September 1, 2009

Textbooks and Web 2.0: Collision or Collaboration?

Pioneers in the use of new technology to improve the learning conditions of their students, teachers in the ‘département de Langues’ at Cegep Édouard-Montpetit have made a large part of the pedagogical content of the school’s various language courses available on the web.

As the IT Representative of her school, I am privileged to introduce this article by Jane Petring, a member of this illustrious group, who has taken this trend to its limits by joining an international network of language teachers who use Web 2.0 learning tools. Furthermore, Ms Petring is also the author of several ESL texts. She is therefore well qualified to address the strengths and weakness of both online and traditional resources. Serge Y. Roy

Pioneers in the use of new technology

As technology becomes cheaper and more accessible around the world, the range of pedagogical possibilities seems almost limitless. Free social software sites offer opportunities for real communication between real people in real time. Interactive educational Web sites allow students to practice skills, conduct research, and assimilate knowledge at an individualized pace. However, orchestrating activities, investigating appropriate sites, learning new software, maintaining equipment, and assessing student progress may be beyond the scope of busy teachers, and privacy issues could become major concerns for educators. Well-designed textbooks are reassuring when the books provide logical sequencing and pedagogically-sound exercises that respond to the needs of the students and school system. Nevertheless, our net-generation students are already adept at communicating through digital media with sites like Facebook and MySpace. Using the tools of technology is a logical next step for building new communities and finding new venues for pedagogical applications.

Over the last six years I have been involved with a vibrant network of language teachers around the world who enthusiastically embrace the learning potential of digital media through connectivity and online interaction. At the same time, I have been writing textbooks and enjoying the satisfaction of seeing a manuscript go through the process of reviews, revisions and rewrites to become a published work that lands in the hands of students and teachers. I constantly feel the shifting rumble underfoot, not only in the delivery of pedagogical materials, but in every form of media we know.

If it’s free, then how can it be any good?

Many of my online colleagues use social networking sites to organize paperless classes. The course syllabus is posted on a wiki with links to articles, magazines, videos, podcasts and interactive exercises. Students develop writing skills by posting on blogs or contributing articles to a class e-zine (electronic magazine). Oral recordings and written work are maintained in an e-portfolio. Students get feedback from a global audience of readers and listeners in addition to the teacher and class members. Teachers who take this approach point out that textbooks can’t possibly provide the range of topics, flexibility for adaptation or degree of timeliness that web applications offer. Furthermore, other teachers can build, collaborate and remix the content of a course, giving the original design an extra spark of creativity. In fact, there is an emerging phenomenon of “open textbooks” where educators collaborate online to develop educational material in a variety of digital formats. One might question whether a production that hasn’t gone through the rigorous review and editing process of a book could possibly be as accurate and pedagogically-sound. The unstated question seemed to be: If it’s free, then how can it be any good? Internet-enthusiasts are quick to jump in with examples of superb free sites. Admittedly, there is plenty of drivel on the web, but the good stuff seems to just keep getting better when restrictions are reduced and our collective intelligence promotes new material and new approaches. Wikipedia is a prime example.

Cover of Insight by Jane Petring

Of course a textbook is not written in isolation. The pre-production stage, when the managing editor, the copy editor, the coordination editor, the graphics designer and the author are working out the final details involves a great deal of collaboration. However, once the book goes to press, any error or dated element is locked in place until the next printing or revision. The wiki, on the other hand, can be updated at any point. Does this mean the flexibility of online applications has doomed the reliable textbook? It’s hard to predict the future, but teachers have always modified textbook lessons, and the fact that digital material can be updated, doesn’t mean it will be. In the 1980’s I updated textbooks with newspaper articles or recorded TV and radio news reports; today I update my own textbook by keeping a class blogwith links to related articles, podcasts, videos and exercises. Updating and revising are simply good practice, whatever the format.

All of this is to say that textbooks, whether digital or paper, will continue to play a prominent role in education, but we can expect them to be enhanced, enlivened and enriched with Web 2.0 applications, and it’s only a matter of time before they take on a second life in the virtual world of Web 3.

Please share your experiences with online material and textbooks using our Reader Response Feature.

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Reynolds Kanary
Reynolds Kanary
9 October 2009 13h24

Great article, Jane