abandon all hope, ye who enter here 04.16.2005, 1:23 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Silly-sounding business jargon and corporate pep talk abounded at the eBooks in Education Conference at McGraw-Hill in New York. The kind of stuff that makes the eyes and mind glaze over. "Fluidity of work flow." "Content creation." "Course-centric versus learner-centric." The "three-legged stool," of digital publishing... Books are "learning objects." A teacher is just a "sage on the stage," as though teaching were an antiquated idea. Youth is a marketing problem to be solved, the latest batch of young professionals in the making, rolling along the conveyor belt. Tim Magner, a stuffed shirt from our dear own Department of Ed., talked about priming kids for the new global economy (he also took the opportunity to mention that we're doing the same for Iraq). But nothing about the issues at the heart of education. Nothing about a civil society, an educated citizenry, etc. About nurturing critical faculties in an age of information blitz. About advancing the light against darkness. I don't doubt the good intentions of many of the speakers and attendees (though I do doubt some) but to someone outside the industry, the conference was plainly nothing more than a congregation of hucksters and homogenizers. Only the accessibility folks (the ones concerned with opening up digital media to people with disabilities), and one soft-spoken tech development manager from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, seemed to exhibit any kind of public spiritedness, or a belief that technology should be made to serve human beings and not companies.
Then there were the numbing waves of PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint! Nothing more perfectly exemplifies the muddled thinking, ignorance of design, and all-around mediocrity of the so-called "ebook industry." Each presenter - with the exception of George Kerscher of the Daisy Consortium (who is blind) - supplemented their talk with the obligatory PowerPoint presentation, which, after a while, becomes a kind of torture. The slides flip one after the other after the other, the bullet points rattle like hail. Incomprehensible charts and graphs slouch across backgrounds of pastel or mock-marble. There's a lot of teal. A lot of magenta. The slick veneer of the corporate board room washes over you like microwaved cheese, but the occasional tell-tale typo betrays the obvious haste and lack of consideration with which the things are made. In most cases the presenter abdicates entirely and plays human accompaniment to the PowerPoint show, lamely reading aloud as the panels slide past, sort of like the airline stewardess doing her bit with the oxygen mask while the safety film plays behind. After sitting through a few of these, your brain feels like it's been flattened out with a rolling pin. I kept thinking of Hart Crane's lines:
"The mind has shown itself at times
Too much the baked and labeled dough
Divided by accepted multitudes."
I also thought of Edward Tufte's wonderful monograph, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" (encapsulated here), a shrewd critique of sandblasted thinking in Microsoft-era America. It's a little frightening to hear adults talk about the future of education in the scrubbed, frictionless language of the corporate slideshow. If they are teaching by example, then it is a sorry example indeed.
"Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something."
I couldn't resist including the cover illustration of Tufte's piece. which gloriously sends up the totalitarianism of PowerPoint..
dave munger on April 17, 2005 3:07 PM:
Yeah, I was a part of the textbook industry for many years while they struggled to figure out how e-texts would change the industry. They tried selling them, with no luck. They tried including them with traditional books for free, with no luck. They tried free companion web sites, and they tried pay companion web sites.
I think we're going to hit a critical point sometime in the next few years, when more and more schools adopt a model where every student has a laptop. At that point, all of a sudden instead of asking how to get people to buy e-books, publishers will be wondering when they can transition to a completely paperless model, and how they can compete with smaller, more agile companies, with open source, with teacher-produced materials.
alex on April 19, 2005 5:02 PM:
Funny writing...I laughed, I cried...But mediocrity is to be expected, it is the norm, or middle, or medi.... Without it, how would you know when you discovered something good, or even great?