Textbooks Terminated – Schools go Online

©Inacio Pires – Fotolia.com

California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has launched an initiative to ban textbooks from high school classrooms and replace them with digital material. Traditional books are too expensive, antiquated and so heavy that the former bodybuilder and actor (‘The Terminator’) joked in June that he “could use them for biceps curls”. His state initiative is the first of its kind in the US, but it highlights the trend for more and more US schools and universities to go online, according to Dr Bob Barrett, a professor at the School of Business at the American Public University. He will give a presentation at the OEB 2009.


So far, Californian experts have reviewed 16 free, open-source digital textbooks for high school maths and science which had previously been available as PDF files. Ten of these have already been judged to meet academic standards, including e-books on calculus, trigonometry and chemistry. These are now ready to be used in classrooms.


A major motivation behind this shift is financial. California has a huge budget deficit to tackle, and cannot afford to pay the $ 350 million on hardcover textbooks that it has in previous years. However, in the homeland of software giants like Google, Apple and Oracle, the move has been announced first and foremost as opening ”the door to a more technologically advanced education system“.


Nevertheless, the ”online onslaught“ (New York Times) might take off more slowly than expected, and could have unwanted side effects. One problem is that many schools lack the necessary hardware, and not all students have computer and Internet access at home. Those who do might face technical breakdowns, adds Bob Barrett, drawing on his own experience in higher education: he has been involved in online teaching in several colleges and universities for eight years, and has worked as a trainer to help new instructors transition from face-to-face teaching into online learning.


Other experts warn that tossing textbooks away could create a ’digital divide’ between students in poor districts and those in wealthier areas who can afford more expensive hardware. They are calling for the state to invest the funds formerly allocated to textbooks  into school infrastructures.


Alongside the technological aspect, there is the question of quality. Some pedagogical professionals say that moving to electronic textbooks reinforces the old way of teaching, only through a different medium. Bob Barrett points out that it can be a good teaching strategy to use digital materials to supplement more traditional teaching methods. However, teachers could face difficulties if schools expect them to create their own resources: ”One has to remember that not all instructors may be versed in course development,“ says Barrett. ”Therefore, it is equally important to connect course designers, subject matter experts and instructors in order to create quality educational materials.“


Given the appropriate conditions, online teaching can be very creative. Rather than just going through e-book chapters and printing out worksheets, online instructors can engage their students with Internet research and all kinds of multimedia presentations, embedding videos and other formats of content material. The teacher chooses whether his online class takes place live (synchronous) or at any time (asynchronous). Each format has its own specific advantages.


According to Bob Barrett, online teaching has the potential to enhance the motivation of the student and increase the participation rate, ”but,” he says, “it is important to offer true applications and real world examples.“ In one of his classes, for example, he asks students to develop their own electronic portfolio on their best academic work. It is up to them whether they design a webpage or present an electronic portal, whether to use powerpoint or word processing. The resulting e-portfolio can be used for academic credit,  or be reviewed by potential employers.


In another class (’Training and Development’), Barrett’s students are asked to create a training programme manual, including a needs assessment, the actual training elements, the implementation process and evaluation measures. ”While they could simply write reports, this approach to learning allows them to maximize their Internet researching and writing skills“ says Barrett. In the future, he would like to develop these skills further. Some students rely too much on search engines with narrow approaches, and some must learn to find out which resources are trustworthy and valid and which are not.


As more and more US schools go online, like those in California, more universities are starting to offer online education courses and teacher training. In his presentation Training OnlineTeachers: Transitioning Traditional Classroom Strategies and Techniques into the Virtual Online Learning Environment at OEB 2009, Bob Barrett will give an overview of current online teacher training trends, as well as address the growing concerns of traditional teachers who are planning a transition to the digital classroom. His presentation will be part of the Session Innovations and Advances in Pre-Service and In-Service Teacher Training on Friday, December 4, 2009 from 14:30 – 16:00.


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