Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Teaching Beyond the PDF

The call for digital texts is loud and clear. Fueled by perceived cost savings and tantalizing examples of available e-readers, nonprofit and commerical organizations alike have been touting various descriptions of such textbooks and have begun to produce examples. Amazon and Sony’s e-readers have jockeyed for starting position for years already, and Barnes and Noble has just sprung out of the gate to join them. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has launched a campaign to bring digital textbooks to many California schools.

We at the Concord Consortium are pleased to see such a movement finally picking up steam. Its advocates are clearly onto something important. But they also have it dangerously wrong.

For more than a decade, we have argued that free digital resources will transform education. Those calling for digital texts today describe a similar vision. But current programs and prescriptions often don’t do justice to the true promise of digital resources. Proponents usher in the convenience of text-filled iPods, eulogize the overstuffed student backpack, and imagine district budgets flush with saved cash, all elements that hold some basis in truth. But hearing advocates hawk these as the promise of digital texts is like hearing Henry Ford rave about the advantages of time saved no longer shopping for buggy whips.

Digital texts are indeed coming—in many respects, they’re already here—and they bring with them the possibility of revolutionizing teaching and learning. This revolution offers potency far beyond the simple PDF document, a power that most existing examples miss almost entirely. Instead, they offer shallow examples of digital texts that run a real risk of selling the concept short. Using the analogy of textbooks is helpful for those working to relate to this new medium, but it is also a perilous paradigm. Examples that hew too closely to existing models of what textbooks provide are destined to also repeat their failures. By taking advantage of technology’s capabilities, digital texts can offer experiences that run much deeper than shallow presentations of text and images. 

Digital texts can contain highly interactive, model-based simulations that allow students to engage in deep and powerful inquiry. They can help students visualize the unseen and conduct experiments that would otherwise be impossible. They can bring the power of probes, sensors, and real-time data analysis into every student’s hands. They can help teachers tailor their own curriculum, share resources across oceans, and address individual student needs. It is these traits, far more profound than mere portability, that demonstrate the real advantages digital texts can offer.

With this issue, we launch our Deeply Digital Texts Initiative, a multi-year program highlighting examples of what digital texts can do. We describe current work in labs and pilot classrooms that demonstrates many of these promising methods. In the coming years, the Concord Consortium will focus on polishing frameworks and bringing the best examples to schools. We acknowledge that existing public experiments with this first generation of digital resources are an important initial step. We must, however, guard against being lulled into complacency by their relatively minor improvements when the true possibilities of digital resources can already be witnessed. We invite you to read about them in the pages that follow—and to experience them online yourself.

At the start of another school year, we look forward to helping teachers think about how technology can help students learn. We are pleased to do this in our favorite way—through a set of lessons highlighting the many ways that Concord Consortium resources can be used in the classroom. With this set of five lessons, we describe a week of some of the best that educational technology has to offer, ranging from an elementary school lesson on the scientific basis for evolution to a college-level lesson on the internal workings of transistors. We’ve also included something just for teachers, knowing that the hectic teaching life makes it all too easy to miss taking time for yourself to consider how you approach the craft of teaching.

Monday’s Lesson, Inquiry in the Digital Classroom, sets the stage for helping teachers think differently about curriculum and instruction involving technology. This lesson reflects our ongoing commitment to professional development for teachers and draws from our experience with statewide reform efforts in Rhode Island. Teachers will find tested strategies to bring both technology and a student-centered inquiry approach to their classrooms.

Tuesday’s Lesson, Teaching Evolution to Fourth Graders, describes how interactive, model-based simulations can help elementary students learn the underpinnings of the most important and unifying concept in all of biology. Students use models to explore adaptation, variation, and inheritance and see for themselves the mechanism of evolution. The Evolution Readiness project does not presume to teach all of evolution to these young students. The activities are designed to cover standards-based material and answer the “why” questions students ask. Teachers in our research classrooms in Massachusetts, Missouri, and Texas began using these activities this fall.

Wednesday’s Lesson, Visualizing Energy, provides an example of how combining several technology-based approaches can yield multiple perspectives on an idea. The four methods described in this lesson engage students in data collection and analysis, give them opportunities to compose their own visual representations of energy flow, and make them authors and storytellers describing their own narratives about energy flow in the world around them.

Thursday’s Lesson, The Greenhouse Effect, describes ways to use models to teach about the environment and sustainability, among today’s most relevant science and social science topics. Students explore the factors involved in global warming by varying parameters and running short experiments. Perhaps the most powerful part of this lesson is the description of how the activity can be modified easily by teachers to create their own versions customized for their students’ needs. This lesson is drawn from our Information Technology in Science Instruction project, which resulted in over 1,000 technology-embedded lessons that incorporate models, simulations, and data from probes and sensors to support student science understanding.

Friday’s Lesson, How Transistors Work, shows how models can assist early college students who are training to be technicians in fields involving electron-scale processes and phenomena. This lesson is one of 16 from our Electron Technologies project designed to further students’ molecular-level understanding of important science concepts and extend this understanding to processes involving electrons. This project supports faculty at two-year colleges in teaching these concepts and connecting them directly to the work students will perform as technicians.