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July 18, 2013

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TOOLS FOR LEARNING: Digital Textbooks--Show Me the Future!

TOOLS FOR LEARNING: Digital Textbooks--Show Me the Future!

In Austin this past March, at the third annual SXSWedu conference, keynote speaker Bill Gates argued that the market for educational innovation is reaching a tipping point. “Finally, there are people looking at whether textbooks should be fully digital,”he said.

Leading in that realm, however, would be Apple. iBooks Textbooks for iPad provide a gorgeous full-screen experience filled with interactive diagrams, photos, and videos. Students can immerse themselves in images with interactive captions, rotate 3D objects, and quiz themselves with chapter reviews. With a finger swipe, they can flip through their “books” and highlight text, take notes, run a search, locate definitions, and basically get lost in their studies. Their slogan captures it nicely: “There’s nothing textbook about them.”

And in case you think ancient giants McGraw-Hill (1917), Pearson (1924 via Simon & Schuster), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1880) have their noses buried in the smell of the printed page—well, they’re actually “turning the page” with multitouch textbooks available through the iBookstore as an entire industry rapidly transitions.

In 2010, digital textbooks accounted for just 1% of the U.S. textbook market. In 2012, it was 5.5%. That’s projected to double this year to 10.5% and by 2014 to 18.8%. Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete, according to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. As he finishes out his tenure, his hopes may come partly true; some projections put the U.S. textbook market at nearly half digital by 2017 with no signs of letting up. “This is the last generation of students who will carry backpacks to school,” writes Zachary Walker, a special educator and technology consultant writing for SmartBrief, Inc. on Education.

Another bold statement, but he may not be too far off. Although not exhaustive, here’s a company-by-company look providing you with some idea of what lies ahead, as we all turn the page—or finger swipe the screen, you might say—and create a future for what The Chronicle of Higher Education has dubbed “the object formerly known as the textbook” in education. To be clear, as you peruse the list that follows, there are content providers, those who provide devices for the content (or those who provide both), as well as supplementary service providers who contribute greatly to the direction in which digital textbooks could be headed. Enjoy!

Discovery Education TechbooksFor K-12 science, middle school social studies (and coming soon next year for math), Discovery has taken its streaming prowess and created a new major instructional tool for elementary and middle school levels featuring high-quality digital content in an easy-to-use interface.

Visual Learning Systems. Visual Learning has an iPad-ready life sciences etextbook for grades 5–9. A team of animators, designers, videographers, and producers led by Brian Jerome used an archive of videos, images, and animations to create an inspiring textbook with 31 chapters and 1,000 pages.

PBS LearningMedia. Though not a digital textbook, this site provides instant access to tens of thousands of classroom-ready digital resources including videos, games, audio clips, photos, and lesson plans.

Follett Digital Textbook Manager promotes accountability and ensures equitable access to both print and digital textbooks.

Kno K-12 Digital Textbooks. The catalog includes titles from dozens of publishers. Through the “Advance” interactive learning platform, publishers transform print titles into ebooks instantly and at no cost to them or to the author. More than 80 publishers have contributed to a 200,000-plus title library. The titles also offer more than 70 features to make study easier, including automatic flashcard creation, note sharing, and tons of other stuff.

Britannica SmartMath. SmartMath is an online math practice program designed to improve student math skills and test scores in grades 1–8. The site was created to work with and supplement any mathematics curriculum.

Cengage Learning Ebooks. These ebooks and e-chapters are convenient and cost-effective ways to access course materials. Just type in an ISBN, author, title, or subject; go to a product detail page; and save up to 65% when you rent an etextbook.

Science Power from World Book Classroom. Correlated to popular science textbooks, this site includes differentiated content for struggling readers, interactive multimedia, teacher guides, and lesson tests.

Shmoop. These are the new, hip Cliff’s Notes written with an edgy, enticingly lively, and humorous tone. In the world of digital textbooks, don’t forget to Shmoop.

StudyBlue. These guys have more than 2 million students signed on for a reason: They listen to their customers and continue to supply high-quality, leading-edge study tools.

Boundless. Free digital textbooks with built-in study tools, the key word here is free. The company has run into some resistance from traditional textbook publishers who think they’re out-of-bounds borrowing, but its idea is still the best free online content, curated and vetted by experts, and delivered in an elegant experience.

Flat World Knowledge. Flat World has pioneered a licensing model for institutions and university systems to provide students unlimited access to their complete catalog, across multiple devices, for a low annual fee or at no charge—users include more than 750,000 students at 2,500 schools globally. Random House is an investor.

Rafter. Rafter puts affordable course materials within reach of millions of college students and is perhaps best described as being in the education content management business. With a suite of more than a half dozen different product offerings, it covers educational content as an ecosystem and responds accordingly.

Themeefy. A web app that helps users create magazines from online content, here’s an example of where the future of digital textbooks could go.

Symtext. Teachers create a unique interactive learning experience using their own materials as well as text, video, podcasts, pictures, and content from publishers and students.

Shakespeare in Bits. Animation, sound, and translation tools teach Shakespeare like never before. How’s that for a digital textbook?

School Yourself. Interactive, personalized, and affordable digital textbooks for high school and college math.

OER Commons. A structured database of links to high quality resources found on other websites, evaluated for quality and authenticity.

myON Reader. Matches student interests and reading level with content, personalizing their learning and predicting future reading growth. More than 3,000 enhanced digital books and growing. See the review at the end of this issue.

Inkling. Interactive books for the iPad, iPhone, and web. Test yourself, share notes, highlight, annotate, watch video, and search text. Get on Inkling’s site and read “The Thinking Behind Inkling” and you’ll know it has put some quality into its offerings.

iBooks Author. An ebook authoring app intended for educators to create their own books.

CourseSmart. Find and buy course materials, redeem purchased course materials, or use course materials. The company offers “eResources” (online, interactive learning experiences), providing 12 months of access, sometimes providing an entire etextbook, often a variety of digital content, and tools such as links, online homework, quizzing, exercises, simulations, and videos.

Connexions. A Content Commons of free, open-licensed educational materials in fields such as music, electrical engineering, and more; associated with Rice University.

CK-12 FlexBooks. A library of free online textbooks, videos, exercises, flashcards, and real-world problems to solve; this clever nonprofit includes books, concepts, interactive, and exercises. A cleanly designed, easily navigable site with lots to discover.

Actively Learn. Lets teachers reach students inside a digital text so they read closely and deeply, building understanding to improve learning.

Eleven Learning. A Cambridge, Mass.-based publisher of open-source, community-powered textbooks and etextbooks for a more relevant, more up-to-date, and less expensive reader experience.

Chegg eTextbook Reader. Built with HTML5 technology, allows students to instantly stream from their favorite devices: PCs, Macs, and iPads. Use browsers Internet Explorer 9, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome to quick search, note-take in the margins, 1-click note review, color-code highlight, visually bookmark, look up words, and access Wikipedia.


Reading still requires a physical object, even if it’s not made with trees. Some schools, such as Cushing Academy in Massachusetts, are buying up devices in bulk (Kindles) in an attempt to phase out their physical collections and implement a new model. More often, schools are taking an experimental approach and employing only a limited number to “see how it goes” (various devices). And then there’s Michigan and the Look! I’m Learning! movement (iPads). In any case, here are a few favorite devices.

Google Nexus 7. All-day battery life, 7" display, 32GB of storage, option to add mobile data. From $199.

Kindle Fire HD. Ultrafast Wi-Fi, stunning display, Dolby audio.

iPad mini. Great screen, powerful A5 chip, FaceTime and iSight cameras, amazing apps, and 10-hour battery life.

Nook HD. One of the lightest and highest resolution 7" tablets; HD display.

Kobo ARC. A smart device as described by Tom Vander Ark in Getting Smart; every time you read, listen, or watch, it learns what you like and delivers more of it.

Sony Reader. Sells ebooks from the Sony eBook Library.

Galaxy Tablet. These guys are giving Apple a serious run for their money. You’ve got to test-drive one of these for yourself.

Contact Victor at

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