Archive for April, 2012

The Death of the Textbook?

April 23, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently quipped in class that if you are a tech journalist with writer’s block, the best solution is to write “The death of …” then insert some random piece of technology (e-mail, games consoles, desktop computers, the internal combustion engine etc.). I’m sure that if you looked at articles of this type over the last ten years, you would find that nearly all the things in question are still doing fine. That is why I put a question mark at the end of this title, because I really have no good argument that textbooks are on the way out. However, I would like it if it were true, and my experiences in teaching English for Academic Purposes have been a major influence. I can see how textbooks can be useful at lower levels, but by the time you get to university, the usefulness of textbooks is questionable, and many textbooks are, quite frankly, bad. I have been teaching without using any textbook other than a short guide to writing a term paper that in any case I wrote myself because I was so fed up with the existing materials. I don’t even photocopy parts of other people’s textbooks. All my content texts are either freely available online  articles, articles from academic journals our university is subscribed to, or  sometimes chapters from books in the library. Students print them out or put them on a mobile device of their choice. No expensive textbooks, no annoying DRM, and no need for pirating either.

What prompted these thoughts was an article in Campus Technology called “The Price Is Right?” that questions why e-textbooks are still so expensive, often as much as 70% of the print price – and this for something students don’t actually own, but really just rent. You can’t resell an e-textbook at the end of the course, and often you can’t read it either. Unsurprisingly, students are less enthusiastic than had been predicted. More interestingly, many lecturers are not keen to jump on the e-text bandwagon because they are actively espousing the method that I had merely stumbled upon.

The OER [open education resources] approach certainly appeals to Long at Chattanooga State. For the last five or six years, she has used no textbooks in her American history courses, preferring to use materials freely available on the web. In fact, she was irked when she was required to use an e-textbook in her geography class as part of the CourseSmart pilot. Although she enhanced the course with her own notes, she would have preferred to teach it without a core text. “There is so much in geography already out there on the web, why would I need a book?” she asks. “And yet I’m required to have it.”

Thomas Aquinas said, “I fear the man who only has one book.” I’d say the same for a course.

Categories: Uncategorized

In Defence of Mobile Phones

April 14, 2012 1 comment

On the first day of class this semester, I got stunned looks from students when I said: “I know it can get confusing when different classes have different policies on mobile phones, but here’s mine: I do want you to use mobile phones in class.” Admittedly, I qualified this by saying that I didn’t want them to use them for taking phone calls (and in fact they would be severely penalised for doing so) nor did the fact that this was a course entitled “The Psychology and Philosophy of Games” mean that they could sit at the back of the class playing Angry Birds. But yes, I did want them using phones and other mobile devices. A smartphone is not just a telephone; it is a computer with a telephone tagged on to it. Android is basically a layer of Java over a Linux kernel, and if you want, you can even install a full GNU/Linux system, which gives you the most powerful operating system around just sitting there on your telephone. OK, most people don’t, because they don’t need to use their phones as web servers or to compile programs in C++, but just the existing tools in any smartphone – or even an averagely bright phone – are very powerful. Why reject them just because our classroom management is stuck in the last century? According to data collected by StudyBlue, smartphone users study for an extra 40 minutes a week on average – not a vast difference, but significant when we consider that phones are generally regarded as a distraction from studying rather than an aid to it. A likely explanation is that whatever time may be lost by phoning, texting and so forth is more than made up for by the fact that smartphone users can study anywhere, any time (for example, they were twice as likely to study between 6 and 8 a.m.). If phones are so useful outside the classroom, why are so many teachers opposed to their use inside?

“Ringing phones disturb the class.”

This objection is, of course, valid, but there is a simple solution: have your students set their phones to silent. Nowadays, you can even program a phone to be silent whenever you are in class, so forgetting is not a problem (and of course a student who forgets to put their phone on silent can also forget to turn it off). Occasionally a phone will go off by accident, but students are pretty good at shutting them off quickly (and apologetically), and let’s face it, that happens to teachers too. Once in a blue moon you will encounter the student who actually takes a phone call in class, but if you jump on them hard enough, no one else will.

“Students concentrate on their phone, not the lesson.”

This is sometimes true. Students will concentrate on almost anything other than the lesson: laptops, textbooks, doodles, the view out of the window, the pretty boy/girl sitting in front of them … in other words, they behave just like we do in meetings. Telephones are not a special case. The best antidote to wandering attention is to do something to get students’ attention, not to try to eliminate all sources of distraction. Nevertheless, there are times when I want students to really concentrate on something (e.g. a presentation by another student), at which point I just say “OK, no mobile devices” (which includes laptops and tablets).

“Students text each other in class.”

Well yes, but surely this is better than whispering or passing paper notes.

“Students use phones to cheat.”

This depends on what you mean by cheating. You may not want students to take phones into an exam (though one of my colleagues started doing this and found the impact on scores was minimal). In class, it is usually good that students use electronic dictionaries to look up words and the Internet to search for information. You just need to adjust your exercises to the wired world: for example, now a lot of my students have the course texts on their laptops, tablets and even phones, I have found that questions like “Find the following words in the text” are answered very quickly indeed; similarly, you don’t want to ask students to find a simple piece of information in a text when they can get it from Wikipedia more easily. But again, if there are times when you want students to read the text, the whole text and nothing but the text, then say “no mobile devices” for that exercise rather than banning them for the whole lesson.

For me, these two pictures say it all.

Why is this good ….Students with laptop

…but this bad?

Students with phone

Categories: Classroom, Technology