Adaptive, Attractive, Interactive: A New Chapter for Digital Textbooks

It sometimes seems that not a day goes by without another article on the death of the textbook. This is perhaps with good reason; the classroom of the future is one that’s connected, collaborative, and built around tablets and digital devices. That’s if it even exists physically; many point to MOOCs and virtualized learning environments as the way forward. Either way, the isolating world of the print textbook seems to be one that will soon be consigned to the dustbin.  

"I don't use textbooks at all because I think that limits how you teach,” says Ann Michaelsen, a teacher at Oslo’s Sandvika High School and speaker at the recent Bett Show, the education world’s biggest technology fair. “I post something on the front of my blog and tell my students: 'This is what we're going to do today'”, she says. While Michaelsen may not yet be typical, she points the way toward a new breed of teacher; one capitalizing upon technology, digital collaboration and social media interaction. With more and more educational institutes incorporating BYOD (bring your own device) schemes, education has come a long way from the slate tablet to the digital tablet. 

Human beings are wired to learn from one another. The textbook is a fundamentally isolating experience.

Matt McInnis, CEO & Founder, Inkling

While initial efforts to digitize the textbook focused upon transferring existing print content into digital format, educational publishers are now beginning to realize the potential to deliver much more than just a digitized version of the print book. The textbook of the future is an immersive and interactive experience; one that can offer personalized content tailored to individual wants, needs and methods of learning. 

For instance, educational technology companies such as Knewton are pioneering adaptive learning systems that provide learners with personalized content tailored to their specific needs, using sophisticated user analytics to identify student strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. Research has found that students in adaptive learning environments consistently achieve higher scores.

“In another 10 years, people will scratch their heads in wonderment that for 200 years we apparently thought that 30 learners could be taught by the same person at the same time – as if everyone learnt at the same pace or in the same way,” said David Worlock, Publishing Consultant and Co-Chair of Outsell, speaking to us. “While Knewton still show the way, there are an increasing range of systems available to support learners who will benefit from learning at their own speed from content which is moulded around their needs.” 

These so called “edu-tech” companies act as digital disrupters of the traditional educational publishing market, changing expectations about learning, and therefore about how content is produced and delivered. As a result, educational publishers are beginning to concentrate more on delivering personalised, collaborative, interactive learning.

But even more than this, digital disruption means that educational publishers are having to change the way they think about the very nature of what it is they do. This was a recurring theme at the last Frankfurt Book Fair, where Pearson’s President of Schools & Higher Education, Mark Anderson, explained how Pearson is moving away from thinking of itself as a “publisher” and describing itself instead as an “education company”. In fact, he said, educational publishers need to move away from the restrictive idea of the “book” completely.

“The way in which content is conceived and articulated and distributed is changing fundamentally, from the book metaphor to something quite different - away from that linear static fashion.”

-Mark Anderson, President of Schools & Higher Education, Pearson

As explored in a recent whitepaper from Ixxus on “thinking outside the books” to reinvent the textbook, some digitally-savvy educational publishers are separating content from format, utilizing granular content (typically XML or HTML) as early as possible in their production processes. This gives them “building blocks” of content which can be reused, repurposed and reformatted, allowing publishers to curate and compile sets of content which are highly tailored to specific learners, modules or courses. Once we move away from the traditional idea of the book as a linear, static, "canonical" object, we open up whole new ways of thinking about the digital textbook: ones with the potential to deliver powerful, personalized learning while also ensuring that academic publishers derive the most value possible from each content asset.

“The textbook, digital or not, is becoming increasingly an ancillary teaching aide (think banisters, not stairs) as we move by small steps towards personalized learning and individualized goals and attainment,” says David Worlock, “We are now well past the Death of the Textbook and into the next age.”

While the textbook as we know it might be dead, there is space in its wake for as many different types of learning delivery as there are types of learner. Technology is revolutionizing the ways in which education is delivered; where exactly that ends up once the market settles down is currently up for grabs. What is certain is that we will see huge changes in the ways that educational publishers operate, as the ways that we learn and teach continue to evolve. The textbook is dead: long live the textbook.



Dead books walking

John Pettigrew's picture

If the textbook's dead then it's enjoying a very active afterlife!  :-)

Many of the problems identified with current educational practice (and not specifically textbooks) are spot on. But wholesale reinvention of our educational system (which is what's being talked about) takes a lot of time. Education is too important to mess up - but, by the same token, also too important not to change.

There are a lot of really interesting experiments going on in colleges and schools (both primary and secondary) around the world, but it's too early yet to say what the conclusions will be IMO.

Part of the problem is that what publishers have always been selling teachers is time disguised as a book. Good teachers have always been able and willing to discover and create their own resources. But few have the time to do so consistently - and this is more and more true as their time gets eaten up with increased administrative chores! The traditional role of the textbook was to provide a baseline of content that was authoritative and reliable, upon which teachers could build. (No one ever expected a good teacher simply to read out the textbook!)

The opportunity for publishers is to stay just far enough ahead of the teachers to give them what they want and need in the way of teaching resources. These resources will, I believe, continue to include things that closely resemble textbooks (both in print and digitally) but will also continue to include things that really don't. The balance between the two will gradually shift, but there's no prospect of an immediate global change.

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