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Are Textbooks Becoming Extinct? Welcome to the Age of the Wikitext!

By Dave Fontaine - Posted May 1, 2008
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Imagine if textbooks were alive … living, changing, evolving, and improving … never out-of-date!

–a textbook that would give students images, videos, and interactive tutorials about a subject, a vocabulary word, or a topic.

–a digital textbook that would be student-driven, a model for differentiated learning, and geared toward helping all students learn through visualization, interaction, and simulation.

In the age of Web 2.0, all this and much more is possible. And it’s all at our students’ fingertips with just a click of a button. Welcome to the "Age of the Wikitext!"

The Problem

By 2008, most school librarians have become aware of Web 2.0. Some of us have more experience than others, but we all know that we are several years into the age of the Read/Write Web (aka the Participatory Web). Unfortunately, the majority of us are digital immigrants, so our depth of knowledge on Web 2.0 technology and social software is rather superficial.

One thing that is consistent for all educators is the proverbial tightening of the belts. As school systems’ budgets shrink, there have been a growing number of teacher layoffs. School systems in my state have slowly begun to integrate and mainstream all the students with learning disabilities, eliminating some special education teachers and maxing-out class size caps. This has had a domino effect.

With the increase of heterogeneous grouping, the skill level among students in the same class has grown wider and wider. This has cascaded into a major problem for subject-specific teachers. In order for them to be able to reach, and teach, students of all levels, they have had to differentiate their instruction. One of the positives to come with all this change has been its confluence with Web 2.0 and the tools of the participatory web.

Training teachers in differentiated learning—also called differentiated instruction—has helped alleviate some of the issues, but the educational community then found another major obstacle to instruction. The lessons in schools had changed, but the textbooks they used had not.

Textbooks have been another casualty of budget cuts. Many schools are being told, "Don’t even consider ordering new textbooks for next year—the funds just aren’t there." If only there was a cost-effective supplement. Hmm …

Some Perspective

Now let’s get some perspective. Let’s say you were in college in 1978. When you received an assignment, you would use reference books and journals in the library to do your research. You would then handwrite your notes and use a typewriter for your final draft. You used a slide rule to work on your discrete math homework. Sometimes you called your parents from a telephone booth to beg them to mail you pizza (aka beer) money. Not to mention that your biology textbook was a 6-pound, 700-page tome that took 3 years to get published and was already out-of-date.

Now, 30 years later, your son is entering his second year in college. He takes class notes on a laptop and does his research with online databases and (of course) Google while using a free Wi-Fi hotspot at Starbucks. He gets help with his math homework by contacting classmates through Facebook, and he forgets to call you from his cell phone because he doesn’t need money for pizza—he just uses his credit card.

But you don’t worry about him too much. His phone is practically a part of his body, so you subscribe to an online service that uses the GPS locator to sync it up with Google Earth, so at least you can see exactly where he is at all times.

Only one thing hasn’t radically changed—his biology text, which has now grown into a 12-pound, 1,000-page mammoth of a book that still takes 2 years to get published and is already out-of-date. What’s wrong with this picture?

"Textbooks have yet to respond to changes in technology, teaching philosophy, and student life," says Paul Bierman, a professor at the University of Vermont. He made this statement at a workshop he initiated of 54 leading scientists, educators, and technology experts at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. They met under the theme "Reconsidering the Textbook."

"There was broad agreement at the workshop that the role of the textbook is going to change," Bierman says. "They are going to be the integrating force between all these different digital technologies and show you where to go for more depth."

The Solution

This led to my thoughts on how to best address this problem. If textbooks are static and unchangeable, how can I, as internet librarian at Middletown High School in Rhode Island, help? Could this be the age of the wikitext?

My idea to build and create a wikitext gradually came into focus after attending a presentation by Will Richardson during the Internet@Schools conference in 2005. We’ve all gone to presentations where we have heard our peers speak about the benefits of Web 2.0 in education. It’s also become painfully obvious that our students, across nearly all grades, have become well-versed with Web 2.0 tools, so it’s not a passing fad.


This article is available in its entirety in a variety of formats — Preview (free), Full Text, Text+Graphics, and Page Image PDF — on a pay-per-view basis, courtesy of ITI's InfoCentral. CLICK HERE.

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