How to reimagine and redesign textbooks to reach and engage students

elearningAre textbooks merging with online courses? Will textbook content increasingly be delivered in the form of digital modules that can be integrated into course learning systems? What does this mean for textbook authors and editors? How should textbook content be designed to work best in online learning environments?

Since 2009, I have been working in dual roles, and I’ve witnessed a transition that has moved faster than anyone anticipated. As a long-time development editor, and now author, in the textbook industry, I have watched a rapid transition from print to digital publishing models. Most of the major commercial textbook publishers have passed the point at which more than half of their sales revenue is coming from digital products. By no means is print dead when it comes to textbooks, but print texts certainly inhabit a changed landscape.

In my second role, I have been teaching fully online university courses in rhetoric and writing since 2009. When I first started, I barely knew my way around Blackboard (our institutionally mandated LMS). I designed courses that were mostly based on a traditional content-delivery model. Each week was a new topic, and each week was a chapter in the textbook. It worked reasonably well, but I was haunted by the idea that my courses were not taking advantage of the possibilities inherent in a web-based learning environment.

A third development contributes to the unstable feeling of transition. Students are increasingly using smartphones and tablets to both access and create educational content. More than half of my students today report that they use their phones as their primary means of accessing our online courses. Blackboard and other large-scale LMS platforms are not well designed for mobile users. Neither are most e-textbooks, which tend to be PDF files based on print texts, which are not responsive and do not scale well for smaller screens.

All of us in educational publishing have watched this transition unfold, with varying degrees of excitement and dread. Print textbook sales have fallen off, while students become more adept at finding free online resources—which often provide a better mobile experience than the major commercial products. Is there a way to rethink what a textbook is and does in order to make it fit more effectively into this changed landscape?

My view is that there is a tremendous opportunity in the midst of this transition, to reimagine and redesign textbooks to reach and engage the students that are coming into our courses (online, hybrid, and face to face) with new expectations and ways of learning. But where do we even start?

My first argument is that it is very important not to be driven or defined by a particular technology or platform. Many online instructors are quick to embrace new technologies, then look for ways to use them pedagogically. Platforms, tools, and applications are here today, gone tomorrow. Instead of being driven by technology, authors and educators need to be guided by what we know about learning and students.

Instructional design and learning science thus need to be our first stop on the road to a redesigned textbook. I found it immensely useful to partner with an instructional designer on my campus (check with your instructional technology office to see if you have similar resources), and he helped me to redesign one of my online courses over a summer break. The result was a course that was much more modular, easy for students to navigate, and driven by defined, assessable learning outcomes. In that course, I began creating some of my own “learning modules” (usually a short piece of text accompanied by a video tutorial that I designed and recorded using standard screencasting software), and those eventually grew into a textbook that I am in the process of writing now.

User experience design is a second source of valuable insights into the design of online learning experiences. UX design, and its cousin content strategy, have to some extent remained outside the world of academia, more focused on corporate websites and mobile apps. But I firmly believe that educators and textbook authors can benefit from the UX approach, especially its insistence on user testing and feedback. (How many online instructors have ever done any user testing at all on their online courses?)

A rapidly growing body of academic research into online learning is a third source of insight. We are beginning to accrue evidence and working knowledge about what does and does not work for students and learners in online settings. One lesson is already clear: students learn best when they participate in a learning community, as active learners and creators of content—as opposed to passive recipients of knowledge. Most students, and most learners in general, do not learn best by reading a textbook. They need to put the knowledge to work, applying, experimenting, playing, and working with the materials themselves.

Textbook authors have known this about students for many years, and many print textbooks are treasure-troves of exercises, activities, projects, and assignments that guide students to an active engagement with the material. Now we have a new opportunity and a new platform for bringing these pages to life in an online learning environment. So my answer to the opening question is yes, textbooks and online courses are merging. We may begin to design them in tandem, as part of a multimedia learning ecosystem that includes a mixture of text, visual, audio, and interactive content. In order to do so, we might begin by thinking not in terms of medium or platform (book, website, mobile app), but in terms of the student learning experience. By putting students first, and at the center, of our new design approach, we can make best use of the rapidly expanding technologies at our disposal for creating and delivering learning experiences.


Michael GreerMichael Greer is an educator and editor who has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He has conducted a number of usability studies on college textbooks, published on textbook design and usability, and studied the ways in which students read and use textbooks. He worked as a development editor at Pearson for 15 years before starting his own company, Development by Design. Michael teaches online courses in editing and publishing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is editor for the journal Research in Online Literacy Education. Michael is a frequent contributor to the Beyond the Book podcast series, where you can hear more of his thoughts on students, learning, and the design of educational materials.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.