Social Icons

twitterfacebookrss feedemail

Student Responses to a Digital Textbook

Over the last week the media has been awash in news stories surrounding Apple’s unveiling of their new iBooks 2 application for the iPad. This free App provides a user-friendly platform allowing anyone with an Apple computer to create their own digital textbook specifically tailored to the educational needs of both their students and their specific subject area.
Touting the many features that make this resource infinitely superior to the large cumbersome textbooks we grew up with, the presence of imbedded videos and interactive animations, promises, according to Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, to provide students with “a more dynamic, engaging, and truly interactive way to read and learn” (South Asian News Agency). For its most ardent champions this digital platform even promises to reinvent education itself.

In working over the last year on what I have been referring to as an “Integrated Inquiry Resource” created for a grade 8 Humanities unit on the Renaissance (see this blog post here for the resource itself), I too have been trying to create a classroom resource that could leverage the potential of a digital textbook. To create my prototype, because my students have computers and not iPads, rather than use an ePub or iBooks 2 platform, I used Pages to create the digital textbook and then turned it into a pdf document. It is worth noting that I fervently hope Apple will make the iBooks 2 platform compatible with computers, as this is a major hindrance of their current publishing platforms which only allow students to leverage the full potential of their IBooks 2 on an iPad.

Within the resource I created, I provided among other things, links to short videos on the historical events addressed in the unit, inquiry questions meant to spur students to think critically and uncover the themes and content connected to specific aspects of the Renaissance, as well as links to assessment rubrics and accompanying strategies imbedded in the document to help students provide sophisticated responses to the inquiry tasks outlined after each section. See this blog post here, for a complete outline of the tasks included within this unit on the Renaissance.

By undertaking the tremendous work involved in creating a textbook from scratch, it was my hope that through creating opportunities for a flipped classroom, Khan Academy style tutorials, and links to remarkable videos, I could truly create something that would make the classroom only one site where meaningful learning takes place. However, before I, and others in the field of education, blindly embrace the potential of digital textbooks, I think what is needed is more considered thought and greater empirical evidence as to both the opportunities and limitations opened up by the adoption of digital resources in the classroom.

To this end, through taking part in a research initiative at Calgary Science School, I asked my students to respond to a ten-question anonymous survey asking them to provide feedback on my “Integrated Inquiry Resource.” Based on the preliminary findings from the survey, I followed this up with a series of focus group interviews to further explore themes and interesting findings that emerged from my students’ responses. In my next blog post, I will comment on the findings that emerged from these conversations. This blog post reports on the responses of my students to a survey that asked them to comment on the impact that my digital textbook had on their learning.

Of a possible 50 students a total of 46 students responded to the survey. The findings from this research study open up important insights concerning both the great potential of resources like this, as well as reasons for more considered deliberation before we start proclaiming the dawn of a new era in education. Using student work as another data source along with the survey, for this particular blog post I report on how this resource and accompanying tasks helped students:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of themes and developments that occurred during the Italian Renaissance
  • Adopt a flipped classroom approach where content delivery occurs at home and the classroom becomes a place for deliberation and the application of new knowledge
1. What was the impact of this resource on student learning?

Finding 1: As evidenced by the quality of their work and the sophistication of their responses to each of the inquiry tasks, students showed a relatively deep understanding of events and developments leading up to and characteristic of the Italian Renaissance.

Reflected in my last blog post here, in examining student work from each of the four major sections in this resource, I was very satisfied with the quality of their work and the sophistication of their responses to each of the inquiry tasks. In relation to task 2, for example, through focussing on the need to include specific historical details in their comic representation, students were able to well communicate their understanding of a particular element of the Renaissance. Additionally, through introducing students to the SES (state, explain, support) framework, I was also very happy with their responses to task 3 where students showed an ability to demonstrate their understanding of a particular development that led to the Italian Renaissance. Evidence of student understanding was was further demonstrated in their debates concerning which development was most responsible for sparking a renaissance in northern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their debates speeches were well articulated and the vast majority of students had specific supporting details to back up their assertions.

In the final section, where I asked students to complete a talking to the text exercise and interpretation of the famous Humanist poem An Oration on the Dignity of Man as well as interpret a clamation rendering of Plato's Allegory of the Cave from the perspective of Humanists at the time, I was very impressed with the level and quality of their responses. In the case of both tasks, the rich dialogue that ensued from a class conversation along with their responses were extremely creative and sophisticated. Here is an example of each of the final two tasks I asked students to complete:

Oration on the Dignity of Man
“We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth,
Neither mortal or immortal,
So that with freedom of choice and with honor,
As thought the maker and molder of thyself,
Thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.
Thou shalt have the power out of thy soul's judgment,
to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.”

‐Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola


Student SES paragraph:

The Humanists believed that man was great and humans were meant to live as individuals, not to live for the glory of god. More specifically, humanists tried to enforce the public eye that the concept of humanism was a moral obligation, not a treachery to god. By this I mean that thought was shifted from god in heaven to humans on earth. There was a shift of judgment and humans began to think that they were capable of achieving, questioning and reasoning. This lead to a political reformation in society and civilization, which was developed from humanism. Humans began questioning authority. In the poem it says, "to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine." I think this is saying that when humans started to understand that they were meant for something, they were able to achieve illustriousness.

Student Response to Plato's Allegory of the Cave:

Symbol 1: I think that the Humanists would have interpreted the cave as a place not being able to shape yourself. More specifically they would have seen this as the prisoners are not allowed to see behind them they are not allowed to see what they want to see. By this I mean the jailers are controlling what the prisoners believe and what they see. In the video they are chained so that they can only see what is in front of them. I think this is showing that they prisoners are only seeing one thing and that their perception on the world will never change because they cannot believe what they cannot see (outside the cave). They can see merely this shadow play.

Symbol 2: I think that the Humanists would have interpreted the freed prisoner as a humanist. More specifically they would have seen this as the perception of the ex-prisoner changes when he is introduced to these new and exciting things outside the cave. He know believes what he believes not what the captors what him to believe. By this I mean when the prisoner is released he now has a world to get to discover for himself. In the video it says that the prisoner when he is let go he achieves a new perception of the world and he wants to share this perception with his friends. I think this is showing that he also wanted for the prisoners to learn and to experience the other outside world.

Finding 2: the video links and accompanying summary helped students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the historical context that set the stage for the Renaissance.

When asked the question: "To what extent did the video links help you gain a better understanding of the 2, 500 hundred years of European history we covered when beginning the unit?" students responses were varied, but here is as sampling of some of their insights:


• The videos really helped me understand the Renaissance better. I feel that the videos gave me a better understanding of it as well. The videos helped me visualize it better which was good but I would have gotten the same knowledge with the textbook.

• I feel like now I have a better understanding of how it was at that time with the video.

• It was a very good visual helping us understand how life was back then

• This helped me understand further of what was not discussed in class, however, it was sometimes hard to catch what they said in the video, therefore I had to watch the videos multiple times just to obtain small information. Other then that, it was nice how you could continue watching and get a feel of how the history went.

• I think it did well on helping me understand because I really enjoy visuals in class rather that listening to lectures

• They helped me much more that if I used a textbook.

• It helped when we were struggling, plus, it was very interesting most of the time
yes because a picture is 1000 words so wouldn't a video be 1,000,000 words?

• I feel that my understanding really improved. Now its stuck in my brain and we toke time learning it therefore I really understand the unit.

• The videos made me more intrigued in my learning. I, being a visual learner, could relate and learn to the best of my ability from this.

Finding 3: As evidenced by the following comments, there are some limitations with an over reliance on videos and documentaries to transmit knowledge.

• it was sometimes hard to catch what they said in the video, therefore I had to watch the videos multiple times just to obtain small information.

• it gave me a better visual but nothing really thrilled me

• I believe that I would have been better able to understand the Italian Renaissance if we used a hard copy of a textbook.

• The video links gave a good sense of the time frame of the Italian Renaissance. As well, we saw the comparison between the time frame of the Italian Renaissance in comparison to other significant European events. However, I believe that I would have been better able to understand the Italian Renaissance if we used a hard copy of a textbook.

• I feel that the videos did help my understanding of European history. But the projects we did regarding the Renaissance i feel helped me more than the videos did.

• The first and the second on were very helpful but after that I do not think any one was watching them

2. Did this resource help students adopt a flipped classroom approach to learning?

Finding 4: This was one of the more interesting findings in my survey. Data suggests that at the junior high school level, as apposed to say the University or high school level, it may be harder than we think to get students to watch content at home. However, the content that students are asked to watch may greatly determine whether students would watch content at home. However, students did find watching documentaries on a topic much more interesting than solely reading a text based resource.

In moving to a flipped classroom approach to learning it is argued by advocates of this approach that content delivery, which largely requires passive instruction, can occur at home and the classroom becomes a place for more active learning involving working through questions, discussing concepts and ideas, and applying new knowledge. Through creating links to documentaries and videos within this digital resource, I hoped to flip some of the content delivery for students to watch at home. However, the results of the survey show that my aspirations here were less than successful.

When asked whether they watched the links to videos at home, as can be seen below the responses were as follows:

1. When assigned to watch links within the Renaissance resource at home or on your own, did you do this? (answered question 43, skipped question 1)

Response Percent Response Count:

Always 23.3% 10
Most of the time 30.2% 13
Sometimes 25.6% 11
Rarely 11.6% 5
Never 9.3% 4

This means about 1/5 of students rarely or never watched videos at home, while just over half watched them always or most of the time. This speaks to the fact, that at the junior high school level, as apposed to the University or high school level, it may be harder than we think to get students to watch content at home; even if this content comes in the form of documentaries that many students their age do find interesting to watch. This being said, I did receive several comments from students that they sat and watched an hour and twenty minute long documentary on Leonardo da Vinci on their own because they found it so fascinating.
When asked whether they watched videos in the resource that were not assigned for homework but were encouraged to watch for interests sake, as can be seen below only 7% said they did so on over two occasions, 45% said an one occasion, and 48% said never.

2. Some videos in the resource were not assigned, did you ever watch some of the video links on your own? (answered question 44, skipped question 0)

Response Percent Response Count:

On two to three occasions 6.8% 3
On one occasion 45.5% 20
Never 47.7%

In a similar vein, when asked how often they went back to re-watch videos to gain a deeper understanding of the historical time period, about 20% reported they did so often, about 37% did so on a few occasions, and about 36% did so rarely or never.


4. How often did you go back to watch videos to get a better understanding of the topic you were studying? (answered question 44, skipped question 0)

Response Percent Response Count:

Many times 20.5% 9
On a few occasions 36.4% 16
Sometimes 13.6% 6
Rarely 22.7% 10
Never 13.6% 6

These findings speak to limitations as to the extent, within this context, the flipped classroom format is a viable model to help students to extend their learning on their own. This is confirmed by the fact that students were quite pessimistic that other students could be counted on to watch videos at home. When asked what percentage of students they thought could be counted on to watch an hour video at home for homework, over 45% of respondents indicated that only about 1/3 of students could be counted on to do this. Here we find interesting questions concerning the types of students most likely to watch a video for homework. It may point to already keen and academically successful students willing to do this, while students who are struggling could be less inclined to watch a video for homework. This finding, therefore, points to the need for further study as to the viability of the flipped classroom approach. However, probably predictably most 60% of students found watching videos at home preferable to reading a text-based resource, while only 14% claimed this was not the case; the others answered that it was somewhat preferable to watch a video at home.

Thank you if you read this; it's a bit of a slog.

2 comments:

  1. Dave, you share some interesting insights in regard to the potential of the Apple iBooks2 application for reinventing education. You demonstrate through your project how we need to move away from thinking about electronic textbooks to a much more interactive digital resource. The quality of your students' work is an important indicator of the efficacy of the digital resources you have developed. The student written responses reflect a deep understanding of the Renaissance. As well, the student responses to your questions about the impact of the digital resources are very positive. I think it will take time to develop a comfort level among your students with the concept of the flipped classroom. At the same time, you received some very positive feedback in regard to the level of engagement of the students with the digital resources outside of class time. Through your Research and Innovation project you have demonstrated the significant potential for using Digital Integrated Inquiry Resources and have identified some important factors that must be taken into consideration in developing and implementing these resources.

    ReplyDelete