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Is it time to turn the page on language textbooks? Posted by on Jan 22, 2018 in Archived Posts

Who has two hands and a device always glued to one of them? Almost every member of the younger generation.

Today’s generation of students and young professionals are digital natives—they can hardly imagine a world before smartphones, Google, YouTube, or instant access to virtually any information. If they have a question, need directions, or want to remember something, they’re not reaching for an encyclopedia, map, or notepad. They are reaching for their phones. In effect, today’s youth have gone paperless.

Schools can take advantage of the increasing accessibility of and dependence on digital resources—and do away with textbooks.

For most districts, in-school access to internet and devices is making a prolific rise. In 2016, an EducationSuperHighway report gathered data from more than 10,000 public schools (roughly 80% of all U.S. public schools). The study revealed major trends supporting the move away from textbooks:

  • 9 million U.S. students have access to the FCC’s minimum internet access goal—an increase of 30.9 million since 2013 alone!
  • 95% of schools have fiber optic connections, and 83% have adequate wifi speeds to support 1:1 learning environments.

Admittedly, at-home internet and computer access lag behind, though public libraries and community organizations can help fill some of that gap. But for communities with adequate and equal internet access in school and at home, the time has come to retire textbooks in favor of modern digital resources.

Interactive technology is particularly well-suited to deliver language education.

Tech is interactive. Foreign languages should not be taught passively. Languages are meant to be heard, spoken, read, and written—to learn a language is to use it actively. Textbooks (and even e-textbooks) may present the language, but do little to engage the senses and encourage language use—textbooks put the onus on teachers to make the language interactive through communicative activities. That’s not a bad thing! In fact, that’s what good language teachers excel at doing. But they do not—and should not—have to do it alone anymore.

Tech is dynamic and ever-changing. Textbooks are static resources dedicated to only one language. If a district wants to offer multiple languages at varying levels, that’s a lot of books. And how long will those printed materials stay relevant? Digital resources can cover dozens of languages (or in our case more than 100 languages) and levels, and can update continuously to stay current, incorporate new trends and authentic language materials.

Tech allows for customization. Teachers can choose how to use and assign printed words on a page, but that’s about as “customized” as it gets with a textbook. Many online resources (ours included) allow for custom authoring of materials. This is incredibly powerful for learners of all levels. The youngest learners may not be ready for rote phrases like “I would like to buy…”—what are you buying on your own at age 6? At the other end of the spectrum, an AP French student reading Camus does not need generic vocabulary from a textbook lesson—they need custom vocab lists aligned with the book chapters and discussion questions.

Tech enables cross-curricular lessons. Custom lessons, real-life videos, and other authentic digital materials can incorporate other subjects from a student’s course load.  As noted by eSchool News, “beyond giving educators the chance to teach more than one discipline during a lesson, cross-curricular lessons also help students recognize the real-world application of their learned skills.” Imagine using class time to prepare students to do a science experiment in Spanish or learning Japanese vocabulary about economics—tech makes this possible (and even practical).

Tech can individualize the learning experience. Textbooks make it easy for teachers to keep large classes on the same page—literally. But that’s not how students learn. Good tech encourages students to learn at their own pace. Our tech takes it one step further by employing an algorithm that tracks all student activity. We can literally pinpoint which words or phrases a student is struggling with and customize the learning experience to emphasize those pain points. A teacher cannot have that granular level of insight into every student’s progress—nor should they. Teachers’ time is better spent planning and facilitating communicative activities, remember?

Tech can track and report on student learning. Speaking of progress—wouldn’t it be nice to have a virtual gradebook that tracks who is working on what and how they’re doing? Textbook exercises often require self-reporting by students or a lot of manual review by teachers. Good tech will include tracking and reporting tools so you can automatically see how students are progressing.

Skeptical schools should consider what teachers and students want.

A 2012 survey of 1,015 students, faculty, and IT staff at high schools and higher education institutions found that 69% of students surveyed said they wanted more technology in the classroom: “At the top of high school students’ technology wishlist were laptops and netbooks, tablets, smartphones, digital content, and recorded class lectures.”

In a separate 2015 survey of 519 students, 74% of students polled claim they would do better in school if their instructors used more technology. 61% agreed that learning would improve if homework were more interactive. Whether these claims would produce the expected results is unclear, but one thing is crystal clear: younger generations of students are increasingly motivated by technology. For educators—particularly language educators—the time has come to close the book on textbooks.

Any investment in technology should be accompanied by an investment in teachers.

A 2014 report from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) finds that “technology – when implemented properly – can produce significant gains in student achievement and boost engagement, particularly among students most at risk.”

We’d be remiss to publish an argument for digital resources without emphasizing the caveat “when implemented correctly”. Technology can transform the language classroom, but only when implemented in a careful blended learning environment that prioritizes the teacher along with the tech. The same SCOPE report advises that districts provide “adequate professional learning opportunities for teachers on how to use the technology and pedagogies that are recommended, including technical assistance to help educators manage the hardware, software and connections to the Internet.”

The best tech companies will provide training for administrators and teachers, and will have a fast, efficient support team available to assist with implementation and beyond.

As your district, school, or organization prepares to make the move from textbooks to digital resources, remember that technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who use technology well will replace those who do not.

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