Apple’s plan, announced last week, to launch electronic publishing of school textbooks set social networks a-twitter, triggering flurries of excitement and apprehension in equal measure. To expedite this initiative, Apple have launched an app, called iBooks Author, which allows wannabe textbook authors to create interactive ebooks and self-publish them (of course, only on an iPad, and with Apple taking a nice little chunk of the profits).
The enthusiasts have been talking up the way this technology will open up textbook writing to anyone with an iPad, while allowing material to be customized for very specific markets. Moreover, by shortcutting the laborious production processes of print publishing, plus the huge costs incurred, e-textbooks will be cheaper, as well as more eco-friendly, and less a burden on kids’ tender spines.
Detractors point to the ‘walled garden’ mentality of Apple, arguing that this is a cynical attempt to monopolise a ginormous market, further entrenching Apple products into schools, while raising the spectre of Apple as the world’s number one provider – and gatekeeper – of educational content.
Why does all this chattering leave me – if not cold – at least bemused?
Because, dear reader, you don’t actually need textbooks – of any description. Not for language learning, at least. Maths, history, economics – maybe. But ESOL? No way.
What do you need?
You need data, and you need incentives and tools to mine the data in order to make form-meaning connections, and to extract generative patterns and exemplars. You need scaffolded opportunities to put these ‘mappings’, patterns and exemplars to repeated communicative and creative use, and you need feedback on the results. Above all you need a social context (either real or envisioned), and the desire to belong to it, in order to activate and energise the whole process.
You don’t need textbooks to provide any of this, really. In fact, textbooks can’t provide most of it. So, whether McNuggets Publishing produces textbooks or whether Apple does, it won’t actually impact on the way languages are learned. Not least because, thanks to the internet, all the means and tools are already in place to do the job a lot more effectively – and more cheaply.
Here’s a possible scenario, based on existing technology, or on technology that must surely be just round the corner, and assuming a ‘smart classroom’, i.e. an internet connection and a data projector:
- A topic arises naturally out of the initial classroom chat. The teacher searches for a YouTube video on that topic and screens it. The usual checks of understanding ensue, along with further discussion.
- A transcript of the video, or part of it, is generated using some kind of voice recognition software; alternatively, the learners work on a transcription together, and this is projected on to the interactive whiteboard, which is simply a whiteboard powered by an eBeam.
- A cloze test is automatically generated, which students complete.
- A word-list (and possibly a list of frequently occurring clusters) is generated from the text, using text processing tools such as those available at The Compleat Lexical Tutor. A keyword list is generated from the word list. Learners use the keywords to reconstruct the text – using pen and paper, or tablet computers.
- On the basis of the preceding task, problematic patterns or phrases are identified and further examples are retrieved using a phrase search tool.
- The target phrases are individually ‘personalised’ by the learners and then shared, by being projected on to the board and anonymised, the task being to guess who said what, leading to further discussion. Alternatively, the phrases are turned into questions to form the basis of a class survey, conducted as a milling activity, then collated and summarised, again on to the board.
- In small groups students blog a summary of the lesson.
- At the same time, the teacher uses online software to generate a quiz of some of the vocabulary that came up in the lesson, to finish off with.
Similar processes, whereby language study and practice opportunities are generated from self-selected online texts, are within reach of individual learners, working on their own, too. There are now search engines that will select texts on the basis of their ease or difficulty of readability. Hopefully someone is already working on an algorithm that will find a text in seconds according to your choice of level, topic, length, genre, and recency. And there are tools to create a hypertext link from every word in the text to an online dictionary. Programs exist that allow review and recycling of vocabulary items in a randomised order.
Predictive collocation tools allow students to create their own texts, selecting from high-frequency lexical and grammatical choices. Grammar and spell checks are increasingly more sophisticated. Online dictionaries and thesauri offer ready-made semantic networks. Free online video and audio tools mean that learners can record themselves doing a task and send it to other students or an instructor by email. Skype allows free video and/or audio interaction with other speakers, while the conversations thus generated can be audio-recorded for later transcription.
In short, anything (e)textbooks can do, the internet can do better. (This does not mean, of course, that I am advocating the exclusive use of online tools, or that the internet is the only alternative to coursebooks. But it is a viable one).