Rule 33: Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
-- Jordan Peterson
One of the most common misconceptions that a lot of people have is that one person cannot change the world. While this idea hinges on what kind of change a person is thinking of, the pessimistic view is demonstrably false. Just glancing at a national newspaper will show a dozen examples of a single person changing the world in some way, often with a little help from people who have the same vision but not necessarily the same ability to organise. We all have within us the ability to improve our little corner of the world or make it much, much worse. While there are some who will seek to destroy out of malevolence, there are many who choose to do the opposite.
One of the many things that I try really hard to do is to solve complex problems in new ways, often dismissing existing solutions as being insufficient for the task at hand. A lot of times my efforts fail. Sometimes there is a limited amount of success. And ever so rarely there is some genuine good in what's being assembled out of the chaos of potential that is a code base. It is this tiny sliver of unrealised success that keeps me going when some projects seemed doomed to obscurity.
I was thinking about this today while working on converting some more textbooks from their original PDF format to something better suited for modern classrooms. There are a lot of different textbook delivery systems that have been created by well-funded organisations staffed with very smart people, but none of the options that I've seen over the last few years approach the core problems that exist for schools that focus on skills-based training.
Some of the issues that have bothered me include:
- poor search capabilities
- inconsistent presentation of lesson materials for both the student and the teacher
- poorly formatted teacher's guides that appear to be little more than an afterthought rather than a companion material for the classroom book
- an inability to customise the font style and size
- every digital book series has its own unique "gotchas"
- sluggish response times
- textbooks come as 300-page PDFs
- an inconsistent -- or non-existent -- use of additional resources, such as Wikipedia or a trusted online dictionary/thesaurus
- and then some …
It would be easy to list another dozen issues that affected me when I was teaching, a dozen issues that have arisen in the time since, and another dozen issues that affect the students who attempt to use the digital formats rather than the printed book. However, listing things that could use some attention is not particularly fascinating. What is interesting is how a person responds to the issues. In my case, the problems surrounding skills-based digital textbooks appear to be an abdication of responsibility by publishers1. When responsibility has been ceded, opportunity rushes in to fill the void. Once this happens, someone -- or a whole group of someones -- can approach the problem from different angles.
This doesn't mean that every digital textbook system available today is awful, of course. There are some amazing tools available to students today on a number of subjects, any one of which would have likely helped me better understand a subject while in school. My concerns are with the less glamorous books used primarily by adults who are no longer full-time students.
The project is still in early days, and there is bound to be an unavoidable degree of friction with colleagues to have it objectively considered, but I believe that what the system can do today will go a long way to resolving issues faced by the target audiences of teachers and students. The more I dig into it, the more excited I become for the future.
I say this knowing full well that my employer is also a publisher of 100+ textbooks.