Thursday, October 25, 2012

iPads, Textbooks, and Nonfiction Literature

While driving in to Lesley University yesterday, I listened to "iPads in the Classroom," the first segment of "On Point" on WBUR, one of Boston's public radio stations. The discussion focused on the ways in which iPads can be used as both a tool to deliver content as well as a vehicle for students to create their own content and demonstrate learning. Shayne Evans, from the University of Chicago Charter School, was spot-on when he reminded listeners at several points in the show that the iPad and all that it provides access to in terms of software and content is still merely a tool. The successful implementation of its use in the classroom still depends on the context and purpose established by  the teacher and district leadership. A recurring refrain from Mr. Evans was "both/and." Students need access to cutting edge technology and all that it provides in addition to traditional vehicles of learning, such as small and large group discussions, in order to become knowledgeable young adults who can think both critically and imaginatively.

What bothered me about the segment was not the increasingly widespread use of iPads. Far from it! I think the iPad continues to provide a wide range of students with access to content in multiple formats and platforms that can be harnessed by teachers. English language learners, students on the autism spectrum, students with language-based disabilities, and readers and writers of all ages can benefit from the wide-array of resources available online via websites, apps, and digital books. Teachers can take advantage of the opportunities provided by multimodal learning, so that students can listen to podcasts, watch videos, and explore primary sources available online from some of the most prestigious museums, libraries, and research institutions in the country and around the world. 

What bothered me was that the discussion seemed to perpetuate the same old dichotomy about classroom materials: textbooks versus digital content. The host, the guests, and the callers focused the discussion on an either/or choice: using expensive, out-of-date textbooks or digital content available on an ipad (which might include digitized versions of those textbooks). For so many in the public arena, the world of nonfiction literature for children and young adults remains invisible as a resource for curriculum. Textbooks can have their role in the classroom, but they aren't books, and they are cumbersome to read, making access to content more difficult.  Quality nonfiction, written with a specific range of readers in mind, can capture big ideas, pose important questions, and model disciplinary thinking in specific ways, as Myra's recent post so clearly discusses. Nonfiction for young people in all of its manifestations (ebook, audio, print) can be the bridge between students and the multitude of digital resources, providing a deeper context for digital primary and secondary sources.

How do we get our "public service announcement" about nonfiction literature, which is the focus of this blog, out to a larger audience to help shape the public discourse about the potential of nonfiction to transform classrooms in the digital age?

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