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Tuesday, 3 February 2015

McGill's Education Technology Textbook is Embarrassing

Get ready to go on a magical journey where we discover just how old a "modern" textbook on education technology is. It says it's published in 2012 but don't let that fool you! Here it is:

This is the textbook currently used by McGill's "EDPT 200 - Integrating Educational Technology in the Classroom" course in 2015. Along our magical journey we will question the existence of the iPhone 1, consider using internet directories instead of search engines like Google, and lose ourselves in a forest of 404 pages and broken internet links. And finally, a response to this post from the professor. Lets begin!

The phones shown above are the Palm Treo 700p, Samsung T809, Motorola i355, and Nokia 6236i. They all came out around 2006. They predate the momentous iPhone 1 which was released in 2007. Okay, so maybe some content from the book is as old as 2007? Don't be so optimistic, we're just getting started!

Why This Matters
I probably don't have to tell you how much smart phones have changed people's lives. Here are two classic pictures taken in the Vatican:

For many websites today, most of their traffic is mobile. And a lot of students in Canada today come to class with a smartphone in their pockets. This means that we're approaching a point where clickers and graphing calculators are hopelessly impotent and expensive. A Texas Instruments graphing calculator is now more expensive than a cheap smartphone - yet as a visualization tool it's about as sophisticated as the home computers we had in 1991 (xmgr):

Why this happens is worthy of another post. In short: Texas Instruments has secured a monopoly and schools are too lazy or incompetent to escape. This isn't going to change if bachelor of education students from one of Canada's top schools are assigned a textbook that was mostly written before smartphones existed.

NASA and Moonbase Alpha
I got excited when the textbook mentioned NASA. After all, in 2010 they released a really great and free game called Moonbase Alpha. It came out two full years before this textbook was published. Certainly the authors heard of this game and were about to talk about it!

NOPE. Instead they talk about some decade old project. I can't get more specific because I lost the name and date, and I no longer own the textbook. But at the time I searched online and hardly found any mention of the project at all. Playing it yourself is also impossible.

But since we're on the topic of games, they do mention Civilization 3, released in 2001. They wouldn't talk about Civilization 3 had Civilization 4 come out (in 2005), so that puts some textbook content as old as 2005. Must go deeper...

Why This Matters
Talking about modern video games is the textbook's attempt to capture our interest and make it feel modern and relevant. They've accomplished the opposite. There was of course no mention of Minecraft, which even has an education edition. I speak from experience when I say that Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon among high school students (for now, in 2015). I'm a big supporter of using it in the classroom. Here are some concepts it teaches naturally through gameplay that people are rarely aware of:
  • Where am I? Cardinal directions and compasses.
  • I have no compass! The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
  • How many blocks will it take to fill my structure? 3D volume calculations.
  • My structure I want to fill with blocks is not very regular. Estimate how many blocks to fill a space.
  • Redstone..? This introduces tons of difficult concepts from logic and circuitry, but a level that kids can understand.
  • How many do I need for crafting? Frequent mental math for crafting recipes. To craft we may need 2 of something and 5 of something else. How much to craft 15 times?
  • Can I make this jump? Jumping off a cliff follows a parabola - how far can you jump if you fall 20, or 50 cubes? Lets experiment, measure our results, and try to come up with a formula.
Instead, the textbook is not even aware of the most popular educational game ever made.

Let's Pay Money for Google Maps

Perhaps I misunderstood the purpose of If not, I am curious how it ended up in this section instead of Google Maps. Google Maps is free and has higher quality satellite images. TerraServer is a paid service and from what I can tell from its free samples, lower quality satellite imagery (both samples taken from 2013).

Lets speculate. Google maps was launched in 2005, whereas terraserver was founded in 1997. I would say the textbook has simply not been updated consistently to match 2005 web tools. Since Google Maps is mentioned elsewhere in the textbook, I'd say this section has clearly been abandoned by the editors for a decade. So that confirms our earlier estimates of 2005 content. But can we do better? You bet!

Why This Matters
I doubt McGill students are going to be misled by this and spend money on TerraServer. Instead, the reason this matters is that the textbook mentions Google Maps elsewhere. This proves that new editions are not being revised properly.

Furthermore, this textbook is edition 4. Edition 3 came out in 2007, two years after Google Maps. So not only is the textbook not being revised, but this is a recurring pattern which will not be fixed by a new edition.

Rollback to Last Century
I found two things that suggest the textbook has content from 1999 - the previous century. First there's an entire section about which is partnered with AOL. DMOZ is a "directory" as opposed to a "search engine" like Google. Founded in 1999.

Do you think the internet is more like a tree, or a web? I'll give you a hint - we started calling the internet a "web" in 1990 when the term was coined by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau. Well a directory like believes the internet is a tree that should be cataloged by human beings instead of search engine software like at Google. Lets include it in our education technology textbook!

Naturally many of the links to DMOZ the textbook provides are broken. But maybe "founded in 1999" isn't enough for you. Try this:

The software "Knowledge Forum" as presented in the textbook looks like it's for Mac OS 9.0 (1999). Wow! We sure have traveled a long ways from 2015. This is the end of the time traveling journey, that's all the dirt I have.

Why This Matters
At this point the textbook is simply a waste of money and time. These are two things students already lack.

Thoughts on Modern Publishers
The mere fact that the authors of the text were pressured into printing this information on paper really says a lot about publishers. The textbook talks about fast changing educational media but then refuses to embrace it. Printing content like this onto paper makes zero sense except financial sense. I do not fault the authors of the text though, because I assume they were given hardly any time at all to rewrite the new editions. The publisher does not care because the textbook is still being sold.

While combing through the book, I manually typed perhaps fifty internet links into my browser and I estimate half the links were broken. That's what happens when you print internet URLs onto paper. And some were as long as 50 characters - are we expected to type those out? Who the hell is going to do that? Well I did. What a joke.

If anyone could send me a digital copy of this textbook, I would love to write a program to visit all the URLs to see which are broken. I can do it, I've made web crawlers before, just send it my way.

Waiting for the New Edition
The textbook continues to be used! From the course website (2015): "We will also add updated links and information while we wait for the new edition to come out in 2015-2016." Waiting for the new edition is not enough. The "modern phones", TerraServer, and Knowledge Forum prove to us that this textbook is not being revised when new editions come out. These expired topics have survived through more than one revision. Nobody is going to meaningfully update this text. Publishers will continue to scam students unless we stop them.

Seeing that this textbook is being used again is partly what prompted me to write this post. I criticized the best I could, I did. So now it's time for a public shaming.

As usual I don't want to just whine, but also offer solutions.

"Teaching Machines" by Bill Ferster
I recommend the book Teaching Machines by Bill Ferster. But wait, how can I recommend a paper book after such a rant?

The difference is that Teaching Machines is a history book. It doesn't claim to list project ideas, give practical guidance, or offer a modern analysis. Instead it analyzes hundreds of years of education technology. It doesn't recommend classroom projects or list websites that no longer exist. I learned a lot about the history of education technology from this book. In 50 years this analysis will still be correct. And that's a lot better than an exhaustive list of education technology mostly from the years 1999 to 2005.

"Teaching Machines" is not perfect. But if there must be a textbook for this course, choose this.

Open Source the Textbook
And why should the textbook be replaced with another textbook anyway? I have a great alternative: as a class project everyone must work on the same open source textbook. Each student can find some education technology they like and write about how to use it, and cite research supporting its pedagogical merits. These future teachers can invent their own priorities and categories. Together they will produce their own textbook. The result may actually be useful to them and the world.

Don't produce a messy wiki with links all over the place. The end product can be an actual textbook.

It will be more up to date. It won't be packed with bullshit. It will be free. Each year students can update it. It might even be funny and relevant. Shit, I may even want to give it a read.

Lets dismantle the textbook publishing cartel together. I bet a few semesters worth of McGill education students working on an open textbook could do a great job.

Response from the Professor
I sent a draft of this post to Sam Bruzzese, the professor of the course. Despite my snark, he replied. Read about it here.

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