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  • Writer's pictureCherie Calletta

We don’t need no stinkin’ paradigm shift….

Switching to digital books can save on paper and ink. (Courtesy Photo)

Digital textbooks may be the thing that finally pushes me over the edge, and sends me to The Teacher Funny Farm, where life is beautiful all the time, and the nice young men in their clean white coats use textbooks that are what they always were: paper.

The charm of digital books and instruction seems to be that it removes geography from the instructional equation. (Why this is necessary is another question, one that is evidently above my pay grade). I am currently teaching just a few in-person kids and 10 times as many virtuals. The virtuals live all across the country; there are kids from the East, South, Midwest and West. I fully expect that someone will join us who’s not in the U.S., assuming time zone compatibility.

Readers of this column may remember the late, lamented Rikki Tiki Tavi lesson, featuring our old friend Personification.

I thought that day was bad.

Silly me.

I had no idea what was in store for me, with the onslaught of digital texts.

There’s a William Wordsworth poem that goes:

There was a little girl,

who had a little curl

Right in the middle

of her forehead,

And when she was good,

she was very, very good,

But when she was bad

she was horrid.

That’s exactly how I feel about digital texts. When they’re good, they’re good. On most days I silently curse the unholy trinity of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Harcourt, yet this is a losing battle: digital is here to stay, unfortunately. On other days I have to admit, however grudgingly, that there are good things about virtual learning and digital textbooks.

There are a few advantages: textbooks had gotten really heavy, and just one in a backpack is enough, but if the student has homework in more than one class, they could wind up having to carry three or four of those 10 pounders. That’s a lot of weight on a little kid’s back. OK, that’s one thing.

Another plus is that digital texts save on paper and ink (theoretically). Most of the time this is true. But there are other features of the digital world that I find a bit suspect and worrisome.

In the olden days of paper books, you (or the school district) bought the book. Once you bought the book, you owned the book, and you owned it forever, or at least until it fell apart. That won’t happen to most books, however. They get beaten up, sure, but they survive. The paper they typically used for hardcover textbooks is one of the best grades of paper there is.

So, you own it. It’s still under the usual copyright laws—and so are the digital texts, trust me—but you own the physical book, forever and always, amen. There is no time limitation on how long you have the rights to access that material: You own the book, period. With digital, it’s more like renting the material for a specified period of time. Talk about “you can’t go home again.” Sheesh.

What’s happening with the digital texts is something I find really unsettling. But you’re talking to one of the world’s worst book hoarders. I still have my high school literature textbook. (Hey, you never know when it could come in handy!) With digital texts, the companies have the capability of more or less “renting” the content out to the school or the student. They have the capability of releasing content, and of course they can also withhold the content, at their own beck and call. You don’t pay the rental fee? Too bad. We cut off access. You don’t “own” the texts anymore.

I don’t like this.

With the digital format, the computerized videos, colors, bells and whistles may have their charm, but you will never find a digital textbook from 40 years ago on somebody’s shelf.

The other thing I don’t like is Google. Google started out as an innocent search engine. One of their corporate mottos was “Don’t be evil.” I’m not so sure anymore.

Here’s what I’m noticing:

First of all, Rule No. 1 of Life: Nothing is for nothing. There is no free lunch. You get what you pay for, and if you pay nothing, you get nothing.

Google Chrome and Microsoft evidently have a deal (or maybe by now they’re all the same company, who knows ... hard to keep track anymore). So, you’re ready to start writing your lesson plans. I was using Excel, because I’m fond of overly ornate and content-rich plans, with hotlinks to videos, textbook pages, core standards and other cool and nifty features. (It takes a long time to work those things up. A really long time.)

So I open up a spreadsheet in Excel. I do the plans. I’d had Chrome open…the digital textbook has to be signed into to get access … on a Chrome profile.

Chrome and Microsoft Office, have “profiles” that are connected to a particular email account. If you are on the wrong profile, you cannot save the document you just made in Excel unless your copy of Excel is “hooked” to that profile. The Chrome profile is very important, because that is linked to our menu of registered programs… in other words, without logging on to a certain Chrome profile, I cannot access the textbooks, the gradebooks or anything. The problem is that when I bought my Office suite, I “hooked” it to a different profile. So now, the profile I need to use for school is not capable of handling Office. Oh, the programs load, all right … but saving a file? Surely you jest.

So my copy of Office is now linked inextricably with a certain Chrome profile, and not the one I need for work. Now with Office—which I did pay for, in case you were wondering—files made with those products will not allow themselves to be saved on a different profile.

Unless of course you want to purchase another copy of Microsoft Office, to suit a given Chrome profile. Long story short, I spent a hour working up a week’s worth of plans, only to have Excel refuse to save it. Consequently, I lost all that work.

In the old days… you bought your software. It came on a set of disks. You installed the software, and carefully saved whatever element of packaging that had the ID number and codes. Well, you don’t do that anymore. In the old days, search engines, software, browsers and your data were all separate things. Not anymore.

Now, you more or less “rent” the software, like Microsoft Office or the Harcourt textbook. This disturbs my cozy little hoarder universe, but this is how it is now. OK. I can deal. (It’s not like we have a choice.) I have to deal.

Frustrated and beyond ticked off at having lost all that work, I switched and am doing my lesson plans on Apache’s OpenOffice, a user-friendly, rather counter-cultural almost “rogue” software package that imitates Office pretty well. I like OpenOffice.

A lot of online services seem to be following the pattern of a pusher: give a freebie to a person. Get the person hooked and dependent on the thing, then—Bam! Start charging money. Lots of money. Younger people do not believe me when I tell them that when YouTube first started up, there were no ads. At all. No ads. Now the ads are a major revenue stream for a lot of people.

If all this is making your head spin, welcome to the club!

Then there is the daily Sturm und Drang of the digital texts.

The kids are using Chromebooks, an invention the computer world could easily have done without. When I say these things are slow … even the third graders (who are more mature and cleverer than we were at that age) … even they are cracking jokes like “I’ll be in college by the time this chapter loads!” “College? Hah! I’ll be on Social Security before I get this worksheet!”

The best thing about all of this is the third grade. They are just delightful. In heaven, I think everyone will be in third grade. It’s just the perfect age for so many reasons.

All things considered, my curmudgeonly self still suspects that we were better off in The Days of Paper, but I don’t expect this is a battle I can win.

The struggle continues…

Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph High School in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.


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