I’ve been doing some research on digital textbooks in order to prepare a faculty development workshop on the topic. I’m impressed, and truly optimistic regarding what is available and what is possible. Pretty cool stuff!
The way I see it, even if all we do is produce beautiful textbooks that can be read on a digital reader and electronically marked with highlights and notes – that would be terrific. Books would be easier to carry around and access on the fly. As well, there are cost advantages, and the digital format is a “greener” way to publish. All good – but I’ve seen so much more than just a change in format.
Several producers are working hard to enrich the textbook experience by providing extra content (rollover definitions, longer graphics captions) and links to relevant video, audio, and reference materials. Some sites allow for sharing comments and highlights with a study group as well, giving students another way to engage with each other in coming to an understanding of the material. The capability has the potential to be overwhelming, but some of the examples I have reviewed so far were quite well done. (For example, take a look at what they’re doing at Inkling – if you have an iPad, you can download sample chapters.)
Some people worry that all those links and other bells and whistles are just distractions that prevent our minds from concentrating on the ideas being presented in the text. Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows), for example, makes a pretty impassioned argument that those hyperlinks interrupt our thought processes even if we ignore them. I absolutely agree that we need to be thoughtful about the choices we make in enriching the content.
But recognizing the fact that learners don’t come to the material with the same background and interests, it would seem to be a terrific idea to give options for review or deeper study – and in digital format, these options are available with one click rather than looking up the back page of the syllabus, and then using a search engine (or trekking to the library!) to find what you’re looking for. Removing the barriers to further exploration of a topic is a huge win.
To make this new approach to publishing as powerful as possible, we’ll have to apply some solid design thinking to the production of textbooks – and other kinds of books for that matter. The links we provide need to support learning, and expand the material at different levels and in relevant ways. We’ll want to consider producing customized materials, and we may need to get appropriate permissions to link to publicly available resources.
One of the exercises I plan to give to the faculty in this class is to design the digital presentation of a favorite chapter or resource – identifying what they might hyperlink that would support their students in positive ways. Imagine what we can do!
I’m still doing a lot of exploration and thinking about implications here – I would welcome any comments you have or references you would share on the topic.