Why the print-plus model of textbooks is a deadend.

While digital textbook resources have been around for years, the expansion of tablets and mobile devices in the market place have made them more practical. However, we still live in a “print-plus” world. Interactives, recorded lectures, integrated quizzes are seen as a value added product. Almost every product by publishing companies seeks to provide the experience of reading a textbook on a digital device, but just with additional bells and whistles. And many are surprised that students prefer print textbooks. I think most of todays digital textbooks are the equivalents of smartboards in the classroom. They look nice, they cost a lot, but they are just trying to recreate traditional experiences; reading a book or writing on a board. This doesn’t offer much more for what they cost and the drawbacks of their formats.

Perhaps the most telling of ‘advancements’ is the addition of highlighting options to all major digital textbooks. Often listed as a selling point, the technique has dubious pedagogical support. It is pretty clear that this shows a misunderstanding of the medium by publishers. It also shows that they are just trying to design once for both print and digital mediums.

We need to reexamine what resources we need for a class, how we organize them, and how they are presented.

One of the places we need to start is addressing the fact that digital media are not limited by the linear nature of print media. One of my most frustrating moments in creating a digital textbook using Apple’s iBooks software was turning my iPad into the portrait mode. Suddenly all my organization and all my interactive content are shoved to the side. What is worse is that the entire text is show as a never ending scrolling page! The information in every course is not actually linear. It’s just been represented that way because of the limitations of print. We need to look at it as a web or related subjects. Wouldn’t if be great if students could rearrange their course around different core concepts? For example, an American history book doesn’t need a chapter on civil rights, but can be instantly pull all of the related information together. Or students can instantly reorganize their chemistry textbook to look at the importance of electrons.

I think we can see this type of idea in action in two different places right now. First I want to call attention to the Wikiweb app. This app pulls metadata from Wikipedia to create a web of concepts that you can navigate and see how they relate immediately. Second is the new graph search for Facebook. In this you can search your friends to see who likes Mumford and Sons, or who likes hiking when you are planning an outing.

What does this mean for resource design? It means that we must ‘chunk’ our data and use metadata to show relationships between ‘chunks’ It also means that we will no longer write with the expectation that students will read the book cover to cover. This also allows data to be updated quickly and new resources easily inserted. But this also means that UI design will become the new challenge. Though this is one that can be solved, especially when we give up skeuomorphic guidelines and embrace the capabilities and design motifs of current tablet and mobile designs.

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