Textbooks of the Future

That students will eventually use computers in place of traditional textbooks is almost certain. Just watch the eight-year-old children at your local elementary school pulling their backpacks (now on wheels). This makes no sense.

This year, my son, a high school sophomore, was able to choose between bringing home a traditional, 400 page, five-pound, paperbound book, and a one-half ounce optical CD-ROM. I was excited to hear of this, and equally disappointed when I finally had a chance to examine his choice, the CD-ROM. On his 17-inch monitor, I saw only minor differences between the digital and print versions. The content was three years old, just like the print version, and featured the same pictures with the same color.

There were, however, two significant advantages. First, and important to most teenagers, is the fact that the information glows. It is electronic. Pages are turned with a digital button, expanded, shrunk, and even thumbnailed. This book competes more effectively with the video games that occupy my son's time, and he can send an instant message to his friends while using his textbook without changing his angle of focus. Face it! This is how our children study and my son does it fairly well.

The second advantage is the fact that the entire textbook can be digitally searched. This has thrilled my son, since he can answer the questions at the end of each chapter much more quickly. He has also been intrigued by the fact that he can identify key terms, search the textbook, and examine the changes in meaning across the chapters. His vote? Go digital!

Will the digital textbook become more than a CD-ROM of the print version? I believe that it will, and there is much that we can assume about its look and function. First, like most other education technologies, it will be an adaptation of business or entertainment technology. More than anything else, it will probably resemble today's Tablet PC. It will be carried into the classroom under our arms or in small book bags.

There are other physical aspects that we might explore about what digital textbooks will look like, but the more interesting question is "How might the concept of the textbook change, if it becomes digital?" This question assumes that the textbook is still an evolving tool — one that has changed from papyrus scrolls to illuminated texts of monastic libraries to mass-produced, richly appointed books — the textbook will experience continued evolution in form and nature, as the nature of information changes. This is an interesting issue, as it exposes a wide variety of new possibilities in learning experiences for our students.

To examine these possibilities, I've targeted three qualities of networked digital information that are uniquely compelling for teaching and learning.

1. Digital Information Is Rich and Interactive

The first benefit of digital content comes from the language that expresses it-binary code. The universal language of the 21st century, binary code communicates not only text, but images, animation, sound, and video. Because each of these mediums can be communicated with one language, they can be combined and mixed in ways that were never possible before. Digital textbooks can use sound to teach, projecting animal sounds, musical instruments, and celebrated speeches. They can use animation to effectively express complex concepts such as the water cycle, government processes, and chemical reactions. And video can illustrate road machinery, a bustling Middle Eastern market, or a robot rover on the surface of another planet. Digital textbooks could be adapted to present information to a student's stronger modes of learning — audio delivery for the auditory learners, translating text for ESL students, and presenting more pictures, graphs, and video for visual learners.

The fact that digital information can be processed in logical and mathematical ways enables a high level of interactivity. Video and animation can be controlled by the reader in much the same way that we pause, rewind, and fast-forward our VCRs. In addition, virtual reality applications, such as QuickTime VR and virtual walk-throughs, enable the reader to explore physical regions and complex concepts by moving within 3-D worlds.

The height of interactivity in most traditional textbooks is the question section at the end of each chapter. Students read and reread the text and answer the questions on a piece of paper. With digital textbooks, students can not only copy and paste, but they can use their computers to analyze tabular data, or enhance images or other media in order to invent answers to the questions — an appropriate activity when preparing for a rapidly changing world where answers are constantly changing.

2. Digital Information Is Interconnected

The second unique quality of networked digital information is the fact that the information can be connected in a variety of ways. In most contemporary textbooks, an index at the end of the book enables the student to cross-reference words or terms by searching alphabetically. In the digital textbook, the index becomes an integral part of the publication where words and concepts are hyperlinked to other related pages or external documents. The book becomes an information environment to be explored rather than a road to be walked. In addition, the connected digital textbook becomes a dynamic document. As information changes and new content is generated, the textbook is constantly updated right before our eyes.

But what if we could connect our textbooks to each other? The discussion questions at the end of the chapter might become real discussions. Students could use their textbooks as a place for collaboration where they share their insights and reactions with each other, building on their knowledge, and archiving their ideas as potential content, literally growing their textbooks. These discussions might take place between different sections of the same course or between different continents.

Students might think differently about the authorship of an article or section of their textbook if, on a certain day and time, the textbook becomes a place where students can interact with the author via chat, e-mail, or even videoconference.

The textbook would then become something quite different.

3. Digital Information Can Be Expressed Compellingly

Networked digital information can be published almost as easily as it can be read. A model for leveraging this quality is already taking place where teachers are supplementing and managing their distance learning and face-to-face courses with Web publishing systems. Initially, they posted their syllabus and perhaps a discussion board on their site. However, teachers are increasingly seeking out and including selected digital writings and other media (images, audio, and video clips) and embedding discussion forums and peer-review features. I suspect that in some cases teachers are dropping their traditional textbooks and exclusively using their online course materials.

But let's take this idea one final step. If teachers are beginning to construct the online digital textbook for their students, might there be some value in asking students to assemble their own textbooks? Is there some relevance in the 21st century to make students producers of their learning resources rather than mere consumers?

This is a huge leap, but think for a minute about learning environments where one of the jobs of the student is to research, select, collect, organize, and adapt content from various resources and assemble that information into a growing and evolving digital textbook, supervised both directly and digitally by the teacher. The student's textbook would be crafted for his or her learning style, special interests, and personal sense of visual preference. Teachers would monitor their students' textbooks by suggesting additional resources, questioning others, and supporting the ongoing assembly.

As students continue their education they would never leave a textbook behind, but continue to build and adapt their content for current and future needs. At the end of their formal education, students have a personal digital library that they can use in adult life, continuing to adapt it for new circumstances and challenges.

A Final Question

Where does all of this leave the textbook industry? In the same place as the rest of us, redefining what we do and how we do it — retooling for a new century.

David Warlick is a keynote speaker, writer, Web developer, and musician living in Raleigh, N.C.