean, there are still a couple of light bulbs you need to change.)
Here's a quick overview of the two days, and then I'll try to process a few thoughts. The first day (which was optional, but I attended) was a chance for attendees to meet in small groups with different teams from Discovery so they could pick our brains about a variety of topics around professional development, learning, digital resources, etc. (As was typical for me, I was pretty quiet at the beginning of the day, and then wouldn't shut up by the end of the day. Somehow I need to figure out a way to balance that out.)
The second day was the main event, where we spent some time brainstorming what a "21st Century Digital Resource" might look like, and then more specifically sketching some prototypes of what a "mathematics techbook" might look like. (Discovery Education already has a Science Techbook that is available, and will be shortly releasing a Social Studies Techbook. They are just starting on Math and are expecting their first techbook sometime in 2014.) Here's a picture of Darren Kuropatwa in front of our group's mockup as he's explaining to the whole group some of the ideas we came up with (photo courtesy of Tom Woodward).
Six different groups came up with six different mockups and, as you would expect, there were many commonalities as well as some differences. The main commonalities were that a "techbook" should be very customizable (by both teacher and student), media rich, provoke wonder/curiosity/inquiry, stimulate mathematical thinking/habits of mind, and have a social component. I'm not sure what exactly Discovery is going to do with these results, but I'm hopeful that we contributed at least a small part into making their next techbook better.
I'm left with two (at least) big questions after this event. These are questions I've had for a while and this event confirmed that they are still central (to my thinking, at least) to any discussion of a mathematics techbook.
The first question (and I don't think this one is necessarily shared by any of the other attendees), revolves around the essential question, "Is curriculum necessary?" This is not a new question for me, but it's still one I'm struggling mightily with. It seems to me that a central assumption of a text/techbook is that there is a readily identified, relatively fixed set of content/standards that all students need to learn and master.
While there's certainly a part of me that believes that in order to have a just, democratic, and functional society we do need some common knowledge, there's also a part of me that really disagrees. That part of me looks at all the children (really, humans) I've ever met and recalls how different they all are, and wonders how we could ever think that all of them should have to learn the same things at a certain specific age. This part of me doesn't see any way (or need) to create a text/techbook, because the fundamental assumption of what you would use it for is flawed.
The second question only arises if you answer "yes" to the first question. So if you believe that curriculum is necessary, or even if you don't but you think that as a practical matter it's going to exist for the foreseeable future, then perhaps this question will be more meaningful for you. This essential question is, "What's the purpose of a text/techbook?" (Or, because I just finished this book by Clay Christensen, perhaps rephrase that as, "What job would you hire a text/techbook to do?")
I think this is fundamental to this whole process, and it's the question all the Beyond the Textbook attendees were struggling with in one way or another. Is it simply a resource (digital or otherwise) with examples and sample problems for students to work through? Or is it more comprehensive, including and guiding the activities you would use with students in class? Is it a scope-and-sequence, default curriculum guide for the teacher of the course? Or is it designed simply to provoke student curiosity and mathematical thinking? Is it a central "hub" for the course that students (and teachers) will visit every day to launch and guide their learning? Or is it an occasionally-used reference?
Going along with those questions, what are the affordances that a digital techbook offers that a printed textbook does not? In other words, why digital? What can a digital techbook do that a printed one cannot and, in this case, what "value add" can Discovery bring to the table to make this better? What are their core competencies that they can bring to bear to make this a better tool to help teachers and students think and learn mathematically?
All of these were questions that I know my group thought about as we were working on our mockup. We certainly didn't come to a complete resolution on any of them (although you probably won't be surprised that we didn't think it should simply be a digital copy of a paper textbook, with examples and problem sets). One way we did try to address some of these questions was by suggesting that a techbook should be very flexible, with the district/school/teacher/student being able to customize and modify it at will to meet their needs. Darren suggested the idea of a "slider", where you could adjust what appears in the student version based not only on what your students need, but also on your skills as a teacher. (I suggested that perhaps it would have to be more granular than a slider, more like a checklist so you could pick and choose each and every piece, but otherwise we're pretty much on the same page.)
Let me try to illustrate that with an example that Darren shared. There's a fairly common trig problem revolving around a boat in a harbor and tides. The boat needs a certain depth in order to leave the harbor and you are given some information about certain depths at high tide and low tide (or other times) and then you can work through trying to solve the problem. Our thoughts are that a techbook could scaffold that in a variety of ways, and a teacher could choose how much information to include.
So, for example, a new teacher that is perhaps not very comfortable yet could slide the slider all the way to the right which would basically include everything in the student version of the techbook (much like a paper textbook typically does now, laying things out in detail). This would be the "be very helpful" version of the techbook. But a more experienced teacher might slide it all the way to the left, in which case the student would simply get the video of the boat rising and falling, with some time indicators, and ask them to figure out the question and then what they need to figure out the answer. (This would be the "be less helpful" version.) The students and teacher would then explore the problem in class via guided inquiry. And there would be several gradations in between those two versions.
I don't know if that example adequately illustrates the idea or not, but I figured it was worth a shot. We thought that one of the core competencies that Discovery could bring to this is to create those scenarios/videos. Those are the type of things that individual teachers often don't have the time or the skills to create, but someone like Discovery (who perhaps could hire some really smart folks to help with this) could create some provocative prompts and then provide pedagogical suggestions for the teacher. (And then the techbook would have the capability for teachers and students to upload/link their own creations that teachers could decide to use as well - the resource would grow over time.)
This is just one small part of our mockup, there were also pieces that addressed problems, exercises, collaboration, and the social component, but I thought it might give you an idea of some of what we were thinking. Part of the difficulty in making something that is viable is that it has to meet teachers (and schools, and districts) where they are at, and sometimes that is not where those of us in the room wish they were. So the challenge is to create a techbook that leads folks in the direction that "we" feel is the correct direction, while still maintaining "backward compatibility" with those that aren't there yet. The good news, however, is that I think digital makes that possible. I think it's possible to make an inquiry-based, technologically and web-enabled mathematics techbook that also provides support for a more "traditional" approach, and then helps lead teachers (and students) in a more constructive direction. That wouldn't be feasible in print, but - given enough smart folks and some decent server space - it is definitely possible with digital.
Now it's up to Discovery to pull this off. Even if they don't, I appreciate the way they are going about it and that they're giving it a shot. I'm hopeful they will be successful.