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Submitted to Texas Citizens for Science
For more than a century, the process for acquiring printed textbooks for schools has given organized pressure groups and textbook publishers undue influence over textbook writing. Creationism is the best-known case, but in fact every major social controversy produces the same phenomenon. Lack of truth in sex education in general, and AIDS prevention and treatment in particular, are harmful to global health, not just the health of the students given watered-down textbooks, and, inevitably, their offspring. But the problem goes much deeper than that.
As Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman pointed out at length in Judging Books by Their Covers (widely republished on the Internet, for example at http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm) textbook quality in all math and science subjects is terrible. He is by no means the only one to notice, and it is not only math and science. Ambrose Bierce took on history books in The Devil's Dictionary in the 1911: "HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools." In 1983, Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded, in A Nation at Risk (http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html): “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
It is not only active pressure groups, political, religious, social, and other that have brought us to this pass. The economics of publishing have long worked against us, when only California, Texas, and New York had the clout to get books published. Only they could order in sufficient quantity to get the attention of publishers. Those who actually know something about the various forms of subject matter have largely given up the fight until recently, as have most education reformers. Richard Feynman fought for accuracy in science and math for years, but gave it up as a bad job under the political and economic situation he was learning about, and in the absence of useful allies.
But there is a change coming in the economics of publishing, visible everywhere, due to the Internet and to the movement to Open Intellectual Property--Free Software, Creative Commons media, Open Access publishing and more. More and more software and content are available on the Internet all the time, in more and more languages. Print newspapers are dying in profusion, while the remaining papers put better versions of their stories online than in the printed version. The Huffington Post, which has no print edition, gets questions at Presidential press conferences. We are not ready to stop buying books yet, but electronic books are steadily becoming more popular as the technology gets less expensive and better. A few authors have put free versions of new novels online at no cost, and found that this increased print sales. Tens of millions of files are uploaded to the Internet under Creative Commons licenses. Scientific journals are moving steadily to electronic editions and to Open Access. And there is a substantial Free Textbook movement, as can be seen at http://www.librarianchick.com/. Stacy, the Librarian Chick, indexes her catalog of free electronic textbooks on the Web from all available sources in English.
So far, almost all of this online publishing for free download is fixed content--PDFs, Word documents, pre-recorded music, videos, and the like. But there are exceptions, such as the source tracks to some professionally recorded music, released at the same time as the CDs. Mix your own version, or turn off one track and play Music Minus One style with the rest of the band. Another sort of exception is Mathematica and Matlab notebooks. Anybody who has the software can find hundreds, even thousands of interactive lessons, along with simulations and much more, that users are encouraged to improve on. This free content is essential to marketing these commercial software packages. In addition to the commercial market and the Creative Commons movement, there is a growing use of Free Software in education, from the course management system, Moodle, to the Sugar software on the One Laptop Per Child XO. Here the stated purpose is to educate a billion children to be able to get jobs and start businesses, and thereby end poverty. More than a million units are in use, and millions more of this and other Linux laptop and tablet computers are on order, in some cases for every child in entire countries.
Most people know a little bit about Smalltalk, the software from Xerox Palo Alto Research Center that inspired the Macintosh GUI, and spread from there to Windows, X11 on Unix, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, and the rest. It is not so well known that this transformation of all computing was a side effect of its original design goal: to write software suitable for children from the beginning to the end of their schooling, and to set out the requirements of the computers to run it, the Dynabooks. According to Alan Kay, the head of the Smalltalk project, we have very nearly arrived in the Dynabook age with the OLPC XO, particularly since it runs the Etoys version of Smalltalk.
The XO doesn't have as much storage as he would like, and it's a bit slow. Many of the village schools where it should be deployed don't have electricity or Internet connections. But we know that the inevitable working of Moore's Law will give us the speed and space we need, and we already have renewable power systems and broadband Internet at low enough costs for many countries to install themselves, given the motivation and the political will. The cost to do the same in the poorest countries once and for all is something like $10 billion for WiMax internet, and somewhat more for electricity. Not peanuts, but well within the scope of current foreign aid.
With Smalltalk and the Sugar software written in Python that goes with it, we have a solid base of software that will go out to every child in the OLPC program and to any others who get Sugar on other computers. We can integrate this software into a new generation of Digital Texbooks, and over time into the curriculum. Sugar Labs has worked with several Linux distributions to package Sugar for simple installation, including some that run on computers adopted by various school systems, such as Venezuela (Caixa Magica Linux).
For decades now, Computer Literacy has been an educational failure. Not totally useless, but look at it this way. Would we believe in a literacy program that provided one room with paper and pencils for students to use for an hour a week each? Where there were no printed textbooks, and students could not do written homework? Only if we were ourselves illiterate.
Earth Treasury has organized a group of partners to design and write textbooks on this basis, on every subject in the standard curricula, and a few others that will be needed in various countries. (http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Creating_textbooks) Among its partners are Creative Commons; Alan Kay's Viewpoints Research Institute; The Doug Engelbart Institute, dedicated to enhancing collective intelligence; Groklaw, an authority on legal issues surrounding Open IP; FLOSS Manuals, which has created a Book Sprint methodology for turning out books in three days; and The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, which would like to have a room with 50 XOs set up, and invite school classes to try them out. In one way, offering just a tip-of-the-tongue taste is worse than Computer Literacy, but the point is to interest students, teachers, parents, school administrations, and politicians in installing the full program.
So what happens when we get at least one set of textbooks for every common subject in at least every grade from first through sixth? They are free of cost, so the usual bureaucratic textbook acquisition process and the usual political standards-setting process don't apply. Free texbooks plus inexpensive computers cost less than printed textbooks, an easy selling point once we get there. They are also free to improve, like Wikipedia, for teachers, students, scientists, and anybody else. Teachers will be able to pick the materials that suit their understanding and that of their students, and their own educational purposes. Parents and students will be able to choose materials to their liking, as well. At this point, schools will be able to try new educational approaches that could not possibly get official approval for spending money. It is not the case everywhere, but in many schools anything that improves student test scores without costing money or raising public controversy is permitted for teachers to do.
Among the innovations that software and computer hardware enable will be students doing far more significant observational and experimental work from a much earlier age. They will have the built-in camera and microphone for recording data, plus a digital oscilloscope program that graphs waveforms from the sound port, or shows the frequency analysis. They will also have powerful simulation software, and powerful data analysis and visualization software. Alan Kay likes to describe how we can teach Galilean gravity in two days to 10-year-olds.
Day one:Program a simulation of constant acceleration in Turtle Art or Etoys, with a starting speed of 5, and an increment of 10, plotting a dot for the end of each motion. Note the pattern of distances.
5 15 25 35 45 55...
Divide by 5
1 3 5 7 9 11 Aha! successive odd numbers
Take sums from the beginning to each number
Aha! again. Successive squares.
Day two: Have the children go outside with their XOs, and have someone drop a brightly-colored ball from the school roof while the children take videos. Show them how to overlay successive frames of the video so that the school is in the same place, while the ball moves. Turn this picture sideways, and ask whether the children recognize the pattern of dots, which is (Aha!) the same as what they did the day before. Now you can discuss constant acceleration, linear velocity, and quadratic position (d=0.5× x^2) on the basis of actual experience. You can also talk about how Galileo worked all this out without a camera, simulation software, or even an accurate clock.
Very good. Now we need no more than 10,000 such topic lessons altogether. We have to cover at least a dozen subjects for every year of school. So we are getting subject-matter experts, teachers, education researchers, software developers, editors, artists, and others together on this. Our first project is fourth-grade math, following the Massachusetts curriculum standards. (http://lists.sugarlabs.org/listinfo/fourthgrademath) Texans are welcome to join the work on the mailing list, and to remix a version to their state standard. Work on evolution, sex education, civics (particularly how to combat corruption and pressure groups) and other topics not currently well served should be a priority.
This textbook project is only the beginning. It is the fact that students will not be restricted to one official textbook on any subject that will have the greatest effect. Children will be able to test the authority of the books for themselves by comparing alternative textbooks, or looking at the explanations, and even the primary sources, on the Internet. Some books will survive the test, and some will not. We can use a Wiki structure with a page for each lesson, and invite public discussion of the correct way to state the information, and the best ways to teach it. We can use the Continuous Improvement methodology, now that printing cost and the purchasing process do not stand in our way.
However this may turn out in the US, there is no question that it will have a transforming effect on education systems inherited from Imperial powers around the world. Such systems were designed to keep the population in line, and prevent interference in Imperial war and pillage. They are not worthy of free peoples, but it would have cost too much to reinvent them the old way. Now, between free publication, public authorship and editing, and the ability to converse with each other nationwide, even worldwide, these peoples no longer have any reason to keep their fetters.
Edward Cherlin first discovered textbooks that failed to teach their subjects properly in first grade. In third grade, he discovered that teachers and textbooks recited as facts some things that simply were not so. He is the Founder of Earth Treasury, which aims to end poverty worldwide by assisting in providing quality education at minimum cost to the world's billion children. A large part of the program consists of redesigning textbooks for the Digital Age, and getting people together to create them and constantly improve them. He is one of the authors of the FLOSS Manuals books, How to Bypass Internet Censorship, Firefox 3.0, and Introduction to the Linux Command Line. Most recently, he has been organizing textbook projects in Math and Civics, and forming alliances for village electricity, Internet, and microfinance.