In my first post in this series, I wrote about what good teaching is. While the argument was wrapped in a lot of autobiography, it makes a number of assertions that are foundational to the mission of Argos:
- The best evidence we have suggests that teachers change lives, by I we mean that students who have had good teachers will make more money, be physically and mentally healthier, and have more fulfilling relationships over the entire course of their lives.
- Good teaching combines the emotional and the intellectual. In particular, teaching the diverse group of students that can be found in almost any classroom effectively requires diagnostic skill and creativity.
- The intellectual aspect of good teaching is largely invisible to our society, including even many proponents and practitioners of education. The average person may sense it from time to time but, as a rule, we don’t talk about how it works and don’t think about it as an aquired skill set (nevermind a discipline that evolves over time).
- As a result, there are social barriers to educators sharing craft with each other on top of the barriers created by the employment conditions in higher education.
One result is a poor understanding of the textbook’s role and product/market fit. In turn, this has contributed to several decades of slow, painful, and often unproductive efforts to creating a vision for a digitally transformed version of the product. We can’t see what we can’t see. As Henry Ford put it, “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”
The primary purpose a textbook serves is to enable an instructor to upcycle the author’s course design. They adopt and adapt that design to fit their local needs and context rather than spending enormous amounts of time writing all the course elements from scratch. In the Industrial Age, where editing, typesetting, printing, distributing, and selling paper books were all labor-intensive and specialized tasks, it made sense to have one author, one editor, and one distributor to produce an artifact that each instructor would then independently upcycle. In the digital world, we can continuously upcycle course design by crowdsourcing improvement, both directly through collaboration and indirectly through shared data.
That’s an essential part of what Argos Education does. We enable a virtuous cycle where educators can continuously upcycle their course designs with their peers. This enables them to teach more effectively with less work. It also creates a positive evolutionary pressure on their course design and delivery. While educators are still free to exercise their judgment in their respective classrooms, they will do so knowing how their peers are upcycling the same basic course design as well as how well various aspects of the course design are working based on analytics. In other words, they will have peer and expert feedback and suggestions that they don’t have now.
How paper textbooks work
What is an educator doing when she selects a textbook? What is she looking for? What are her criteria? On a micro level, then answers vary dramatically from one educator to the next. One is looking for good back-of-chapter questions. Another is looking for readings that will be engaging and accessible to her students. Or a particular angle on the curriculum. Or a particular teaching method.
On a macro level, all of these fall into the larger bucket of looking for pieces of course design to upcycle. The specifics of what professors look for can be heavily inflected by a variety of factors. For highly procedural subjects like math, many educators will focus on the progression of scaffolded and unscaffolded problems. In economics, it could be philosophical/political. Conservative economists may like Greg Mankiw’s explanation of inflation while progressive economists may prefer Paul Krugman’s. A biology professor may choose a text that emphasizes an ecological lens to the topic over a microbiological one for several reasons. Maybe her university is known for its environmental studies programs but not for its pre-med programs. Or maybe she herself feels better equipped to teach the subject well from one angle rather than the other.
These differences can be neutral with respect to some imagined ideal of an “effective” class. How much does it really matter if a first-year biology student learns a little more ecology and a little less microbiology? Or the other way around? In those early courses, we mainly want to help the students develop their interest in the subject, some general knowledge, and some discipline-related thinking skills.
But in context, the differences can be dramatic. Teaching biology 101 from a microbiology perspective to a student who is trying to decide whether she wants to pursue a major in environmental studies may cause her to drop the course or even her major. Likewise, having a professor teach the course from an angle that they’re not comfortable with is likely to lead to a disengaged, paint-by-numbers teaching approach. If the educator is bored or uncomfortable, then the students will likely be bored or uncomfortable too.
Educators look for textbooks that give them more materials that they can upcycle into their course designs. The more the materials fit the course design in the teacher’s head, the more that teacher can focus on adding value in her context rather than filling in holes in the base course materials. And make no mistake: Educators almost always customize, even if they don’t think about what they’re doing in those terms.
When I taught a variety of subjects to middle school students, the one I was least opinionated about was pre-algebra. The book I had been given was pretty good and I didn’t feel terribly confident in my ability to come up with better teaching approaches to that subject. So I taught the book, chapter by chapter. I didn’t write a lot of supplemental materials or skip around. But I improvised all the time. For example, at that age, some students acquire abstract thinking later than others. This makes teaching concepts like negative numbers difficult. The book I was using talked about number lines but those were still too abstract. So I took the kids out onto the streets of Hoboken and we turned one of them into a number line that the students could walk. Later, when we were graphing lines, we turned it into a two-dimensional graph. (I was lucky that Hoboken streets had a grid layout.)
I created lessons that weren’t in the book so that the course design would fit the real needs of my actual students. I didn’t do it for pleasure or out of a sense that I was a better mathematician than the textbook author or even that I was a better curriculum designer in the global sense. But I knew better what my students needed from me because I knew my particular students’ needs and my own capabilities better. So I upcycled the course design. I took a found object that didn’t quite fit the purpose and turned it into something that did.
Even though I was more opinionated about how to teach science, I found a textbook that I really liked and followed that fairly closely too. But when a student asked a question that was provoked by but not answered by the experiment in the book, what was I supposed to do? Ignore it? Tell the student to go read about it?
No. I wanted to visibly reward genuine scientific curiosity in front of the class. So we made up experiments together to answer her question.
I didn’t think of it as either following or not following the textbook. I didn’t care about the textbook one way or the other. The textbook was just a tool for producing a better course design with less work. I cared about helping my students learn what they needed to learn in the ways that they needed to learn it, some of which the textbook’s author could anticipate and some of which he could not. (It was a male author.)
Sometimes—often, if we’re being honest—educators are not lucky enough to find a book that fits their contextual needs perfectly. For example, some of my students had never been out of a city. Taking them to the zoo helped stimulate some of them, but a zoo is not the same as a natural habitat. And even if I had VR and could take them out to the African savannah or an alien planet virtually, it still would have been an abstract concept to them. The best way to hook a lot of them was to create a transect in the park directly across the street from the school. I showed them how the space where they hung out and kicked a ball around was absolutely teeming with life that they never noticed. Suddenly, ecology was real to them. It was salient. At that point, the information in textbook would become much more meaningful to them.
The book I had adopted had some ideas about creating transects but I had to improvise a lot and fill in gaps where the text failed to address urban ecologies. I ended up creating a fair bit of original curriculum. Again, that had not been my intention. I didn’t even think about it as altering the course design. I was just trying to fill in holes for my students. It was often an improvisational act.
College is no different. First-generation students at Georgia State University are just as likely to have never seen the countryside as my Hoboken middle schoolers. In every course at every school, we have to adjust to the people who are in front of us using the skills that we have. There is no chance that we can “instructor-proof” courses with “personalized learning” any time in the foreseeable future, even if that were a desirable outcome.
We have fetishized the artifact of the textbook without really understanding how it is used by an expert practitioner (partly because we don’t think of educators as expert practitioners). We have constructed a fantasy of A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer as the apotheosis of the textbook when textbooks have never functioned that way.
Biologists don’t select “Pearson Biology.” The top-selling biology textbook sold by Pearson is named after the biologist who authored it—Neil Allison Campbell. Educators who adopt Campbell Biology do so, in part, because they like Campbell’s course design, freeze-dried into textbook format. They upcycle the materials for their own classes. They attribute that course design to a presumed colleague, even if he’s one they haven’t met: noted biologist and biology educator Neil Allison Campbell. Pearson actively maintains that fiction even though Campbell has been dead for sixteen years and three editions have been published since his death. So baked into the very heart of today’s textbook branding system is a sense of collegial sharing that is increasingly a facade created by the publishers.
Sometimes academic departments select textbooks as a group. And they do so as part of designing the curriculum for their entry-level courses. In this case, the department is upcycling the course design collaboratively—or, at least, the tenured and tenure-track professors are—and then that design on to the individual educators. Who inevitably upcycle it themselves from time to time. Even if they color inside the lines, there are always things that come up with the students that the course design didn’t anticipate. And many educators take liberties with the course designs they are given.
In an ideal world, educators within a department would meet regularly to share their upcycling and improve on the core course design template. But they generally don’t because they don’t have the time and because these upcycling changes aren’t easy to share. Sometimes they happen in class, either planned or unplanned. Sometimes they happen in the LMS, or in individual tools connected to the LMS. The departmental course adoption process demonstrates the need and desire for collaborative, multi-cycle course design upcycling. But it’s too hard and too time-consuming. As a result, all that extra work that educators put in to improve their course designs, and that could contribute to a collegial upcycling conversation, are lost.
EdTech has made upcycling harder
You would think that having everything in digital would make upcycling easier. At the moment, the opposite is true. Suppose, for example, that you decide to adopt the latest edition of Campbell Biology. You have a couple of choices. Your students could use the eText or a textbook. The eText is no more editable than the textbook. You could also augment by adopting the bundle of the eText and Mastering. So you’ll have to tell students, “First, read this section in your eText. Then follow this link to the homework platform. After that, come back to the LMS.” Is that easier than it was to accomplish the same tasks in a physical classroom? Is it easier for the instructor to set up and customize? Or easier for the students to follow along? I think not. It is easier to grade the homework. And it’s super easy for students to Google the answers to those homework problems.
Now suppose you don’t think a section of the textbook is appropriate for your students. Maybe it’s too hard for the mix of students you have, for example,
Read sections 7 to 7.2.2 in your eText. Do not read section 7.2.3. Instead, follow this link to the LMS folder called “Chapter 7” and read the document called ‘Alternate 7.2.3.’ Then, follow the link at the bottom of the document and take the quiz in the LMS. After that, go back to your eText and read 7.2.4 through to the end of the chapter.
Easy, right? While we’re at it, let’s throw in a virtual lab and a discussion in the special, non-LMS forum tool that you like. Upcycling in this environment is incredibly hard. Sharing your upcycling for somebody else to use—or even just migrating it from one LMS to another—is way too hard and time-consuming to expect full-time educators to do.
Attempts to address this problem have largely failed. OER creates a licensing structure that is supposed to facilitate upcycling. But upcycling requires infrastructure as well as a license. Just because you can theoretically edit that OER-licensed PDF doesn’t make it any easier to upcycle in reality.
On the technical side, Learning Object Repositories (LORs) designed by technologists for large organizations fail because the product category takes the wrong approach. The whole idea of a “re-usable learning object” is built on the analogy to re-usable software objects. But software and content aren’t re-usable in the same way. Educational content is all about context. You can’t chop up a bunch of courses on the same topics, paste pieces together, and have them make sense to learners. Creating modular, ready-to-reuse content (as opposed to upcyclable content) is incredibly hard. Often impossible. So LOR creators often spend tremendous amounts of time creating elaborate content taxonomies, only to discover that most people are using their fancy systems as media libraries and quiz question banks.
I’m not suggesting that either open licenses or LORs are useless. They just don’t solve the whole problem of continuous upcycling.
Continuous upcycling is possible
What if we could dramatically lower the barrier for continuous, collaborative, data-informed upcycling of course designs? Catch that teacher at the moment of improvisational need and make a good suggestion? Share brilliant teaching ideas that often never leave the classroom of the person who created them? Nudge teachers who are in a bit of a rut to show them some exciting things their colleagues are doing? All while keeping them focused on their core teaching challenges?
What if every educator who adopts a “textbook” could join one or more communities of adopters? What if they could edit, delete, and insert new content into the product they were upcycling? What if they could choose to share those edits with their department, their learning designer, the original author of the curricular product, or the whole community of educators who are adopting it? What if the product could recommend changes that colleagues are making, particularly if those changes seemed connected to better learning outcomes? What if educators could selectively adopt those changes? And what if they could choose to have conversations with their colleagues about the design, how they’re changing it, why, and how they could tell if it works?
This is how Argos Education aspires to change the fundamental value proposition of the “textbook,” or “courseware,” or whatever awful name you want to invent for that freeze-dried course design that educators upcycle to meet their local needs.
In my next post in this series, I’ll talk concretely about how this ecosystem—and economy—works.
In the meantime, this week’s Blursday Social will be a chat about Argos. So you can come to that if you’re curious. Sign up here.