Watching the World Change In Front of My Eyes

Readers of this blog are aware of my interest in promoting open education resources.  Last year, I was a formal member of a Joint Commission on Technology and Science subcommittee related to this topic.  This year, there are no formal members besides the legislators, but the public is encouraged to attend.  The meeting yesterday had a variety of great presentations, and as I left, I realized I had been watching the world change. 

Aneesh Chopra, Virginia’s Director of Technology, talked about how the state has been innovating.  I have never seen him present before, and he was nothing short of inspirational.  I’ve added his weekly podcast to iTunes.  He described a school he had visited where the textbook indicated that cathode ray tubes were a primary part of televisions.  This textbook was being used in a community in which the plant that used to make cathode ray tubes had been closed because, of course, cathode ray tubes are not used in televisions any more.

Stewart Smith from the Community Ideas Station filled us in on their efforts to digitize and distribute their vast collection of multimedia through a project called eKlips.  The materials are available for free.  I can’t wait for some free time to poke around.

I was pleased that Dr. Richard Baraniuk from Rice University was able to teleconference in to talk about the Connexions project that he spearheaded nearly ten years ago.   I had recommended him to the committee after seeing him present at NECC.

But, it was the last presentation that was most interesting in terms of watching the world change because we got a glimpse into a business struggling to figure out how they would survive in this new world. .  Pearson spent some time discussing their plans for bringing textbooks into the 21st century.   They were led off by former Virginia Board of Education President Kirk Schroder, an entertainment lawyer who is also a registered lobbyist for Pearson.   His take on open education resources was that they were fine for higher education, but for K-12 with the pressures of high stakes testing, they were too much of an experiment.  I took public issue with what I felt was a rhetoric of fear; it’s the same kind of argument that software companies make against open source products.  The idea is that if you pay lots of money, you automatically get a better product and more support. But, then, as a lobbyist, Schroder’s job is to discourage the state from going down the path of open education resources, so his rhetoric is not surprising but a bit disappointing.   A quick check of Pearson’s 2007 financial highlights (pdf) shows a 1.2 billion dollar operating profit with some 4oo million dollars coming from their K-12 sector.  I think they could still make a profit and put some of that money into more public-minded partnerships with open education foundations.

The Pearson products were visually impressive, and they were quick to point out how much more “designed” their materials were than the open source algebra textbook that had been passed around.  There were also some solid instructional features such as the ability to change reading levels for each student was a good feature.  They also are working on a “learning objects” model with lesson plans that can be combined and personalized.  Finally, they stressed that they are able to customize resources to individual school divisions.

Not surprisingly, I have a few issues with Pearson. What we did NOT hear was what the subscription fee would be for these products.  And, we were NOT given any research that showed that Pearson products led to higher student achievement on the high-stakes test that Schroder seemed to concerned about. Then, the first product they showed us included at least three typos in the text!  We were assured that these products were not live yet, but I couldn’t help but wonder who was going to fix these mistakes?  I wonder what their peer review process is?  As a subscriber, if I point out a mistake, how long will it take to get fixed?  With an open source model, I can fix it myself.

One area with which Pearson is clearly struggling is how to deal with the read/write web, or how to include collaboration.  One of the new products will address this by offering teachers and students the opportunity to share their own content, which would then, surprise, surprise, become the property of Pearson.  I asked them about how they would reconcile that if students used materials licensed under Creative Commons, and they did not have a good answer.  Since there are plenty of public places where teachers and students can really share while retaining ownership, I would hope that even if they went to Pearson for content, they would choose to place their own work in the larger domain with a Creative Commons license.

And, what about all that highly designed content?  As I said, it was flashy with lots of multimedia.  Certainly more engaging than a print-based textbook.  But, at the heart, it was still a textbook.  Its underlying pedagogy was direct instruction concerned with teaching the facts needed to pass the SOL test.  The teacher has seemed to be replaced by a computer.  If you placed these products on the Florida Center for Instructional Technology matrix, they would generally fall on an entry level where students work alone on “drill and practice” types of activities.

Interestingly, one of the products they highlighted really was a book that was tied to a website.  The presenter called it an “interactive worktext.”  Developed in collaboration with California to help teach history,  tt was a paperbound book with places where the students could write in their answers.  For those of you who have been in education for awhile, you would recognize the “interactive worktext” as an good old-fashioned workbook although they carefully avoided that word.  Again, it was highly designed with lots of glossy pages of text and pictures, but it was a workbook that, if students did use it “interactively” (can you really use that word to refer to filling in blanks?), would have to be replaced each year.  While I have been out of the classroom for awhile, I remember that my kids were not allowed to actually write in the workbooks because my schools couldn’t afford to replace them each year.  Instead, they wrote answers on paper, or some teachers ignored the copyright laws and just photocopied the pages.

For school divisions with big budgets and extensive computer access, I can understand the appeal of Pearson’s products.   They provide a walled garden where students follow a prescribed curriculum without the potential for any messiness of the real web, but they allow schools to show off their advanced technology use at the same time.  But, it misses out on the opportunity for teachers to collaborate and share their extensive knowledge and experience and for students to really learn how to use technology to support their own learning.

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