An on-line textbook for large classes

Imagine a required course, say mathematics or writing, with thousands of students per year. Students spend most of their course time working with an on-line textbook. When they have questions, they attend a lab session, or ask for help on-line. Cost per student could be dramatically reduced, while students can still get individual attention when they need it.

It's important to consider the conditions necessary for this to work. There is a three-way split of responsibility.

1. Students are responsible for their own learning

This means they read and do exercises, of course. But it means more than that. 

At a minimum:

  • Students have to know how to learn, and use those strategies. This includes strategies for social learning.

  • Students have to know what they should know at the end of the course. They should keep the outcome in mind.

  • Students have to know whether they know. That is, they have to monitor their own learning, comparing it to standard.

The first two are "meta-level" ideas. Students have to know what the process of learning is, before they can take ownership of the process. 

The third item - knowing whether they know - requires students to have constant formative feedback. Each time they learn a new concept or skill, they need to be able to know whether they have mastered the concept. Not for grading, but for learning.

Testing themselves would be a big change for students. They are used to someone else testing them, for the purpose of assigning grades. Testing is imposed on them. It isn't a tool they can use.

2. Instructors (and others at the institution) are responsible for helping students learn

This means:

  • Setting outcome standards.
  • Selecting resources like textbooks.
  • Giving formative feedback to students, so they know whether they know.
  • Assessing students and assigning grades.
  • Helping students when they need it.

The third item is not something most instructors are used to. Instructors would review perhaps 40 exercise solutions for each student, plus assessment grading. Doing this well requires a very efficient workflow.

Note that instructors would not lecture. They would not prepare slides, either. All content would be in the textbook, or linked to it.

3. On-line textbooks should support independent, active student learning

The textbook is a critical resource. It should:

  • Present content in a way that helps students learn, e. g., is sequenced correctly, easily read, and with appropriate examples and exercises.

  • Present content relevant to course goals. This includes being flexible, so instructors can include content to meet local goals.

Textbook creators' work should reflect current learning science research. For example, language should be conversational, not "academic."

Authors should not see a textbook as a reference guide. Instead, they should see a textbook as a key part of an unfolding learning process. They should keep in mind the dynamics of learning, that is, now learning is change after change after change. 

Ideally, the textbook would also:

  • Help students learn how to learn.

  • Help students ask questions of instructors and other social information sources.

  • Help instructors give students fast frequent formative feedback.

These last three things could be done by learning management software like Moodle. But a textbook that had them built-in would have more value than a textbook that did not.

The current debate misses the point

Right now, the discussion of textbooks mostly focuses on lowering price by coding existing textbooks in an electronic format, like PDF. But that's not enough for a course organized along the lines suggested above. Many, perhaps most, textbooks fail to use lessons from learning science. Nor do they support courses where students are responsible learners.

That should change. Authors and publishing companies should consider rebuilding textbooks from scratch. The focus should not be on the tech, e. g., video for video's sake. The focus should be on books that help responsible students learn, supported by responsible instructors.

This is the vision behind CoreDogs. For example:

  • It has a formative feedback work flow optimized for the sort of courses discussed in this post.

  • It focuses on using tech to achieve outcomes. Not tech qua tech.

  • It models good student behavior.

  • ...

CoreDogs could be part of the solution to HE's cost woes. Not part of the problem.


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