09 August 2009

The Open Source Textbook

Reading this morning in the on-line NYT:
“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.

“They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote,” Dr. Abshire continued. “Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

Let's unpack this. Because my stodgy, textbook-based education enables me to do so:

multitask: do many things at once. unable to concentrate on one thing at a time.
transpose: mix things up, confuse one thing for another
extrapolate: make things up. unable to understand the difference between productive synthesis and fiction
knowledge as infinite: too much information. therefore, I don't need to know any of it at all. also: I can make it up because it's infinite and therefore also undefined/undefinable, limitlessly expandable.

I actually think that wiki-style knowledge production is fascinating and potentially productive. I'm in favor of using wikis in the classroom to help students build their knowledge and understand how synthesis (not transposition or extrapolation) works. But anyone who has done a google for a subject slightly outside of the mainstream will find multiple sources cut-and-pasted from the same place (with no record of which source the initial text comes from). This repetition also takes place in textbooks, to be sure. But the responsibility of the authors who write the textbooks, the peer reviewers who approve them, and the publishers that oversee these processes means that experts contribute, whether directly as authors or editors, or through reference to their latest research. Textbooks are a limited number of steps away from the archaeologist at a new dig in central America or the physicist working at the new supercollider. In the face of infinite knowledge production (read: making crap up as much as you want because you read it online somewhere), I worry that education will go the way of journalism: a bunch of folks, repeating the same memes in blogs and calling it knowledge.

Textbooks are boring to read--I get that. And they're expensive. But shouldn't we try instead to provide incentives for experts in their fields to work in schools as teachers? For those same folks to develop new materials to teach with? Shouldn't part of schooling be to learn how to think differently than one "wants to" or is comfortable with? Breaking old patterns--patterns encouraged by quick cut, advertising-driven media--and developing skills that might enable, say, reading a book (and not just Harry Potter) from beginning to end? Maybe a book that at first you don't immediately "get"? That doesn't immediately "hook" you with snappy dialogue written for a movie? (It could be a short book! Or a play!)

And finally (for the rant is now getting out of control): textbooks are a site of great political strife and contestation. This is important, because knowledge is never neutral. But we do, like journalists of yore, need to struggle to maintain our integrity as knowledge-producers, even in the face of economic and political pressure to do otherwise. Once we move this to an "open" platform, how do we understand, say, the problematic, religified terrain of geologic time? Or the history of Christianity itself? Or pick any war history, any history of partitioning of peoples, any colonial past. Will we be subject to the mob's decision on these things?

Am I misunderestimating the power of the collective wiki??

1 comment:

Number Three said...

I wrote some reactions to your post here.