Wednesday, June 10, 2009

End of Textbooks in California could be a Golden Opportunity for Newspapers

additional editing by Mike Rosen-Molina

My California
My California 21 is a unique history curriculum developed specifically to meet the needs of upper elementary and middle school students.

Newspaper format: 32 chronological issues resembling small newspapers present the story of California in a student-friendly, informal style that does not intimidate or repel young readers.

Some Global or PSP or MPS should really get in touch with these people. The next natural step will be The Clickable Newspaper.

Here's why:
On Wednesday, June 10, 2009, California will be phasing out textbooks for K -12 education. Instead, the so-called Digital Textbook Initiative will supposedly replace these old books with digital e-readers. Recognizing that one size fits all textbooks books were no longer the best tool to reach modern, tech-saavy students, Schwarzenegger said:

Kids, as you all know, today are very familiar with listening to their music digitally and online and to watch TV online, to watch movies online, to be on Twitter and participate in that and on Facebook. So basically kids are feeling so comfortable today, as a
matter of fact, as comfortable with their cell phones and with their keyboards as I did when I was your age, when I was a kid, with my pencils and crayons.

So this is why I think it is so important that we move on from the textbooks. The textbooks are outdated, as far as I'm concerned and there's no reason why our schools should have our students lug around these antiquated and heavy and expensive textbooks. California is the home of Silicon Valley. We are the world leader in technology and innovation, so we can do better than that.

Schwarzenegger's announcement should not be a surprise, since every state needs to save every penny it can. And it's also clear that the Obama Administration is serious about fixing education in the United States.

But what may go unnoticed is the new opportunity that this creates for newspapers struggling to find their niche in the new digital economy.

The Education Problem
A thanks to Alan Sitomer at the English Companion Ning for the point to YouTube.

The underlying problem with our public education is that it was never designed to create learning environments. It was originally grew out of the need to train a rural population to the new requirements of an industrial economy. It is no accident that most schools are organized into discrete classes that start and stop with the bell, since showing up on time, following directions, and performing well on specific tasks are the fundamental requirements of an mass market value chain industrial economy.

The other original function of our school systems was to filter and sort. The "smart kids" were filtered toward college and careers in management and the professions. The "less smart" were filtered to move first into the ever expanding manufacturing jobs supplied by ever expanding manufacturing and later into office-based service jobs. The "unruly" were consigned to doing whatever they had to do to survive.

Now that the underlying economy has changed from mass market to masses of niche markets and the real value of the workforce is its ability to respond creatively to ever changing challenges and opportunities, this old model has become obsolete. Around the country, there are the pockets of new models emerging -- and soon they will merge to create a tipping point.

The Newspaper Opportunity
Any teacher can tell you that a student really learns when the teachable moment occurs. The problem is that seeing and then taking advantage of that "teachable moment" is very difficult. A teacher must first be able to sense when it is going to happen, but even then it's almost impossible today to take advantage of that moment. The problem with textbooks is that they say do this, then do that. There is no way to leverage the teachable moments that happen in daily life -- for example, when GM crashes or the President makes a speech in Cairo -- to fit into a school curriculum.

Each of us have, at one time or another, followed a link to another link to another link. In that process, we were able to find just the appropriate story and data for us, at that time. What is interesting to me now may not be interesting to me an hour from now. That's the power of the web.

The problem for a teacher is that, for their students to learn what they need to learn, that journey needs an active mentor. Software designed interfaces are okay, but much less effective than a human who can both sense and quickly respond to needs that are felt but not yet articulated.

While undirected searching can very effective in the hands of person who already has a context in their brains, it is too unpredictable to be the primary method of educating a student who has yet to develop that same context that we take for granted. Given that different students have different learning styles, a complete reliance on computers is the same "one size fits all" approach that created the problem in the first place.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger instead seems to moving in the direction of e-readers and web access. That is a good thing. But the reality is that the web as a medium has the advantage of speed and the very serious disadvantage of making it inconvenient to do "compare and contrast." The additional problem is that e-readers are going to have be managed and will break and students will lose them.

From the educational point of view, the fact is that print is the most convenient medium for compare and contrast. The essence of logical thinking is to compare and contrast before coming to a personal judgment. The more a student practices that activity, the more robust the logical thinking function in their brain.

It's not that hard to implement
The world of newspapers is designed for speed and relevance. Producing a print product on deadline is a natural and necessary skill for any newspaper organization. The skill sets are already well defined and in place. If the editorial decisions were made on the basis of educational standards instead of the "breaking news,"

Journalists are experts at crafting just the right words, pictures and videos to communicate stories. Teachers and textbook editors and writers are not. To be clear, it's not because they don't have the talent. It's because they don't have the practice.

Teachers are experts at knowing their students. They understand just the right words and actions to allow a student to learn. As they practice their mentoring skills, instead of their class management skills, they will become increasingly more proficient at it.

In a world where newspapers take up the mantle for education, the optimal teacher/newspaper experience might be something like this:

1) The teacher goes to a website that catalogs a library of newspaper stories based on the curriculum of each grade. They could be stored in a wiki and new stories added as they were requested by a teacher.

2) The teacher selects just the right series of stories for her class for the next week. Different classes could use learn from stories coming from different sections of the paper. Science classes would learn from stories from the science and technology beat, while English classes could benefit from great feature stories on items of community interest.

If it's good for the parents, it will be good for the kids. Maybe parents and kids could actually talk about the same thing after dinner or driving to the supermarket. The benefits to a math class might be less intuitive, but consider how much math high school kids could learn by reading business stories. Plus the stats from either baseball or wall street are completely compelling to many kids, opening up a whole slew of teachable moments.

3) The newspaper publisher delivers 200, 500, or 1000 copies of a 24 page newspaper to the school for next week's unit. This was not practical before the invention of digitally printed newspapers. But it is cost effective today.

The Business Model or Where's the Money?
The same place the money always came from -- advertising. But for delivery into the schools, the advertising is strictly limited to organizations involved in public health, safety and citizenship. Government organizations and foundations spend significant amounts of money both getting their message out and fund raising. It is a ready market that wants to change the behavior of exactly this audience.

Once California has eliminated textbooks from K -12, there is little doubt that the textbook business as it has developed over the last 40 years is done. The vacuum created could be just what a newspaper needs to get to the next stage of its development.

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