Textbook authoring in the digital age, Part two

Mary Ellen Lepionka

Mary Ellen Lepionka

There is a whole new language for the teaching and learning enterprise today, and it is not textbook-based. The very word textbook has become vilified, vulgarized—a dirty word associated (rightly and wrongly) with the profit-taking and business practices of commercial higher education textbook publishers. Expository writing on a course subject for digitized delivery is not even called a textbook. Rather, the product is content—in the form of learning objects, modules, and media assets, offered in the form of an online course or a portal or gateway to new (or newly networked) knowledge. The term textbook will become obsolete or will be narrowly defined to refer only to conversions—non-interactive digitizations of textbooks in print.

Textbook authoring in the Digital Age thus requires a different way of looking at yourself, your mission, and the students. Today, as an erstwhile textbook author, you are regarded not as an instructor but as an SME (subject matter expert). SMEs provide authoritative content and sources, organized into templates that reflect principles of instructional design.

Principles of instructional design for online application have rules and conventions quite different in many ways from traditional lesson planning and pedagogy writing. Words, sentences, and paragraphs are adapted for readers who only skim or scan text, for example. Pedagogy becomes graphical and font-based navigational clues, hyperlink jumps, and concept webs. To set out scope and sequence, you write learning objectives keyed to telescoping outlines (rather than to fixed topical parameters). You create storyboards or content maps, gather and annotate instructional aids, and build networks.

As an SME, what you do is not instruction, however, which is regarded as linear and one-way, but rather conversation (nonlinear and two-way). You design conversations with students, who interact with you (and with each other) as often as you do with them. Students are collaborators in their learning (wikitexts are the ultimate expressions of this). Students also are consumers of the information conveyed in these conversations, information in packages and bits that students use to build and archive their own unique knowledge bases. Students will not be “responsible” for your information, only for their own learning, and they will choose what they will learn, based on the perceived personal or professional relevance and usefulness of that information to them at a given time.

Thus, for better and for worse, there is no canon—not any more. Rather than conveying a body of knowledge by writing a textbook, you are facilitating conversations that enable active (and interactive) elective learning. This learning is self- and socially constructed—the ultimate expression of the postmodern constructivist movement in educational philosophy—a movement buttressed by developments in psychometrics and educational psychology.

Your designed conversations with students may still include evidence-based narratives, but you will develop your manuscripts more like scripts—with settings, stage directions, and special effects in addition to players, speeches, and lines. As odd as it may seem compared to conventional textbook writing processes, screenwriting is appropriate for content that will be displayed on a screen. Your content will be displayed on computer monitors, laptops, PDAs, ebook readers, mobile phones, and any other so-called destructive technologies (so-called simply because they necessitate structural change) that the future holds.

If this sounds a bit like theatre—drawing in an audience to affect the way its members think and feel and potentially the way they act—I think this is accurate. Online instruction, like classroom instruction, is performative, a foundation of edutainment. As in theatre, audiences share or cohabit a cloud of both unreality and suspended disbelief. Witnessing, engaging, and participating is a form of play, a gaming process in which nothing is really certain. Things could go any which way, and I believe this, more transparently than in the past, is the true nature of future knowledge. Perhaps the permanent decline of textbook publishing, in addition to making us more prone to error and confusion, will also make us better actors, more honest and open-minded, with better scripts.

In screenwriting, your principal concern is not with students’ acquisition or mastery of a subject but rather with their experience as participants in a kind of theatre as well as their experience as self-directed consumers of information about your subject—much as they experience restaurant dining or marriage. Yes, I know this sounds a lot like marketing speak—inviting “consumers” to “join the conversation” and “share the experience” of learning, as if they were taking a taste test with Pepsi or Coke. Marketing and advertising jargon and habits of mind infiltrate every crevice of our existence. We live by capitalist precepts as subliminally and stubbornly as true believers do who attempt to live by their holy books. And with the power of a religion, those precepts preempt education along with other social institutions, recasting everything as business models.

I have come to understand that the marketing of information along with the permanent decline of textbook publishing is neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad; it’s merely different—not perverse but legitimately reflecting deep historical changes. There is no tragedy here, not yet, not compared to other changes educators have labeled tragic (or not) in retrospect. Meaningful learning and effective teaching will still take place, only by different names and in different forms, and humans will still inherit our evolutionary capacities for motivation, perception, cognition, communication, and so forth.

As Eugene Kim, media consultant, said about Wikipedia’s need for reform in August 2009, “There is a spirit and a culture that is starting to shift. That is a necessary thing. But the question is how do you scale [“scale” is marketing speak for “change”] without losing sight of your essence?” (Click here for article) And that is my point exactly. How do text and academic authors in the Digital Age scale without losing sight of what they truly do?

I think you adapt to the changes, embrace the differences, and flourish through the practice of new ways of creating instructional narrative, context, and flow for online courses and new media. It’s exciting, and that, after all, is where the students are. Educators have always had to find students where they are.

Mary Ellen Lepionka is the founder of Atlantic Path Publishing, author of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook (2008) and Writing and Developing College Textbook Supplements (2005), a consultant and content provider to textbook authors and publishers, and a member of the Text and Academic Authors Association.

Read Textbook authoring in the digital age, Part one