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Friday, 15 July 2011

Textbooks on e-readers

Although I have officially retired, as an old educator, I still keep an eye on the flickering pulse of education.  Not a finger, just a benign eye, but occasionally, I am moved to play again, as recently, when somebody expressed horror at the idea that school texts might find their way into Kindles, Nooks, e-readers or iPads.  I took a contrary view, and here's an edited form of it:

Emerging briefly with my elderly writer's hat on:

One of the problems with textbooks is that they tend to recycle and regurgitate what the other, older textbooks say.  This is not an original statement: Thomas Kuhn made it almost 50 years ago in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though he was talking about the absence of real-time physics in the stuff read by physics undergraduates.

Eyre and Wylie as they would have been originally shown.
Eyre and Wylie, as they are usually shown.
The result, especially at the school level is textbooks full of stodge.  And errors, like references to Zinjanthropus (30 years after the name was dropped!), or an iconic picture of Eyre and Wylie, trudging across the sands towards Albany, an image that leaves out the horses they still had--and more importantly, is nearly always mirror-reversed, so that the shadows and position of the sea make it clear that they are heading EAST! 

You can, in fact, put a lot of activities into a book, which is something I tend to do when writing for the young (in the e-mail, I wasn't explicit, but here, let me state that I was referring to Australian Backyard Explorer, which was, after all, the CBCA Eve Pownall Book of the Year for information books in 2010). (OK, that book isn't a textbook, but it goes well beyond the bounds of a "normal" book.  All of the variations that I used there could be applied to make textbook readers sit up and pay attention—and when did you last see a mere-smear textbook that did that?)

But as I write, I find myself continually chafing and wishing I could do the sorts of things I could do on a screen, if only at the level of branching, hypertext and the occasional animation. It would be good to launch into a sideliner on the art of engraving, and how this commonly generates mirror images, stuff like that. (I have another classic example in two 18th century engravings of James Cook's Endeavour, hauled up on the shore in northern Queensland, which are mirror images, and quite a few botanical engraving pairs, where it only matters if you have the two side-by-side.)

I'm sure there are many more bells and whistles that I have missed, but that's where I would start.  The thing is: every time somebody finds a new trick, a few clever-clogses will take it a step further, and in no time it all, it catches on with the mob.  That's how Gutenberg's method for producing bibles 180 times as fast suddenly changed many other things. 

As people begin to work in a new medium (dating myself, my own new medium, way back when, was the overhead projector), they begin to gather together a set of methods and techniques.  I worked with and in a workshop gang (less the guilty escape blame, the others were Peter Robinson, Ken Jones and Rex Meyer) who used swivels made from drawing-pins, staples and slightly modified press-studs, so we could get animation on a flat screen. 

Before long, we would look at a new and puzzling task and somebody would say "you could press-stud that", and on we would go.  Or one of us would find a wrinkle using rubber bands or resin-cored solder or whatever. Each of these would then be applied to the next problem, or used as a further launch-point. 

I have faith in the new creators who will be coming along.  I confidently predict that if textbooks go onto the screen, they will still be textbooks, Jim, but not as we know them--or if they are, it won't be so for long. 

Bushnell's 'Turtle'.
Today, I am putting together a short piece on primitive submarines, going back to Cornelius Drebbels' 1620 vessel which may or may not have navigated the Thames.  It was based on a 1578 design with a hull of leather stretched over a timber frame.  I wouldn't judge present or future submersibles on that, and I don't think we should damn future textbooks, based on the paucity of intelligence, verve, intellectual honesty or creativity that we see in so many of today's crop. 

We should just be looking, shaking our heads, and planning to do better. 

Now I will get on with the tale of Bushnell's 'Turtle', which went to sea with a 70 kg clockwork bomb ticking away, a bomb that had to be affixed to a hull before it went off.  Definitely not a good reference point for predicting the future, that one.

A small afterthought added in late 2011: I think we haven't even scratched the surface yet on e-books, and I have a few ideas about what we might explore: try clicking this link.

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