Is the textbook dead?

People who study, practice, or otherwise think about digital learning often tend to get their news and information on the topic from a few education-specific sources, including iNACOL, EdSurge, Getting Smart, and others. Authors on these sites, blogs, and related white papers know they are writing for an audience that tends to be fairly knowledgeable about digital learning, and is often biased towards believing that digital learning is—or at least can be—a positive element in education. Given the confirmation bias that can result from this approach, it’s especially valuable to note articles from general media sources. If they are well-researched, these articles provide a valuable insight into how the general public thinks about these topics. An excellent recent example is Slate’s article No More Pencils, No More Books: Artificially intelligent software is replacing the textbook—and reshaping American education. The article is long enough that capturing it in full is impossible in a blog post, and it is well worth reading. A few highlights include the following:

  • The article describes technology-facilitated personalized learning very well, using ALEKS as an example. The description is not overly positive or negative, and explains the concepts for people who aren’t familiar with them. Sample quote: The result is a classroom experience starkly different from the model that has dominated American education for the past 100 years. In a conventional classroom, an instructor stands behind a lectern or in front of a whiteboard and says the same thing at the same time to a roomful of very different individuals. Some have no idea what she’s talking about. Others, knowing the material cold, are bored. In the middle are a handful who are at just the right point in their progress for the lecture to strike them as both comprehensible and interesting. When the bell rings, the teacher sends them all home to read the same chapter of the same textbook.”
  • The writer uses that opening to ask the question—is this something that we want?—and then refers to many of the failed promises of education technology. “In the context of the traditional classroom, Internet-connected devices risk distracting from the learning process more than they aid it…[the] much-hyped movement to “disrupt” higher education by offering college classes online for free has begun to fizzle.”
  • Why, then, would we expect that the movement will continue, and perhaps this time be more successful? The author’s answer is, in part, because of the big bets that textbook publishers are placing on technology, citing examples from Pearson, Houghton, Harcourt, and others, plus the focus from foundations on educational approaches that require technology—even of they can be confusing (“All the grant-giving and grant-writing has given rise to a raft of overlapping buzzwords, including “adaptive learning,” “personalized learning,” and “differentiated learning,” whose definitions are so amorphous that few can agree on them.”)

The article then delves deeper into these issues and contradictory views:

“An optimist looks at [the mixed results of education technology] and concludes that properly implementing the technology simply requires an adjustment period on the part of the students, the teachers, or both. Do it right, and you’ll be rewarded with significant gains. The optimist would also be sure to point out that we’re still in the early days of developing both the technology and the pedagogy that surrounds it.”


“A pessimist looks at educational technology’s track record and sees…a long history of big promises and underwhelming results. “I think the claims made by many in ‘adaptive learning’ are really overblown,” says Audrey Watters, an education writer who has emerged as one of ed tech’s more vocal critics. “The research is quite mixed: Some shows there is really no effect when compared to traditional instruction; some shows a small effect. I’m not sure we can really argue it’s an effective way to improve education.”


“In a class that revolves around computers and software, you might think that the software would do most of the teaching. On the contrary, the students in Whelan’s class seem to do most of their actual learning—in the sense of acquiring new concepts—during their brief bursts of personal interaction with their human tutors.”

That seems like a serious problem for ALEKS. And if the software were intended to function as an all-in-one educational solution, it would be. But McGraw-Hill Education is adamant that isn’t the goal. Not anytime soon, at least.

Unlike some younger tech startups, we don’t think the goal is to replace the teacher,” says Laster, the company’s chief digital officer. “We think education is inherently social, and that students need to learn from well-trained and well-versed teachers. But we also know that that time together, shoulder-to-shoulder, is more and more costly, and more and more precious.”

The role of the machine-learning software, in this view, is to automate all the aspects of the learning experience that can be automated, liberating the teacher to focus on what can’t."

Two overarching ideas frame the conclusions of the article.

First: “In short, MIT digital learning scholar Justin Reich argues in a blog post for Education Week, computers “are good at assessing the kinds of things—quantitative things, computational things—that computers are good at doing. Which is to say that they are good at assessing things that we no longer need humans to do anymore.”

That reference suggests that the use of technology in education is limited. In contrast, however: “It would be a mistake, in criticizing today’s educational technology, to romanticize the status quo.

Those two ideas are near the end of the long article, and they capture the status of technology in education well. Digital learning is still in early stages relative to where it will be in a short time as the power of computers continues to grow quickly, and schools’ ability to use computers grows as well. Serious concerns remain, however, and nobody should believe that technology will be a panacea in the near future at least. But those who say that schools shouldn’t be trying to evolve in new and meaningful ways, and try new approaches, have to explain why they think the status quo is good enough.