Welcome to the “views” section of the Argos Education website. We will not be publishing a carefully crafted set of marketing messages here. Rather, we’re going to let some of the smart people at Argos (plus me) speak for themselves. While we will all be writing on topics that are relevant to Argos and our shared understanding of our work, each of us will bring our own perspective and passion. We may not always agree with each other 100%. That’s OK. We learn from each other through dialogue. This blog is intended to be a window into that dialogue.
I’ll kick us off by riffing on an observation our friend George Veletsianos made after hearing our pitch for Argos. He said,
So what you’re saying is there is no such thing as a textbook.
Faculty spend a lot of time evaluating, selecting, and planning around the curricular materials they choose. Particularly when those materials come in the form of one supposedly comprehensive book covering an entire term’s worth of content, it’s tempting to think that faculty design their courses around the book.
And sometimes they do, in a sense. But that’s rarely how they think about it.
Many faculty members, including many adjunct instructors, primarily think about their course and how their students experience it. They might say they “use” a textbook, but that verb is not very descriptive. How do they use it?
We tried “adapt.” Maybe they “adapt” the textbook that they adopt. Is that what they think they’re doing?
Nope. That hasn’t resonated.
It turns out that we may not even have the right vocabulary. Textbook publishers have always been (unsurprisingly) textbook-centric. In the old days, everything that they provided around the core textbook, including suggested lesson plans, they called “ancillaries.” Everything outside the book is “ancillary.” More recently, as publishers have been pushing to prove their products have “efficacy” in helping students learn, they talk about “implementation models.” The product would teach the students if only the faculty would adhere to the correct implementation model in their classroom activities. (Faculty can be forgiven for interpreting this to mean they’re being told “You’re teaching is wrong.”)
Instructional designers and faculty support staff, who see the nuts and bolts of the course creation, tend to think about nuts and bolts. They think about content, assessments, learning objectives, and so on. They might also think about data.
None of these views is wrong, exactly. But they’re not the language of the classroom educator. Educators have learning objectives in their heads when they design their classes. They think about content and assessments. They worry about and experiment with different ways to teach a topic more effectively. They try new things, observe results, and adjust accordingly. Even when they are prescribed a textbook and syllabus by the department, they add content, evaluate how well the course design is serving the students in front of them, and adjust as best they can using the tools they have available to them. But if they share a common set of verbs they use for these activities, the textbook publishers and, frankly, the EdTech industry at large has yet to crack the code.
A lot of folks working in jobs around but not in the classroom tend to assume that faculty don’t think or care about these things. At Argos, we believe they think about these things a lot. But they don’t think about them the same ways that textbook publishers or faculty support staff do and sometimes they don’t think about them explicitly or consciously, any more than a self-taught artist thinks about technique.
This is the gulf Argos is trying to bridge. If educators didn’t find textbooks and other pre-made curricular materials useful, they wouldn’t exist. At the same time, if we don’t understand how they think about and use them, then we will inevitably build products that make their lives—and their teaching—worse rather than better. They end up spending a lot of time working around the products. Worse, if they don’t have language for what they’re doing or tools that support their work as they think about it, then they can share what they’re learning or ask for help effectively.
Argos is ripping the binding off the now-digital textbook. We aspire to create a product that is intuitive to the way that faculty (and other subject-matter experts) want to work while introducing concepts and vocabulary around the edges. Although we have reusable learning objects, we don’t talk about them that way. Although we provide data on student performance, we don’t use the “D” word a lot.
This about more than just window dressing of using more familiar words. We believe that all human beings have some instincts about teaching and learning because our ability to learn and share our knowledge is essential to the survival of our species. And we believe that these instincts often get sharpened with practice. Just as we often become better learners through experience over time, we often become better teachers the same way. But neither the intuitive learner nor the intuitive teacher can always articulate what they’re doing.
Yes, Argos is trying to replace the textbook with something better. But what does that mean? Rigid publisher products haven’t done it. Robot tutors in the sky haven’t done it. Libraries of reusable learning objects haven’t done it. We will have much to say in the coming weeks and months about what educators do with curricular materials, how we can think more like them, and how a curricular product can help them become the great educators they can be rather than getting in their way.
In the meantime, we ask you to continue pondering this question with us:
What if there is no such thing as a textbook?