Monday, August 17, 2015

Just Kill The Dang Trees Already

Houston ISD is getting rid of textbooks and will issue laptops to all students:
Walk through an HISD high school, and you’ll notice something missing.

The state’s largest school system is joining a growing group of districts nationwide that are phasing out a classroom staple: hard-copy textbooks.

This coming school year, for the first time, all HISD high school students will receive laptops, and the district bought only digital materials for math and social studies classes. HISD scrapped printed science books in high schools last year and plans to do the same with English books in the next cycle. The new model: electronic text with features like hyperlinks, videos and interactive maps.

The digital shift reflects Superintendent Terry Grier’s push to modernize instruction amid stagnating student test scores. The millions saved from not buying books can help fund the technology and online resources that can be updated more easily, but a tougher challenge remains: ensuring that educators and students adapt.

“I’m absolutely convinced that no paper textbooks is the way to go,” Grier said in a recent interview. 

“It’s called a digital transformation. And every teacher is to make that transformation.”
There are so many things wrong with doing this.  Non-teachers can figure out the most obvious, let me tell you what we teachers consider in addition:
  • Looking at screens for a long time is much harder than looking at books.  Reading on a screen is more difficult than reading a book.
  • Screens use a color of light that is known to screw up your circadian rhythms.  That means that it's harder to fall and stay asleep if you study near bedtime.  (It's also why you shouldn't "play" on your phone shortly before bed.)
  • It's often easier to find something in a book that it is to find it in a file or online.  Many times we'll remember what the page looked like, if it was on the left or right side, etc, when we try to find something.
  • Studying is easier with a book than with a computer.
  • Much harder to highlight using computers! (more appropriate for college textbooks than high school textbooks, though)
  • What else are they doing on those laptops?
  • Is the infrastructure strong enough to support the laptops?  (How often does the power go out?  How often does the internet go out?  How often does the wireless go out?  Can the district handle all those kids logged on at once?) 
  • Do I have stable desks, and carpeting?
  • How am I, the teacher, supposed to handle a kid who forgot to charge his laptop, and it goes out during the quiz?
  • How will the district/schools handle those kids who just cannot be trusted on computers?  (Yes, they exist, and sometimes they find a way to access porn sites and send hundreds of pictures to the school secretary's printer.  Just saying.)
What did I miss, teachers?

Of course, not all the news is bad.  Of course having the most up-to-date information is a plus, especially in history or science class.  But how often does algebra change?  Or Romeo and Juliet?  Of course having graphics and animations can clarify instruction.

Now don't go thinking for a minute that I'm a Luddite.  Look how long I've been writing this blog, for example.  Consider that I'm one of the go-to guys on campus for teachers who have problems with our student information system (attendance, grades, discipline, parent contacts, etc.).  I actually like our student information system and am a big fan of how it simplifies many of my administrative tasks.  At home I have a computer, a tablet, and a smartphone.  And I know how to use them, and I know which one is the appropriate tool to use for a given task.

So I'm no Luddite.  I just don't see how the costs in any way outweigh the benefits in this Houston project.  I could be wrong, it may turn out to be wonderful.  And if it does, I hope someone will call my attention to the glowing newspaper articles about it.  In the meantime, I'm cynical.


maxutils said...

I agree with you entirely … the moment I see text on a computer screen? I start skimming. Reading a text while having to scroll or refresh or whatever is a pain in the butt. It would be nice, I uses, to have a class set … staying with the teacher, so that kids didn't need to carry around really heavy books … but how is a computer going to be able properly score a multi step math problem? Or makes intelligent, critical remarks on essays?

Then again, you don't have to worry about algebra changing any more, since the math departments in your distict elected just not to teach it … so, it could change, or not, and no one would be the wiser. Same with geometry and algebra 2 … no more of that.

Auntie Ann said...

And it worked so well at LAUSD!

Ellen K said...

HISD is following the path of my own Texas district. Two years ago our prior superintendent pushed a mandate to give every single kid an Ipad. The results are as follows:
-Less focus on writing-both content and the skill.
-Fewer research skills as students resort to plagiarism on an exponential scale.
-Inability to read-especially scary when you consider that young kids are being taught to read on devices over printed material. Five year olds don't know the phrase "eye strain" but they do know when something hurts. Giving kindergartners eye strain headaches for the sake of dogma is operant conditioning to make kids hate reading.
-The inability of teachers to remove or even control distractions created by devices has resulted in classroom chaos. Fights and events are formulated on social media and it is literally us against them.

It is a nightmare and it makes me and every other experienced teacher less willing to stay another year unless we have no choice. Add to that the new mandate handed down from educrats on high today and honestly although I need five more years to have a decent retirement-I don't know if I will make it.

I discussed my first two days of inservice here:

Jarett said...


But the national library in Norway has computer-monitored oxygen levels to help prevent headaches associated with reading for long periods of time. Pretty neat.

Auntie Ann said...

Heavy textbooks are an issue, but the solution is to make them lighter, not eliminate them!

My collection of Algebra I textbooks includes Wentworth's New School Algebra from 1898; a later version of Dolciani from 1990, "Algebra Structure and Method", and a spanking new Algebra I from McDougal and Littell.

They weigh in respectively at: 1 pound, 3 pounds, and 5 pounds. Each iteration is at least an inch larger in page size and a couple hundred pages longer than the previous one, and the paper became heavier and glossier with each iteration as well.

Considering that kids usually have textbooks for at least math, science, and history, and multiplying each of the text books by the number of classes: kids at the turn of the 20th century had to lug around a whopping 3 pounds of book! By 1990, they were carrying about 9 pounds of book, and today, they are up to 15 pounds. With four such textbooks, a modern student has to carry 20 pounds around.

Why???? Books are shinier and prettier than the used to be, but at the cost of being so heavy that kids backs are hunched over like an osteoporotic nonagenarian. The content is not much different than it was a couple decades ago: the chain rule is still the chain rule, and the fluid mosaic model hasn't been thrown out, and the British still lost at Yorktown.

My favorite college physics textbook was in my Waves and Optics class. The prof had chosen a Dover Classic textbook, which came in non-glossy paperback, was only about 8 x 5 inches, weighed about a pound and a half, and cost about $12.

Anna A said...

I suspect that there is loss of some information, having seen it myself. I copied a few pages from a basic analytical chemistry text, then loaned it to my boss. He lost it, and I replaced the book with a later edition. I compared the pages I had copied, because that was critical information for my project, and was amazed at the differences. The newer one had more graphics, but less useful information.

David Foster said...

Kindles, or other e-ink devices, would probably be fine for textbooks, but no laptops or tablets, for the reasons you mention.

Also, people who say things like this:

"“It’s called a digital transformation. And every teacher is to make that transformation.”

...are never effective leaders of the use of new technologies. True in business, in government, and in education.

Ellen K said...

Just out of curiosity, what is the name of this administrator? He sounds just like the superintendent we had who left after convincing the board to run through our rainy day funds buying IPads for all.

Luke said...

If Amazon came out with an actual paper size Kindle that was easily searchable, they could make a killing.

Rob said...

I'm totally in favor of doing all READING by electronic means. There are so many advantages: weight, space, search-ability and so on. Kindles and Kindle apps will even gather up all of your highlighted text and notes and make it available in other tools such as Evernote. Digital is a far superior way to read and keep track of what you've read over time (and I find the warnings about digital screens and sleep to be bogus, at least for me there is no effect whatsoever). Once we moved to high-resolution "retina" displays, the objections became mostly moot.

That said, I think computers and tablets make very poor replacements for real lectures (at least until the software evolves a good deal past where it is today). But this is deceptive: those excellent lectures can easily be delivered electronically, once created, delivered and captured by people.

I recently needed to refresh my knowledge of linear algebra; matrix multiplication, Eigenvalues, etc. I went to Khan Academy and listened to a suite of really excellent lectures (delivered by Khan himself, he is a freakishly talented lecturer) and caught up in just a few evenings. We may not be there yet and there may be subjects that never adapt, but I think almost everything but personal question-and-answer interactions will be digital within a few years. Give it a couple decades and I think AI will eliminate most teaching positions (Sorry).