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: