Do We Really Want Digital Textbooks?

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Do We Really Want Digital Textbooks?

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I’m in Philadelphia for the annual ISTE Conference. Yesterday was the EduBloggerCon – a very cool education unconference that is always a good chance for me to learn something. One of the sessions I attended was about Digital textbooks and it involved a very interesting discussion. You see some people don’t need textbooks at all. They are fine with gathering different resources and putting them together as part of a course. My experience tells me that other really need a textbook. And a test bank with an answer key, and a selection of PowerPoint decks, and still more. In all fairness, many of these teachers have far too many preps to go it alone. There is also the fact that there are a lot of wonderful lectures on the Internet today. Think Khan Academy and the MIT Open Courseware project. Can we just use all that stuff in place of textbooks? Oh and someone brought up the notion that “text book” was an outdated term because we are not just talking text and we are not just talking books. Is taking a book from paper and putting it interact into digital form really a step forward educationally? Maybe not. There was a lot of discussion and a lot of great points being made by people. I was thinking I would use this forum to post some of my thoughts. Some of which were stirred up a little by this discussion.

What I want in a digital book, lets leave out the word text as too limiting, is media, interaction, and responsiveness. I want pictures that “come alive” and become video like in a book at Hogwarts. Smile I want formulas that a student can add values to and see the results graphed before their eyes and then save, share or even (gasp) print out. I want maps that are not static but have borders that move as some idea of time moves on. I want quizzes and problems that not only grade themselves in real time but suggest places in the resource where a student may want to review based on results. I want a resource that feels alive.

I think we have a lot of the pieces. There is the Microsoft Physics Illustrator for Tablet PC that has been available for a while. It lets one draw a series of objects of different types and then animates the results with things like gravity “turned on.” And there are more tools like that available. We haven’t seen them incorporated into something like a digital book yet though. There is also Project Tuva from Microsoft Research that explores a new way of organizing and learning through annotated video lectures by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman. IT provides the video, transcripts, supplemental resources and more. What we don’t have is a unified platform to create these resources easily.

I have a vision of an easy to use tool, call it a product if you want, that people who write textbooks now can use but also that teachers alone or in teams could use. If you got the best presenters to record talks, the best project creators to create tests, and the best assessment people to work on assessments, and put it all together in a multi-media, multi-strategy platform with some smarts to help teachers identify problems so that they could supplement with one on one modifications or accommodations for struggling students the results might just be amazing. I don’t want to see this platform just become a better (or just more machine-like) “sage on the stage.” I don’t see that as an answer to anything, well, perhaps for boring presentations. But in the long run saying “watch this video” is not much different from saying “read this book.” The value from a real flesh and blood teachers is far more than lecture. It is dealing with the student as a person, an individual, and finding ways to help them understand. But the right resources can make that easier and more effective.



  • Go ahead, go with digital text books.   If you do that, then please take care of providing my classroom and students the real estate to treat it like a book.   You see, in a 40 year old building with computers and a single screen on a table, lined up in a row, my kids still like to use a plastic book holder to hold their text book while they work on the assignment.

    oh then, how do you do this in a traditional classroom full of rows of desk-with-a-chair units.    If you want to rebuild my school for me, go ahead make it digital.  I don't mind not having to lug 15 copies to the room.

    Buy a bunch of kindles.   Go ahead, but then fix the network and change the protections so we can use them in the room.   Remember, I have to move from shop to classroom around the building.   I can not park in one place and have them come to me.   We both get together each period as the schedule rotates or the weeks switch.

    And yes, my network protections are draconian or filters primitive.  My school still wants and needs the money from the federal government and we have to protect the kids from the bad Internet like it is still 1993.

  • Jim, you make a lot of good points and you are right. Making a big change like this only works if we change the way we teach and the way we manage infrastructure.

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