Turning the Next Page in Textbooks

In Feature Articles by Mark Piesing

Publishing Perspectives talks to a publisher, an edtech startup founder, and a teacher—from different parts of Europe—about textbooks, today and tomorrow.
Image - iStockphoto: Wavebreak Media

Image – iStockphoto: Wavebreak Media

“The Open Web is the fundamental infrastructure for modern idea and knowledge sharing. In parallel, Open Textbooks must become the fundamental infrastructure for building education.” As as Hugh McGuire of Pressbooks lays out his thoughts on open textbooks in Canada, blended learning (in which at least part of a curriculum’s material is delivered or experienced digitally) and cost considerations drive a quickening momentum in the debate around textbooks. You’ll hear this today in these comments of three specialists from Germany, the UK, and Poland. —Porter Anderson

By Mark Piesing | @MarkPiesing

Martin Feilko
International Business Manager, Cornelsen Schulverlage GmbH, Germany

Martin Fielko’s work includes Asian and Latin American markets. Cornelsen Schulverlage is a German publisher that for 60 years has focused on educational materials and training for teachers. Fielko runs textbook workshops for teachers from Asian, African and Latin American countries for the German government project PASCH, a partner school project with more than 1,000 schools worldwide. He also speaks regularly at book fairs and conferences around the world.

Publishing Perspectives: Why do you think the traditional printed textbook is still very popular in schools?

Martin Feilko: Printed textbooks have resisted change because they can be used in every classroom no matter how good or bad the technical infrastructure is, and regardless of the teacher’s knowledge about digital media or the rules about using smartphones in class.

PP: Why do you think edtech has failed to make much of an impact so far?

Martin Fielko

Martin Fielko

MF: One of the main reasons I have heard worldwide is that teachers feel less than confident using edtech because they don’t receive enough training. If all your students are more confident in using the device than you are, then there’s a huge loss of authority for the teacher.

Another is that the printed textbook is still by far the cheapest option. Policy-driven edtech projects often fail because the thinking is that you just need to put the technology in the classroom and you will lower costs because the students don’t need books any more. Policymakers don’t take into account that the costs of software and training, plus running costs, can be more than the initial costs for hardware.

Yes, there are a great number of Open Educational Resources (OERs) for schools to make it more affordable, but are they really free? If Shell produces wonderful OER material regarding renewable energies, how trustworthy is it?

Edtech companies themselves are a problem as well. Most of them are tech-driven, but lack the ed-driven component.

PP: Do you think this will change in the future and why?

MF: All the problems I’ve mentioned are solvable. It’s just a question of time until we have the digital classroom–if we still need a classroom at all.

  • Digitisation and English as a global language will make national borders disappear and open markets to the best international educational media. Local companies will face being crowded out unless they internationalise their sourcing and sales.
  • Every teacher will be able to be their own educational self-publisher. New companies will emerge and old names will die.
  • Individualisation will allow content to be learned at different speeds, and will demand much more flexibility from educational publishers too.
  • Textbook series will become operating systems and remain in permanent beta versions.

The million-dollar question for educational publishers is of course: what will be the business model then? It won’t be selling copies any more. Publishers will have to find new ways to add value.

Jakub Piwnik
Communications Manager, Brainly, Poland

Brainly is a startup founded in Cracow, Poland, in 2012, and is a social learning platform for middle school and high school students. Sixty million unique users a month answer each others’ questions free of charge in 12 different languages there, curated by more than 1,000 moderators. All the questions, answers, and explanations are saved to be used by students later. Brainly’s management hopes to be able to monetise the business soon.

Publishing Perspectives: Why do you think the traditional printed textbook is still very popular in schools and colleges?

Jakub Piwnik: The printed textbook is still the most common way of delivering resources. Many schools have introduced digital books, but when you look at them it is the same content in an electronic form.

PP: Why do you think edtech has failed to make much of an impact so far?

Jakub Piwnik

Jakub Piwnik

JP: In the edtech market, most of the technology is aimed at the teacher, the school and the civil servants who run the educational system. They don’t focus on the students and their needs, which is the most important part of the educational process.

The advantage of outside-school applications like Brainly is that they only have to focus on students and they can have a direct relationship with them through their phones.

This allows apps to respond quickly to the students’ needs.

PP: Do you think this will change in the future and why?

JP: Yes. We can use big data to see what works and what doesn’t. In a very early version of the platform, students asked a question and got an answer, but we noticed from the data that the students were asking a lot of follow-on questions and so were able to change the software so that students could have a discussion.

We believe strongly in the importance of personalised learning for the future of edtech. Machine learning will play an important part in this as it can predict what students need most and enable the content to be adjusted to the needs of the student.

The use of AR or VR is a very interesting, but not something we have investigated right now.

Rob Butler
Science teacher and blogger, fiendishlyclever.com, UK

Rob Butler is a biologist who has been working in schools with students for some 20 years.  He started off in a mainstream science department, where he started to develop his own ideas as to what education should look like.  Butler is now deputy head of a secondary age special school, teaching children with special needs.  He blogs about teaching at Fiendishlyclever.com 

Publishing Perspectives: Why do you think the traditional printed textbook is still very popular in schools ?

Rob Butler: Digital books seem very expensive and then you need the hardware to go with them. Most publishers have avoided the common platforms like the Kindle store for their bulk licensing deals and use a proprietary format, which usually makes for a naff experience on a tablet. To make things even worse, most publishers are moving to a subscription model rather than a one-off payment.

PP: Why do you think edtech has failed to make much of an impact so far?

Rob Butler

Rob Butler

RB: It’s hard for schools to support the wide range of students’ own devices (BYOD), and there can be issues in areas of high deprivation regarding equality of access, as not all will have internet and technology at home.

Printed textbooks can be thrown and abused and still go on to give years of life.

PP: Do you think this will change in the future and why?

RB: For things to change you need access to a class set of devices to view digital material on, or a school phones/IT policy that allows students to use their own devices in lessons. There has to be open access to the internet as well.

What you want the ‘textbook’ of the future to be and what it will be may be entirely different things!

I find myself using short video clips more and more in my teaching, and a library of video clips would be much more useful to me than a printed textbook. For me a future digital textbook would be more like the old CD-roms with embedded media and hotlinks to useful content that is kept up to date.

Digital textbooks could have different reading ages and adapt to suit the needs of each learner–so that students with SEN [Special Educational Needs] get a version with a lower reading age; or, what we are working towards now, dyslexic students get a different font or colour to help them read.

I don’t use textbooks with students anymore. Perhaps the textbook has already died?

For more on textbooks, today, see Researching Students’ Preference for Print: Cost and Smell

About the Author

Mark Piesing

Mark Piesing is a freelance journalist (and teacher) based in Oxford, UK now writing mainly about technology, culture and the intersection between the two for some of the biggest brands in the UK media such as The Economist, Wired.co.uk, and The Guardian. He also contributes to Warwick Business School's Core magazine. WBS is one of the top business schools in the UK.