Archives for: August 2009


Permalink 10:18:49, by Eric Baber Email , 766 words, 15165 views   English (EU)
Categories: Articles, Thoughts

On (e)textbooks in the (ELT) classroom

The New York Times came out with an article about how the traditional, paper-based textbook is going the way of the dodo and how it'll ultimately be replaced by teachers putting together their own learning paths for their students based on materials that are available online for free. This predictably has caused the various camps who have strong opinions one way or the other over how the educational sector should operate to jump on this as being the ultimate truth, or as being complete nonsense. Personally, I think neither of these points of view are particularly helpful, and that we need to look at the realities of how teachers and the educational establishment actually works. Here are some of my predictions and opinions.

  • For students to be able to access core material digitally, all students in a particular school need to have their own electronic reading/working devices (laptops, netbooks, ebook readers, whatever). Percentage-wise globally speaking, especially in the parts of the world that ELT reaches, this isn't going to be particularly widespread anytime soon. In those areas, paper-based textbooks will persist for some time yet.
  • Like it or not, many teachers aren't hugely interested in putting together a bespoke set of materials for each class every day. They've got 20+ teaching hours per week, grading of assignments to do, homework to mark, their own families to look after... They like having a clear learning path with related materials mapped out for them and their students from the beginning to the end of the term/semester/schoolyear. This means that even in classes where all learners have their own devices, most teachers will prefer it if they can work with one piece of content which will see them through the entire schoolyear. Sure they'll supplement it here and there along the way, but they'll still want one core set of materials they can work through linearly.
  • Let's not forget that it's rarely actually the teachers who decide what happens in the bigger picture; instead, that's done by Directors of Studies, principals etc. Concerns that they have include overall quality control (we like to think) - i.e. they want to be able to tell parents/educational authorities/school inspectors that all learners come out having had the same learning opportunities. This - unfortunately, perhaps - is one of the largest things against learning personalisation. Schools nowadays have to protect themselves from being sued, and one easy way of doing that is assigning the same textbook/coursebook/set of materials to all learners of a certain level/age/whatever. It also protects the school from less-good teachers in that they can argue that if the materials at least are good, that can make up for shortcomings of individual teachers. Yes this may straightjacket the better and more enthusiastic teachers, but that's the way it is.
  • Following on from that, in many parts of the world, teachers have only received very basic training, may only be fresh out of schools themselves, may have ongoing health issues which stop them from being able to teach regularly etc; so having a set of linear materials which they can rely on is vital both for them as teachers and for the learners.

So: death of the fixed-beginning-fixed-end-work-through-linearly coursebook? No. Neither on paper, nor in electronic format (but a shift from paper to electronic core materials will happen gradually as individual markets become more high-tech). And designing materials that build on each other and achieve an externally imposed set of learning objectives (i.e. exams) takes time and professional input. Yes there will be open courseware initiatives, some of which will no doubt produce excellent results. Is it likely that many educational establishments will adopt these though? Not many, I personally don't think. There are too many entities along the line - parents, principals, school boards, even the learners - who want some form of guarantee that the materials have been put together by a well-known brand and a set of people who know what they're doing. This will, of course, come with a price tag. While some educational entities or even entire authorities will consider that price tag too high and go for an open source alternative, I really think these will be few and far between.

None of this is meant to be a value judgement in favour of the book, in favour of a particular form of delivery mechanism or whatever. These are just my interpretations of own observations about how things actually are, and how I think they will continue to be, rather than what some enthusiasts one way or another think should happen.

Eric Baber's blog

Thoughts and links to articles about a variety of ICT and education-related topics. Where an article or resource is referred to in the header of a blog post please click the header to read the article.

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