So, have you heard? Apple is going to revolutionize higher education with iBooks Author, a free app that lets anyone–university instructors, implicitly–create interactive iPad-based digital textbooks! The textbooks! Will have movies in them! And little multiple choice quizzes, and Keynote presentations, and image galleries, and digital highlighting! It’s learning for the 21st century!
Phooey, I say.
It’s learner centred for the digital age, for the digital natives who multitask and have different learning styles, and who have sore backs from all that book lugging they’re doing! It respects the student and their screen-based interests! It is more engaging! It creates study notes on the fly! It’s on an iPad, and students like iPads!
I wrote about textbooks last year, around this time. Go back, refresh your mind, or if you want the capsule summary: students complain about the textbook, sometimes with reason, but usually because textbooks require sustained, iterative attention to material that is puzzling, new, and just beyond the student’s cognitive reach. You know, because it’s meant to help them learn something they don’t already know.
I got this year’s course evaluations back, and I have an amazing textbook in my first year class. It’s awesome: it’s very clearly and directly written while introducing students to the specialized language of new media studies. It has lots of call-outs with contemporary, real-world examples. It has chapter summaries, and questions for study. It is short. It is lightweight. And yet, again with the sustained complaining about the ‘boring,’ ‘dry,’ ‘difficult’ textbook. Triple phooey.
They love me. Me, sometimes I wear pyjamas to class, light scented candles, and teach them to curse out peer reviewers. I put together slideshows with hilarious “text message speak” from the telegraph age. We watch Rick Mercer rants about how uncool Blackberry is. I dress up like Steve Jobs and pretend to do an Apple keynote from my little stage in the classroom. We do debates. We do group work. We do in-class writing. We listen to Public Enemy and look online for a list of all the samples. My evaluations are pretty close to statistically equivalent to perfect.
And let me be clear: I am so awesome and fun and knowledgeable and picspam and viral and pyjamaed and have the answers to all the questions BECAUSE I HAVE READ AN AWFUL LOT OF TEXTBOOKS.
There’s really no getting around it. All my silliness is built around a core of pounds and pounds of books, reams of photocopies. You cannot ride the unicycle unless you learn how to walk.
Now, obviously, I’m very attuned to the need to engage students, to make the material interesting and relevant. My evaluations seem to indicate that I do that in spades. I read current research on best teaching methods, and believe me, I am doing everything in my power to make the study of new media in the discipline of English a well-marked, interesting path for my students to follow. But once I get you hooked on the topic? If you want university-level understanding and knowledge, you are, no bones about it, going to have to read some long-format, academic prose. There will be citations and reference lists. Some of it you will have to read three pages at a time, over a week. Most of it you will have to reread. You will need to take notes, and then maybe notes from your notes. You will have to write about it, and you will likely get some things wrong, and need to rethink what you think you understand.
My husband said the best feedback any professor ever gave him during his degree was this: “It’s supposed to be hard,” meaning, the material is supposed to discomfit you, confuse you, even bore you. It’s supposed to be hard because you are learning. Be humble, be open, work hard, figure it out.
All the animated slideshows in the world are never going to substitute for that insight. It’s supposed to be hard.
So, yeah, Apple, a blinkenlights textbook might have its uses. But I’m still aiming my sights squarely at my students, and to them I say: it’s not that the textbook is boring. It’s that it’s supposed to be hard, and you need to step up to the challenge, and get to reading.