Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No More Books

It's interesting how an initiative touted by one group as being a revolutionary improvement will often be seen as counterproductive or ineffective by another group.

At a recent faculty meeting, where discussion of a new writing center was taking place, I was witness to such an example. One faculty member pointed out that as important as it is to help students improve their writing, which the writing center is intended to do, there is unfortunately something else that has the potential to hurt our students even more.

What's the insidious plague about to be unleashed on our students' writing skills? It is an initiative aimed at reducing the amount they have to read. If we require them to read less, it will have direct impact on their ability to write. Well, of course, the matchup between reading and writing seems pretty obvious, but why would anyone propose to dramatically reduce student reading?

It turns out the faculty member misunderstood the initiative. The proposal is to create integrated learning environments where students can access multimedia, direct themselves to activities based on formative quizzes, oh yeah, and read. His understanding was that the multimedia and pretty websites were going to replace books.

While it's true that the goal is to move away from traditional printed textbooks, the same text from the publishers is going to be integrated in an electronic form with the bells and whistles that improve student engagement and track progress in ways that a plain old book could never do. I know a lot of publishers create companion websites where students can access some bonus materials, but they're not integrated with the text. Bringing them together in one place reduces the extraneous cognitive load associated with having the text and bonus features in completely separate mediums, giving them more time and mental capacity to devote to their reading.

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