Blank gif
An Educator's Guide to Technology and the Web
Search Internet@Schools
Subscribe Today!

View Current Issue
View Past Issues

Internet @ Schools

THE PIPELINE: Whither the Textbook? Opportunity Knocks, LOUD

By Stephen Abram - Posted Nov 1, 2011
Bookmark and Share

There is a big discussion going on right now about the future of the textbook. The textbook has been a foundation for standardized teaching for centuries. It’s a cornerstone of how most courses are taught in schools around the world. It is the culmination of publishing subject and teaching expertise that is undergoing a massive transformation due to the latest research on learning effectiveness, testing, and technological opportunities. Arguably, such a transformation of educational tools hasn’t been seen in education since wax tablets, printing presses, blackboards, and computers wrought their changes and innovations. This time it’s different. It’s not about adapting tools to teaching and learning. This time it’s about aligning the curriculum more closely with the learner, and that makes it even more transformational and, incidentally, scarier and more exciting!

The textbook isn’t something we read from cover to cover like we do with fiction or articles. Most of us select which pieces of the book we will use in our courses. Indeed, despite being designed to be scaffolded pedagogically, we often use them in asynchronous and asymmetrical ways in the classroom. We supplement them with other materials and bind them to our own approaches to teaching and the specific needs of classes and individual learners. Most teachers, especially those with deeper experience, adapt the textbook to their own strategies and approaches to teaching. And that’s great. Textbooks shouldn’t be straightjackets.

What are the opportunities that we can imagine or that we should be looking for? While the print textbook has been a mainstay, a workhorse for education for centuries, it is not a perfect solution or an all-singing, all-dancing tool. To be honest, it has been stretched to the limit of what something in print can do to enhance learning. We are already seeing amazing innovations in learning using the newer tools provided by technology, devices, the web, digital content, learning management systems, and a whole host of learner- and educator-driven social collaboration and creativity tools. It’s an exciting time to be an educator and a publisher. We get to participate in the invention, and the evolution, of the next generation of educational experiences. So this month’s column explores the tip of the iceberg in the opportunity to enhance a learner’s experience and success with next-generation textbooks.

Let’s be clear. Ultimately we probably won’t recognize many learning support tools and environments in the future as a traditional “book.” However, the very basis of what textbooks do will be there: scaffolded learning, pedagogy, reading, testing, level-appropriate situations, etc. What will happen, I predict, is that we will start by enhancing the current textbook experience with individual, mostly digital, experiences. Most textbooks today are already available for sale or rent in electronic form. This meets a customer demand but doesn’t really begin to explore the full potential to build a better learner. The ability to reinvent the textbook to eliminate the compromises necessary for print production driven by print technologies is one that’s too precious to squander. That said, I believe that the real-world environment of the early 21st century is one where this renaissance of the textbook will be adopted in a Swiss cheese fashion worldwide, and there will be grand experiments, pilots, and visions that generate excitement and success. As with the Renaissance, we’re in a wonderful long period of creative innovation and exploration. The ultimate model will likely be a hybrid of print, digital innovations, classroom (real and virtual) collaboration, and the necessary professional touch and leadership facilitation and guidance of educators and teams of learning coaches.

So what does an enhanced textbook look like? What are the opportunities? What would be on your wish list? Here are a few that you’re already seeing and that are arriving in the short term:

Device agnostic: Let’s get off this roller coaster! Smartphones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, PCs/Macs, interactive TVs, gaming stations, etc., are all a part of every learner’s current and future information ecology. Everything we do should respect that there are a variety of ways to access learning. Erasing as much of the chasm as possible between home, classroom, library, and school is a desirable goal.

Location agnostic: Learning is no longer classroom-centric. It can be mobile, in a classroom, at a library anywhere, at the mall, at a friend’s house, or at your after-school caregiver’s home. Homework isn’t just for the bedroom desk, and it needs more than pen and paper. Life and learning are everywhere.

LMS agnostic: Learning management systems are the norm in higher education with the dominance of elearning environments such as Blackboard, WebCT, D2L, and Moodle. These are also making strong, inevitable, inroads into the K–12 space now. Learning content, such as textbooks and library resources, needs to puzzle together with these environments in a simple, seamless, and frictionless manner.

Content bias: We can avoid the traditional bias toward print and text-based content and add new dimensions to the learner experience. Imagine video and demonstrations embedded in the page. Imagine the ability to have auditory enhancements from having the ability to have articles read aloud to all or some students or music enhancing the experience. Imagine experiences enhanced by gaming activities and social or classroomwide games teaching targeted skills and competencies. Imagine activities transcending classroom time limits and spanning the unit and more. The digital test is never limited to just the text and image on page paradigm and can supplement or replace that as needed. All learning styles can be supported in the learner-centric universe.

Explodable: Can we explode the content and learning objects in a text and embed them into any framework or lesson structure? This should be possible when we do learning unbound.

Extension opportunities: Integrating the library and licensed resources for extended learning directly into the student curriculum environment has been the Holy Grail of teacher-librarians for decades. Electronic textbooks and elearning are the best chance yet to embed information literacy and content skills into the teachable moment. Pathways to extended content can be embedded into lessons as options for eager engaged learners or into units as targeted extensions for homework or assignments. Information literacy tasks can be peppered throughout the pedagogy.

Real collaboration: Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 are buzzwords of the early 21st century. These smaller tools, as a package, create the opportunity for social learning, creation, and teamwork on a scale that transcends the small group work classroom model and models behaviors required as adults in work and social situations.

Creativity: Students as individuals and in groups can create projects and pieces in the context of their courses. They can collaboratively and individually create, store, share, and comment on creative writing, music, speeches, performances, lyrics, poetry, art, websites, wikis, bibliographies, mindmaps, and more. Indeed, they can work in groups and write papers, cite sources, assemble research, and build a portfolio of work that can be viewed by just their teachers, their team, their class, or their families.

Interactive: Reading is a wonderful thing, but real interactivity with the content in the context of learning goals and measured outputs will assist a wider range of learners to lock down their learning and increase comprehension. Fewer learners will be left behind as cohorts move through the levels of achievement in necessarily scaffolded topics such as math, science, writing, and critical thinking. Adding exercises, social tools, or games can be used to increase engagement with learning.

Tools for administration and teachers: Managing the classroom cohort or, indeed, whole departments, schools, or boards in a complex educational system where everything from attendance to performance is monitored and measured is becoming increasingly complex. Let’s move this out of pen and paper forms and data entry and simplify.

Testing resources: Embedding both types of tests—the tests teachers use to evaluate the progress of learners and mini-assessments for students to assess themselves—is a desirable goal. Ensuring that research can be performed across grades and subjects about the effectiveness of individual courses and teaching strategies is also possible.

Assessing compliance: How awesome would it be to assign reading homework or exercises and to know how many learners actually read the item or performed the exercises and how they did? The teacher can then tune their facilitation to cover gaps and possibly move forward with greater confidence and speed or discover and reinforce gaps in learning earlier.

Lexiles and reading levels: Can we tune each textbook to the individual’s needs for certain reading abilities in order to keep every classroom member in the flow? Can we ensure that library content is served up at the appropriate grade or learner level? This is possible now without the tiresome and nonscalable hand-crafting of the past.

Updated and current: Future textbooks could improve update cycles and create feedback loops from teachers. No longer will we be tied to the world views and events at the time of physical publication. World events and more can be implemented quickly as teachable moments into the day’s class. The latest hurricane can be studied in real time, and earthquake news, revolutions, elections, science announcements, author interviews, and an unlimited treasure chest of current events can be explored in the context of known history. Lessons need no longer be old and/or dry. When outdated information is discovered in a text, it can quickly and easily be updated like software is at a fraction of the cost involved with updating printed books. Material can stay current and engaging at a lower price without the content and physical aging curve associated with print textbooks.

Leasing, renting, ownership: Digitization opens up a wealth of new models for purchasing or accessing learning support tools. Rental textbooks are already popping up at campuses around the country. Rentals can cost 40% to 70% of the purchase price, and school districts could lease unlimited, simultaneous access for all students in a class from home and school at a lower cost per student.

ADA and learning challenges: It’s enough to say that the needs of students with different abilities or challenges can be addressed much more comprehensively in a digital environment.

Forgiving: The print textbook has been the workhorse for a long time, but we can acknowledge that it excels at hitting the middle and empowering the average student while doing less well with exceptional learners. Implemented with vision and imagination, we can empower the whole range of learners and build another great generation. And that will be a great legacy!

Imagination: There are no limits at this point to what we can imagine. If we can dream it, then it can happen.

Of course there are obvious challenges that need to be acknowledged, but these are not insurmountable. Vision and flexibility is the key. We need to learn by doing, learning and sharing what works and what isn’t working. Yes, we have the issue of the digital divide and rich versus poor schools and school districts. Will devices be available for all? Will libraries play a key role in bridging the gap? Can providing devices that transcend the individual class and course to all students be covered by savings in print production and distribution? Will the cost per student actually go down in a more centralized purchase of content that’s both standardized and localized? Will the ability to integrate library content services and other districtwide assets add even greater value in the future? Yes, we have the issue of restricted budgets. The challenge is to think creatively and not dismiss out of hand the hybrid print-digital opportunity to bridge rich and poor to address the full spectrum of the needs of all learners in order to build a better society.

There’s a lot of thinking going on here. It is an exciting and dynamic time in the world of textbooks. Some thinking is driven by cost, while some is driven by improving outputs and experiences, and some is for academic administration. I suppose the real solution to the new containers for pedagogy and learning is somewhere in the hybrid space. I do believe that this is the biggest opportunity for education to move to the next plateau since the printing press and common public education. I am interested in any articles or research that anyone finds in this arena. Feel free to share with me on my blog, Stephen's Lighthouse, or via email.

Contact Stephen at

Blank gif