Friday, March 16, 2012

iPad vs. Textbooks

Caveat Emptor: I am about to make lots of generalizations about textbooks. I know full well that there are exceptions to some things in some books.  But in my 15 years teaching history, I have yet to encounter a textbook that works well for me. You may love your textbook, and it may be perfect for you. I don't even like my textbook, and it doesn't work well for me.

I believe that history is, at its heart, a series of stories.  Stories can teach lessons, entertain, inform, generate a response, be boring, and even be lesson-less.  However, history textbooks don't tell good stories; they damp down all the controversy, take out the blood, sweat, toil and tears, use one person to represent whole groups of people, and in general, present everything as a done deal that was a good outcome for the "winners." There's the African proverb "Until lions have their own historians, stories of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter," which I like better than "victors write history," but the basic intent of both is the same:  textbooks are the history of the victors.  And they remind us, as Dave Barry mocked in his book Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States, that "women and minorities continued to make valuable contributions." Afterthoughts, stereotypes and condescension abound. And insomnia gets cured by all who read them.

Textbooks are expensive to make, expensive to buy, impossible to update, heavy to carry, limited to two dimensions, present one perspective and are governed by the political whims of whatever the largest states' Departments of Education think they should contain.  They are boring, vanilla pieces of writing that contain mistakes and aren't even under the control of the ivory tower denizens who composed them originally.  Some contain thorough research and are accompanied by supplemental materials that are somewhat useful, but most are spottily researched, and come with such intellectually stimulating items as fill in the blank/matching/lower order thinking worksheets that re-create the textbook page in even simpler form. Ultimately, if you are a teacher who uses those materials, you must know that your students simply copy off a friend just before class. If they are organized, they rotate the responsibilities among them...

So I don't like textbooks.

Sadly, the iPad doesn't yet help with this area of my classes.  It allows me and my students to access the interwebs, and I do make use of the Wikipanion app to have students compare the contents of the textbook with the contents of Wikipedia and turn to a third party web source to adjudicate any discrepancies. I can have my students watch TED talks, PBS videos, and follow the news, blogs, and social media. Students can download items from iTunes U and podcasts that are free. So I can stitch together material, and I will eventually generate an ePub or my own iBook once it is populated enough, but for now it is a cumbersome process that relies on materials beyond my control.

Ah, but what about the new Apple textbook initiative and iBooks? Well, students would have to pay for anything out of iBooks. I currently can't buy books for them and then repossess them to pass along to other students in a subsequent year. (No rental licenses like there are for renting movies in iTunes...yet...) So even once Apple puts together its textbooks, I still will have to designate funds for the purchase of those items, and in terms of the mathematics of it all, iBook-based textbooks will end up being more expensive than the textbooks we currently use. (My current textbook cost is $90, and is on its 6th year of use...If I have to pay $15.99 per student per iBook per year, I won't really be saving anything over time, it just won't be a giant bill all at once.)

All I use a textbook for is to provide the students with a common platform of knowledge. I never use it in class; they read it at home, at night, on their own so they can come into the classroom with a body of information that will allow us to delve into the facets of the story that help: to explain our current world; to illustrate a problem that needed to be solved back then that resonates with a problem we have today; to provide an important comparison to another story from another place; or to help describe how something has changed as time has gone by. The iPad makes the in-class activities happen in new and effective ways, and it can help with the at-home portion of my process; it just doesn't do that smoothly and efficiently.  Yet.


  1. And it is still just a textbook. Still low level thinking...kind of like an iPad flash card...are we still memorizing things? 21st century device 20th century method?

  2. I agree with you; as teacher, I detest textbooks and I have my entire academic life as well. When I was in the fifth grade, I vowed that I would someday become a fifth grade teacher and NOT use text books. I'm extremely lucky that I'm not forced to, as my principal is very supportive. (In my ten years of teaching thus far, only one random parent from my school has complained about my philosophy on text books because of a Tweet I wrote years ago. He found it, and used it against me, as he was trying to find incriminating evidence of my web 2.0 tools use.)

    There are so many better sources for students to obtain the information they need and want to learn. Are you forced to buy, and have your students use, tangible and/or electronic text books?


    1. Hi Rachel-yeah, the anti-web 2.0 crowd is pretty...loud...
      I inherited a set of textbooks (Bentley and Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters, an AP World text) from the previous teacher when I started teaching at Burlington. The school adopted new history textbooks in 2006, so we have them in the building. I rarely make use of them; students take one home so they have it to read from if they need it. But the trade off in terms of budget was iPads for textbooks, so we will not buy textbooks in any form, electronic or paper, ever again. My department is not on board with this idea, but the reality they face (and are slowly starting to accept) is that once their current books fall apart, they won't be replaced. So I'm working with them (and on them!) to start to think about the future.
      An issue we will run into is that the College Board requires a collegiate level textbook as part of their certification process, or schools can't call a course "AP."
      I'm estimating that the books will last for about two more years, at which point they will become fodder for the recycle bin. And I will dance on them...and tell the College Board to take a long walk off a short pier! :)

  3. I wouldn't want to be in your position, having to get your department to accept the idea of no more text books. It's great that your administration is supportive.

    The College Board needs to get with the times. Hopefully high school administrators can voice this concern and make a difference sooner than later.

    Good luck!