Digital Textbooks

Back in January 2010, when the iPad was first announced, I started thinking about what a digital textbook might look like. This was back at a time when I was still very much involved in classroom activities and delivering lessons in front of hundreds of people every week. The paper materials worked as well as ever, but a properly portable device with a decent sized screen that didn't require a keyboard and mouse to be attached all the time could open up a whole new set of opportunities. This was not at all a unique concept and, before the end of the year, several large companies had released early versions of their digital textbook platforms.

Unfortunately, what a lot of organizations did was release what was essentially a PDF viewer with some chrome around the edges to better enable search, allow for annotations to be typed — as pen entry was not going to be decently supported for a couple of years, and a hefty sticker price. Over time this got better. Companies started to offer versions of their materials that looked like websites rather than PDFs, enabling embedded video and interactive homework sessions. When the newer iPad Air devices started to ship the hardware had become powerful enough that some textbook publishers, such as National Geographic, started to include activities that made use of augmented reality so that a learner could better understand the contents. That was just a few years ago, and now textbook developers are really starting to take advantage of the raw processing power that people have available.

Yet despite the plethora of companies that have run with the technology, pushing the tools as far as they can go, a lot of educational institutions continue to be incredibly conservative with their use of digital textbooks. It is almost as if schools want to use the traditional paper books simply to save the time and hassle of students needing to borrow a charger or dealing with cracked screens. These aren't the only reasons schools have yet to make use of digital textbooks to a greater degree, of course. The bigger issue, I feel, comes down to the complexity that is introduced when something that has traditionally been analog gets sandwiched between silicon and glass.

Over the years I've worked on a couple of different textbook solutions in an attempt to find something decent that could be used at the day job. None have worked out very well, but the latest tool I'm working on is beginning to show promise in ways that the other five solutions1 never could. One of the things I've wanted to build for a little while now is an adaptive resource that evolves with the student, becoming simpler or more complex based on an individual person's needs. Core aspects of lessons would continue to exist, of course, otherwise teachers would be overwhelmed with a seemingly infinite number of textbook activity combinations. A resource that can adapt with a learner can make self-study and after-lesson practice lot more interesting.

This idea is also not at all new, as there have been tools that do this and integrate with various LMSes for years to send and receive new custom materials. What is new, is a window of opportunity to introduce the idea within the day job to people who might just welcome the ability to offer something of greater value to our students while making use of the plethora of idle lesson activity resources we've recently collated from around the world.

Another demo may be in the near future.

  1. Only one of these solutions has been used by teachers at the day job. The other four were simply not good enough.