‘Born Digital’ Textbooks Flip Traditional Learning

By Shawn Annarelli Centre Daily Times.

WWR Article Summary (Tl;dr) Entrepreneurs are changing the way we learn, making technology a primary tool for eduction. The advances in education technology are promoting student centered learning through collaboration which in some parts of the world can be an amazing way of empowering women.

State College, Pa.

There was a time when the most a student got out of technology was playing "The Oregon Trail" on a computer and occasionally watching an overhead projector in science class.

To be more specific, that was me 20 years ago in second grade.

Entrepreneurs, however, have changed the way we learn, making technology a primary tool for education.

Penn State professor Chris Spielvogel co-founded Flip Learning, a publisher of interactive, Web-based textbooks for secondary and higher education, in 2011 through a fellowship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

"It was conceived as a platform that promotes student-centered learning through collaboration and practical application, and to critique the association of learning with the linear transfer, memorization and regurgitation of information," he said.

The 20-year educator and State College native discussed his company's place in education technology.

Q: Over the past two decades we've seen the advances of technology and how it can affect -- sometimes perceived in a negative way -- the classroom. Did you create Flip Learning in part to make technology a positive thing in the classroom?

A: We don't believe that technology is a panacea for education, as it can be used to further isolate students from one another and their teachers, especially if learning is understood as a solitary process of acquiring information and demonstrating mastery through memorization and recall. In this context, technology can be used to make learning more efficient and cost effective, but students often find this approach dry and uninspiring. Don't get me wrong, memorization and recall can be a very important part of the learning process, but often it is just part of a more active, participatory and creative process.

Our philosophy, conversely, is to start with the assumption that people will be more likely to be interested in learning something new if they find it relevant, engaging, enjoyable and inspiring. We then avoid thinking about technological solutions as our approach, rather, is to build great content. This involves signing authors who are terrific writers and communicators and supplementing their narratives with interactive features such as animations, role-playing simulations, serialized video series and collaborative activities. We did not create Flip Learning to make technology a positive thing in the classroom, but to make great content come alive in part through the use of newer technologies. Great technology is critical for us, but it largely should be an invisible and intuitive mechanism to deliver fantastic content.

Q: You have a small company in a big market. How do you compete against heavyweights like McGraw Hill?

A: We compete against them precisely by embracing our role as a small company. Like smaller companies in any industry, we can more readily listen to and quickly adapt to the needs of our customers -- teachers and students -- and customize our products accordingly. We can also build close and satisfying relationships with our customers and innovate rapidly, because there are fewer people making decisions on product and technology development.

Q: What challenges have there been in developing and growing Flip Learning?

A: New ideas and innovations in general tend to encounter resistance based on a range of factors, including habit, fear, misunderstanding, confusion and legitimate concern. We hear from people who think, for example, that our books are only for use in online classes when in fact we started the company as a way to offer dynamic and engaging content for all learning contexts. These conversations with potential and early adopters are crucial to our learning process and success as they represent an ongoing negotiation between sharing and steering a vision, and selectively altering and stretching that vision based on the interests and needs of our early adopters and potential users.

Q: What are the benefits to digital textbooks?

A: First of all, most digital textbooks are still largely derivatives of what began as printed books, and so "digital" can often be regarded as another medium for the distribution of books. Our textbooks conversely are conceived with the affordance of the digital age in mind; we do not create a printed book first, but rather we make "born digital" production decisions based on the technologies available to make content exciting, accessible and enjoyable for students. An interactive map that uses census data to show population changes over time, for example, can bring learning to life in ways some might find more rich and illuminating than a static map.

Q: Obviously, if the electricity goes out and your computer isn't charged, you can't get much done. What are some of the potential drawbacks of relying more on technology for education?

A: You've probably hit on the biggest one, which is ensuring that all learners have equal access to technology at all times. Even though our books can be accessed on all mobile, desktop and tablet devices it is true that the power does go out, or that some students do not have Internet access or do not own or have convenient access to a computer or smartphone. We have adapted to this issue by enabling students to download and print individual chapters when they are in front of a computer as well as offering a basic and inexpensive print version of our book as a companion to the interactive version.

Q: What do you think the future of education is? Will we still have books in 20 years?

A: In our digital age, the access to vast and unprecedented amounts of information is instantaneous, and our students know how to tap powerful repositories like Google and YouTube to answer both basic and more perplexing questions. If educators and educational institutions see their primary role as being analogous to these powerful search engines, then we could fail to fulfill an important purpose, which is the skilled adaption of this information to the interests and aptitudes of students, all of whom are unique, in order to stimulate the curiosity, questioning and excitement that is so central to the attainment of knowledge, wisdom and growth. I can't imagine a time when books wouldn't play a central role in this process.

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