Friday, May 06, 2011

The future of the (text)book

New media start by emulating old media, then evolve. Gutenberg's movable type was first used to print large bibles that, like their hand-copied predecessors, were kept in monasteries. It took about 50 years to evolve the form factor of the smaller "portable" book and still longer to settle on conventions for typography, punctuation, tables of contents, figures, indices, footnotes, and so forth. It took 80 years for early movies, shot with a relatively static camera, perhaps filming a stage play, to evolve into the fast-cutting style introduced by MTV.(Change is not always for the better :-).

The textbook is no different. A couple weeks ago, our class saw a digital book presentation by McGraw Hill. They are developing digital versions of their print books, starting with the best sellers and moving down the list. They supplement those with PowerPoint presentations, test banks, links to video, etc. geared to that textbook.

But, like the Gutenberg Bible, this is only the first step. I do not know where the textbook is headed, but I know we are not yet there. A few rough guesses as to future directions are that ...
  • There will be a place for collections of modular teaching material rather than integrated textbooks for an entire course -- the professor will become a curator or editor, assembling material as opposed to a textbook adopter, selecting a textbook.
  • Communities will form -- students, professors, and authors of learning material will be able to interact with each other, and their roles will blur.
  • We will have different user interfaces. We are beginning to see new options with touch interfaces on tablets, but will see more. For example, we should be able to use voice input with speech recognition for control and annotation.
  • Standards will evolve for formats, user interfaces, social platform interaction, etc., just as we evolved standards for book pagination, format, and punctuation. We are at version .1 today.
I could keep going on like this, but it is general and speculative. Many people are working diligently on the task of reinventing the book -- thinking about it and developing research prototypes and early standards and products. Here are some you might want to check out:


  1. Very interesting take. We just published a paper in the Business Research Yearbook on the future of e-textbooks. Abstract is below. In a nutshell - Book and textbooks need to be treated differently. Also, as you said, its not just making textbooks electronic, but also exploiting the digital capabilities of the new era.


    With the proliferation of digital content, the use of etextbooks has become more popular
    in academia. However, limited research in the use of etextbooks has shown equivocal results
    regarding their impact on student learning. The paper provides a framework for analysis of the
    various etextbooks platforms. The framework outlines three critical dimensions of etextbooks:
    knowledge integration, collaboration and personalization. Drawing from literature review, the
    paper also discusses the different impacts each of these dimensions has on student learning. The
    study also reports observations from a small action research study validating the framework.

    Gupta, S & Gullett-Scaggs, C. (2011) ETextbooks: A Framework to Understanding their Potential, Business Research Yearbook, (pg. 294-300)

  2. Saurabh,

    Can I get a copy of your paper?


  3. PS -- I've been flogging the idea of modular teaching material for a long time, for example:

    Larry Press, Tomorrow's Campus -- Information Processing at Tomorrow's University, Communications of the ACM, Vol 37, No 7, pp 13-17, July, 1994.

    I've got two modular courses online now -- an introduction to programming and IT literacy for the Internet era.