Reformatting Textbooks

Over the last couple of months there has been a concerted effort to adapt a number of "textbooks" from big-name publishers to work with the digital materials demo software that was created a couple of months back. Books from Pearson and National Geographic are excellent resources for students and these can occasionally be obtained in PDF format with the accompanying materials being stored as mp3 for audio and mp4 for video. PDF as a textbook format is fine if someone wishes to print out pages as required, but is generally a poor substitute for a physical book. This is for a number of reasons1 but is easily overcome with a little imagination. Mimosa, my fourth attempt at a digital textbook system, is full of imaginative solutions to problems that essentially boil down to overcoming the design decisions made by publishers. It's been very well received by colleagues across the country and sees a pretty good performance:cost ratio2. However, it's become necessary to take the tool to the next level.

Thanks to 9 years of working inside a classroom, I have a pretty good understanding of what my colleagues need — software wise — to deliver quality lessons. Students, on the other hand, have been more difficult to research. At the day job, everyone has company-issued hardware, which makes writing software quite a bit easier. The constraints are known and taken into account right from the very start of a project, which then results in mostly-functional code. With students, people could be trying to use your software on a Symbian-powered Nokia N953 and complaining when things don't appear as they should. More than this, there is no institutional pattern that can be imposed on a student to say "This is how software at this company generally works. Learn the pattern, and you're golden." Tech-savvy individuals would spot this right away and adapt, but most people do not work this way. What this means is that when something is being built for students — or customers in general — it needs to be approached from a very different angle than one would use for internal tools; an angle that I've just about hammered out.

In an effort to see what is possible with the almost 100 digital textbooks that have been reformatted for use in Mimosa, some time will be invested to build something that might one day be used by students in a classroom setting. This is building on a lot of lessons learned since the first digital textbook system I designed in 20104. The hardest work is complete, which was working out a data format that made sense, was portable, and could be used by various roles in the learning cycle. Now it's just a matter of implementing a simpler presentation of the textbook material that works on screens as small as a 4" phone all the way up to a 4K display.

Some of the more complicated bits that I look forward to trying out include:

  • shared progression, where the teacher can have a student's textbook open to a specific resource
  • blackout mode, where the teacher can blank out portions of a student's page, such as an audio script during a listening exercise
  • smarter resource linking, so that people are not jumping around a textbook to find things as this is a glorious waste of time
  • shared notepads
  • better control of audio resources
  • and a couple other bits

None of this is unique and none of this is revolutionary. What I hope to do, however, is build a very lean solution that can be demoed to show the potential of such a system. So long as the proper features are polished enough to present, this could lead to a unified textbook system that can be effectively used for students learning inside a classroom or online.

The hard part will be making it intuitive enough for people to understand at a glance. Fortunately these sorts of challenges make projects worth doing.

  1. Bring a 300+ page PDF to class on a tablet, open it up, find page 155 in the textbook — which is not always the 155th page of the document — and get ready to take notes or listen to an audio file. Go ahead. We'll wait. Now scroll to the audio script at the back of the book to check understanding. Now go back to the page you were previously on. What was it again? 165? No … wait ….

    Yes, there are semi-decent applications out there that can work with PDFs for this very reason, but a lot of people are either unaware or simply incapable of using the software. Generally, any PDF that is longer than 5 pages is better off printed.

  2. Less than $8 USD per month to serve textbooks to 1,800 teachers across 50+ schools. The system was installed on a dusty old server that was heading to the recycler. Why toss perfectly functional equipment?

  3. This is a slight exaggeration, of course.

  4. Designed in 2010, released in 2012. It was … rough. That said, a number of very important UI interaction lessons were learned from that failed tool.