#BeyondtheTextbook: The Internet is the Best Textbook

Thoughts are beginning to flow at Discovery’s #BeyondtheTextbook think-tank (Note: I’m not there), and I’m inclined to toss my own ideas out here. But the impetus for this post stems from the Apple’s announcement that has too many people, many for whom I respect, blindly looking to take a bite out of this new textbook, to put these items back at the center.

Our focus, however, should be clear. The Internet is the best textbook. Start there! Then, support/empower the experts in your school to create and curate learning objects* in an ongoing, collaborative experience with peers and learners.

Seriously. I can’t understand why we would begin elsewhere.

Diana Laufenberg, a person I greatly admire, said it best in her recent post:

“I heavily buy into the idea that using a variety of resources, borrowing from current events when it makes connection, and exploring themes rather than just a timeline, allows for a student to interact with the information in a more organic, realistic manner; much the way they will need to interact for the rest of their days outside the classroom.

Don’t we want students to interact as the learners they are and will be? Don’t we want them to challenge deeply the variety of resources both curated for and by them?

Are there questions? Yes! Concerns? Disruptions? Time? No doubt!

However, the learning environment should no longer be governed by content created by publishing companies and delivered by teachers. The starting point should be that which allows us to maximize the human condition and experience. The starting point should be that which allows us to maximize learning and learner experience.

My Bias

My bias stems from my teaching experience. I entered the teaching profession and an English Department that placed textbooks at the center – big thick suckers that led to more chiropractor bills than passionate exploration and learning. I quickly rebelled against this focal point of the classroom and met much resistance.

Members of the department including myself saw it a different way. We wanted to curate and create our own learning resources together and with our learners. What we simply called our online learning space (how boring, eh?). In its creation and ongoing growth, we found something considerably different would happen to the classroom, to the learning, and to us as educators.

In 2000 with Ted Nellen and Dawn Hogue as models, we embarked upon a modified CyberEnglish or what would surely be known as Connected Learning today. This continues to guide my thinking on textbooks.

Connected Learning

When the traditional textbook produced by a publisher is at the center, I firmly believe that content and teaching are at the center instead of learners and learning. This places the type of learning experiences our students and teachers deserve at risk.

*learning objects consist of diverse resources including print publications.


  1. Ryan,

    I couldn’t agree more! I rarely use the textbooks in my classroom and have moved to curating online content for my students and creating livebinders for topics. One major concern as I do this is the readability of the website for struggling readers and our young readers. This is a gap the internet has not filled yet with students in mind. I think a great supplement is the access to multimedia, but there is something to be said about readability.

  2. So, let me understand your argument here….

    In “A Certain” school. We have what, say… 6 or 8 teachers in some area. Geez!
    Most of them are, and will be, and must be average. Some only MEDIOCRE.
    (Statistical probability tells us this. You cannot argue against the math.)
    So, they will invent their own course, their own curriculum, their own materials, their own emphasis on topics. And they will cull it entirely from the internet! (Lots out there, yes, but not everything! And some is slop!) They will decide what, when, how, where, why to teach something. OH BOY!

    And we expect that these 6 people, 4 of whom are mediocre, to outgun and outdo a multinational corporation… with decades of experience! Yup. Sure. You 6, little, 30-some year old blond(e)s, are going to outdo some “Houghton Mifflin” firm! (Or whomever!) Clearly, they/you have no hubris!

    A quick example: Microsoft worked for years on an encyclopedia, and came up with Encarta. They had resources! They did a fairly good job, but it was no Britannica. WHY? Microsoft, at the time, was a software company. Britannica, knew, and still knows encyclopedias. Microsoft? They got out of the encyclopedia business.

    The reason they longer print? It is simply not affordable to do. It costs too much. It is not lack of manpower, knowledge, experience, or technology. But they still “DO” encyclopedias! And they will be doing for years. And the print bit? Well, today, they have decided not to print the huge multi-volume sets. Tomorrow, that may change. And they will still do specialty printings on certain topics (for certain groups). No doubt, an in house copy (though probably not bound), likely exists, on most topics.

    Obviously, logic, is not your strong point. A big company will produce a better, thicker, more standardized, more useful (to more people) text book than you can. They can spend years on it! Thousands of man-hours! They can hire the best experts on the most topics, to create their product. They can proofread better than you, and can compare their textbook to other firms’ products, before they put the book out…. If anything, they will put stuff in that is not needed. But they will not leave out essentials.

    BUT: 6 people cannot do all that. They may at times, in one small specific area, outdo a big company. But across an entire body of knowledge? Or across an entire topic/subject? No. Nor, when it does happen, will you find EVERY group of 6 people outdoing a big firm. You will find the ODD isolated group doing this. And whether the rest of the world will hear of them or not? Oh, that is as much luck, as planning, even today.

    Example: Justin Beiber. There are hundreds of kids like him out there, singing on the net. Is he that much better than all of them? NO. But he got discovered by somebody who knew how to package, and market, and promote him. And this somebody had the resources to do to job. And, VOILA! Please use earplugs responsibly.

    No wonder education is going down the drain! You have a choice between every school having a few teachers re-invent the wheel… Meaning… if you took a dozen students at random from a dozen schools at random, ALMOST NONE of these students would have the same knowledge base of theory, facts, customs, methods, and techniques as any other student. Although, you may get the odd pair or triplet from one school being identical.

    And, Gads! … This “education” will, furthermore, “mutate” each year! Because, each year, the 6 or 8 teachers will again re-invent the wheel! And you would have me believe that those 6 or 8 are ultimate experts on everything? Why they would then be, each of them, a Newt Gingrich in his or her self! WOW! Clearly not a likely possibility or probability!!

    OR: You could have something rather more standardized, where employers know in advance what their new employees are going to know, and be able to do once they hit the shop or office floor. And employers, big or small, want to know what they are getting ahead of time. Oh, they want a variety of experience, yes, but they need some very strong basics. They value common core knowledge… They want imagination, yes, but not too much of it. In fact, they rather want little of it.

    In HVAC, for instance, it is very important that all the employees use the same safety techniques. Natural gas can only be handled one way, or … BOOM! (Well, it is OK, if it is your house, but for me, I want my house to be safe!) And in mining? Again. Common cores. And in many other areas: Mechanics, house building, tree felling, road building, and so forth, to name a few examples!.

    Now, maybe in ONE school, out of all the schools there are, there might be ONE set of 6 or 8 teachers who can do a good job…. or at least a half-assed one…. Congratulations!

    But, and I am sure this is news to you… there are thousands of schools out there, with thousands of little groups of teachers. Some groups will have 6 teachers. Some will have 12. Some will have 20. And some will be not too bad, and others will be just plain rotten.

    But the average big firm, will put out a reasonably safe product, of reasonable quality. That is their bread and butter. That is their expertise. That is their raison d’etre. The dozen teachers? Well their job is to teach. They only have so much time to spend on curriculum resource building.

    Because some schools will be cute, little, ideal world, 1%er yuppie, plentiful resource ridden, private schools, featuring the beloved sons and daughters of International Bankers and Stockbrokers, all studying nobly, alongside the sons and daughters of Ambassadors, and Diplomats, and all their parents all have 3, or 4 obligatory PHD’s and PQRS’s after their names…. You know the ones whereof I speak. Beltway!

    And their 6 or 8 teachers MIGHT (it is not guaranteed) do a decent job of creating their own teaching materials. But if they fail, why then, you know that those 6-8 teachers will be canned in a very very few years, and I might see them serving me at the McDonald’s drive-through — which, maybe, is where they belonged in the first place! And the next bunch of teachers, will be wiser…. having learned from experience! Or at least the experience from learning what happened to the first set! (Because they will be told!)

    But many other teachers will be stuck at an ordinary school. You know, the ones with 20 overworked teachers in a department, each teaching a class of 50 kids, in a school that has 1,300 kids. One of those schools, where time, there is never enough of, and resources like a box of paper to print a class project, is indeed a precious resource…

    I’d love to see their home grown English, Social Studies, or History course! YUK! It will not matter, anyway. None of those subjects matter much in real life. Now, if we can only get math, physics, chemistry, general science, shop, mechanics, and other real subjects to do the same as you, why we can have an educational system that is up to par with the year 1778. India, Japan, China, and Korea will love us all…. as they pound us into the ground.

    Pity the small school in the small town, with only 200-300 students, and 10 teachers total. But they will probably do a better job. We must HOPE so! They’ll have books and libraries. And: trig, algebra, NaCl, and King Lear have not changed much in decades.

    Perhaps you need to rethink your strategy.
    Using the net as “A” resource? Good idea….
    If you are careful to note that there is both crap and good stuff out there.
    Now whether you, yourself, will find the good stuff, that is another bag of problems.
    But using the net as your only resource?
    Tough to put in a bibliography. (Do you even know the word?)
    Tough to judge quality. (What would you compare it to? A real text book?! Hah!)
    Often tough to know when something was actually posted. Or by whom.
    And sometimes the ‘when’ and the ‘whom’ matter.

    Be wary of what you do. Yes! You are being very creative! And you are having fun! But the next generation or 2 will have been through your hands!

    I remember a friend. Her son was in the class of a teacher who decided to write his own textbook. He used his students as guinea pigs. The upshot was that he was a tolerable teacher using someone else’s professionally produced book. He was a lousy author. Worse, he was lousy at teaching his own material. The students lost a year in their schooling. The students nearly all failed. In the end, they all got passed to “get rid of them”. The teacher? He nearly got canned. The union saved his skin. Pity. He should have been fired… out of a cannon.

    Frankly, though, in a perverse way, I am kind of glad that our educational system is going down hill. When the energy crunch comes, our lifestyle will not be affordable. Billions will die. (It will make the Black Death look like a Sunday pic-nic.) And we will end up being back, in the year 17xx. And it will be much easier for whichever warlord ends up in charge, to “lose” the LOL-cat kids, and the Assassin’s Creed Players (…they’ll make great cannon fodder.)… And keep the other kids, either as a small set of scholars (the very few left.), or as workers, to keep the few survivors from starving completely. The ipods, ipads, smart phones, and the other low-tech stuff will end up on the junk heap, dead batteries and all. But the practical every day stuff, the hammers, the books, and the useful people, well, they will be kept. They’ll have to be. We will have lost the ability to make new ones.

    We have indeed lost our way in many areas. Do not worry, Mother Nature and earth are larger and more powerful than man. They’ll find the right path for us. And put us on it!

  3. I agree, and yet I also respect the work of educators that have (up to now) assembled the content of textbooks as we know them today. (Aren’t most textbooks authored by educators?).

    Some states are already planning the move to digital texts; California, Kentucky, Florida and others have proposed legislation to have textbooks in digital form by as early as 2015. However, digitized textbooks, which contain the “same old stuff” but now in digital form, can (and should) be enhanced in a number of ways by including multi-media, simulations, and links for further inquiry, in addition to being customized and adaptable to learners. (See also: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/building-your-own-textbook-audrey-watters).

    Consider such efforts as the BioBook from Dr. Daniel Johnson of Wake Forest University and education technology firm Odigia, which provides a “fully customizable experience for both students and educators…. On the student side, linear chapters are remixed into “branches and leaves,” where students explore concepts as interlinked ideas….”

    It is certainly time to move beyond textbooks, and move to a goal of teaching students the skills of gathering, evaluating and critically thinking about the information available online. I know many teachers who are interested in moving in this direction. However, as with anything in education, finding the time to discover, explore, evaluate and curate information, in addition to the daily demands of the classroom, is a common complaint. Combine this with the challenge of sequencing and aligning learning targets to national, state or common core standards.

    Kudos to you and your team for thinking to the future by creating your “CyberEnglish” experience, and allowing your learners to be an integral part of this.



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