Five Technologies / Movements that Will Turn Textbooks into Antiques

Open Source Textbook Initiatives – Historically, textbooks have been the single largest line item on many school budgets when it comes to curriculum. We now see initiatives like Curriki and the California Open Source Textbook Initiative that might challenge this. Imagine a day when that line item is cut or reallocated toward people (curriculum specialists, instructional designers, etc.) and support technologies. With Open Source Textbook Initiatives as well as WikiTexts, we get a text that is continually being updated (not having to pay for a new version / edition every few years?); that can be easily customized to meet the needs of a given course, school, district; that can be used as a whole or in part; and that can be easily distributed in a variety of formats. Oh, and it many cases this option might be free or, if one needs a paper version, the cost of printing.

Electronic Reading Devices – The Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, Netbooks, and a variety of emerging devices make it possible to deliver content, even entire textbooks and course readers electronically. These technologies are bridging the paper and electronic world of text and other media. While the book is an amazing technology, it has limitations that can be overcome by these new devices. With an iPhone or similar reader, I can be on a hike in the local forest and have immediate access to all of my texts; not to mention the ability to make use of the GPS capabilities, communication tools, and the ability to record or discuss my experiences (record notes, take and share pictures, watch video tutorials on how to identify poison ivy, email someone, talk to someone live or asynchronously, mark my current location on a map). Rather than walking through the woods with a backpack full of books (not that anyone would do this), I have my textbooks in my pocket (backpack optional, bug spray required…at least here in Wisconsin).

Online Social Networks and Mashup Technologies – I already mentioned wikis, but this deserves a separate category. In the first item, I was thinking more in terms of systematic organized projects. However, online communities and social networks make is easier for educators and course designers to learn about a variety of individual sources, organize them into themes/topics/units/chapters, link to them or embed them in a central course resource location, and bypass the use of a textbook altogether. If I am teaching Geography, I can use Google Earth and Google Maps, embed links to relevant sources right into my course blog/wiki/iGoogle page, create or borrow YouTube videos for mini-lectures, have students contribute their own resources… You get the idea. Before long, I have a customized, powerful, content-rich, multimedia textbook for my class. It really isn’t even a textbook is it? It is a multimediabook. Why would I even consider using a traditional textbook if I have the time and resources to do something like this? Maybe I just answered my own question. How many educators are willing to set aside the time and resources to do this? This does require creativity, the ability to analyze and synthesize information, and good instructional design sense. Take a look at the National Educational Technology Standards for Students and Teachers. These are the very skills that we are expecting of the current and upcoming generations of students, teachers, and administrators in the k-12 world. And they certainly seem to be abilities that we should expect from University professors who carry titles before and after their names that are supposedly connected to mastery or expertise in one or more disciplines.

Custom Texts / Readers – These have been around for years, especially in higher education. A professor creates a collection of articles, book chapters, and essays; and it is sold as an inexpensive text at the University or nearby bookstore. Now let’s add the digital element. Imagine a bookstore that will take a box of articles, books, essays, disks, files on flash drives, images, audio files, and video clips. They will take care of getting all of the necessary copyright permissions, then, based upon the instructions of the teacher or design team, they build an indexed electronic text that could be purchased online and made immediately available to students. If something changes mid-year, even mid-semester, the text can be updated with the new resources with minimal effort or cost. If a student has a learning disability, the content can be easily converted to a form that works best for that student. The instructor could even gain permission from students and include examples of exceptional student work in the next version of the reader. I may be stretching the boundaries of reality a bit, but imagine this. Imagine that people put their readers on the web for others to purchase…a ready-made option for the lazy (or busy) instructor. And those student examples that were included? What if the students received a small source of revenue out of the deal? Now that would be a brand new motivation for students to perform well on an assignment.

Hybrid Organic Textbooks (HOT) – We already have a decade of textbook companies building electronic versions of their books, rich with web-based resources, multimedia resources, pools of quiz questions, even full learning activities. In fact, some of these web-enhanced textbooks have become so full-featured that the textbook and web-based resources become the entire course (something that I lament…the last thing that we need is to further confuse the words “textbook” and “curriculum”. I’ll save that for another post). However, there is potential here. Imagine if textbook companies embraced the best of grass roots social media while also providing a core paper / electronic hybrid resource. This might include a paper-based text that could also be used on a mobile reader or device. At the same time, the publisher would have a web presence, adding new and quality resources to the text. Add to that a dynamic community and repository of client-produced lessons, resources, images, videos, discussions, keypal programs, scheduled guest presentations, and collaborative activities. Now we get true convergence of paper-based textbooks, web-based supplements, open source texts and wikis, electronic readers, and grassroots social networking. If publishers or a small group of motivated educators can catch this full vision, then everyone will get a chance to experience a powerful and positive disruption in k-12 education. Do I have any venture capitalists readings this post?