Not by the Book

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Most experts say districts should think carefully before dropping their textbooks, if they decide to do so at all.

Laredo, Texas

A few years ago, middle school students here who were starting a unit in science might have reached first for their textbooks. Today, they gather around computer screens in groups of four and five. Instead of looking at illustrations on a printed page, they watch video clips of scientific phenomena in motion. And rather than toting home a heavy book to study, they carry worksheets on their class activities.

These students are learning science this way because they go to school in one of the few districts in the country that are closing their textbooks in an entire course of study and replacing them with computer-based multimedia materials. Seventh and 8th graders here use a software program called Science 2000, made by Decision Development Corp., and 5th and 6th graders use one called Windows on Science, made by Optical Data School Media, a subsidiary of SRA/McGraw-Hill Inc.

The video and audio clips and computer simulations that are part of these programs help liven up a subject that many children find boring when taught in a traditional way, says Elaine Rodriguez, a curriculum-support specialist for the United Independent School District in this poor, largely Hispanic city of 180,000 just north of the Mexican border.

Science 2000 in particular focuses on student discovery of information in ways that textbooks typically do not, Rodriguez adds. "A textbook gives you material that someone looked up, and the material is there for you to read and digest. In [Science 2000], the answer is not always given to you. You have to find the clue."

The door is open for other districts to replace their textbooks as well. Most of the 22 "textbook adoption" states, which draw up official lists of instructional materials that are approved for purchase with state money, have already sanctioned the use of multimedia products as core texts. Eleven states, for example, have approved Science 2000 as a core text. Three schools in Houston, meanwhile, are piloting a software program for algebra, and the West Palm Beach, Fla., schools are using Social Science 2000 as a textbook replacement in several grades.

Such developments have some experts wondering if the age of the traditional textbook is coming to a close.

"The textbook will fade, and maybe blissfully," says Peter W. Cookson Jr., the director of the Center for Education Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University. "The idea that books are passé‚ and everything is going to be multimedia--it's penetrating the education publishing field tremendously, and it's going to transform it."

But whether schools should embrace such a transformation is another question. Most experts--including many who strongly advocate technology in schools--say districts should think carefully before dropping their textbooks, if they decide to do so at all.

"It's not clear even if it's a good idea," says Elliot Soloway, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan.

Technology is already having a huge influence on textbook publishing, but mostly in the area of supplemental materials rather than core texts.

"The textbook will fade, and maybe blissfully."

Peter W. Cookson Jr.
Center for Education Outreach and Innovation,
Teachers College, Columbia University

Almost every printed textbook now comes with ancillary multimedia materials, including links to the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs, videos, or databases full of sample test questions.

"I think we'll continue to see a surge in the supplemental area," says Sue Kamp, the director of the education-market section of the Software Publishers' Association in Washington.

Fifteen thousand elementary and middle schools, for example, subscribe to Scholastic Network, an Internet network that provides Web-based classroom activities. The Illinois Department of Education pays the full cost of subscriptions to the network for all elementary and middle schools in the state; Indiana's education department heavily subsidizes its schools' subscriptions.

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, based in Boise, Idaho, has paid for most of the kindergarten classes in Idaho to use the Waterford Early Reading Program, a computer-based program that also comes with books. The program was approved by California in 1996 as a core text, but schools there so far have only purchased it as a supplementary program.

Even in Texas, which in 1990 became the first of the textbook-adoption states to approve a multimedia product as a core text, it is far more common for districts to use such materials to supplement printed textbooks rather than in lieu of them.

"I don't think we're seeing a complete jump in that direction--to do without textbooks," says Connie Stout, the former director of the Internet-based Texas Education Network, who is now an educational consultant in Texas. "You need the interactivity that multimedia gives you, but that doesn't replace something in your hand going home. People need something to take home."

Some experts predict that rather than replacing core texts on a wide scale, multimedia materials will make teachers less willing to rely heavily on any single instructional tool, printed or otherwise.

The Internet is "breaking apart the idea that there is a core text," says Jan Hawkins, a professor of practice in Harvard University's graduate school of education. "There's more a choreography of materials, instead of thinking we can get all of mathematics stuffed into one book or software package."

But here in Laredo, administrators had to get rid of traditional textbooks because otherwise teachers would not have tried to use technology as an integral part of lessons, says Dolores Davila-Medrano, the 24,000-student district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"They'd rely on the books totally, rather than giving technology a chance," Davila-Medrano contends. "That's within their comfort zone."

One clear advantage to multimedia materials over textbooks is that they can provide video and audio clips, databases with extensive amounts of information, simulations with computer graphics, and convenient links from one set of information to another. Multimedia materials can also deliver a voluminous amount of information in a small amount of space.

Some educators worry that educational content provided through multimedia sources or the Internet is superficial.

"A kid would need a wheelbarrow to take home the data in books and images," says Robert McClintock, a co-director of the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College. "Ultimately, multimedia resources for education are going to allow for a fuller or richer curriculum than textbooks are."

Multimedia "can put kids in touch with the world. It creates a visual understanding of the world that never existed before," agrees Cookson, also of Teachers College. He contrasts that capability with what he sees as the limits of the textbook, which "gives the kid the impression the world is a fixed place."

There are also drawbacks to multimedia, Cookson acknowledges. He worries that educational content provided through multimedia sources or the Internet is superficial.

"It doesn't answer the question 'Why?'" he says.

Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit New York City group that reviews printed textbooks and curricula, says multimedia products may be better suited to the sciences than the humanities, because the reading material in technology-based texts tends to be dumbed down. "The multimedia systems I know in history, I've looked at with great skepticism," Sewall says. "I worry about the depth and rigor of these programs."

Sewall says he also worries about the subtle influence that multimedia publishing is now having on traditional textbooks. "There's print in textbooks today, but it's cut up in short takes. It's extended caption writing, and it doesn't serve the purpose of exposition."

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 30-34

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Not by the Book
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