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The textbook of the future: What will it look like?

Future of the TextbookWhat does the textbook of the future look like? I asked my students to explore this question, and their answers will surprise and, perhaps, inspire today’s textbook authors.

I teach a course called “The Technology of the Book: Past, Present, and Future.” It’s an online course, part of the MA in professional and technical writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. For the final project, we did a little role-playing. As a group, we became Learning Futures, a start-up company whose mission is to re-invent the textbook. Students worked in groups—we had a content team, a user experience team, and a marketing team. Each group was charged with identifying core issues and problems in the current textbook model, and asked to develop and design solutions to those problems. In short, we set out to invent the textbook of the future.

The content team identified three priorities:

  1. Choice and flexibility: students should have the option to use printed, digital, or audiobook formats.
  2. Learning styles and modalities: textbooks should use media and digital technologies to support multiple learning styles and to be accessible for students with learning disabilities.
  3. Modular design: lessons and chapters should be designed in short chunks so that instructors can create and customize their own versions easily.

The user experience team mapped out a concept for a prototype chapter or unit:

  1. Begin with a chapter overview, probably in the form of a video.
  2. The core content: present the key ideas a student needs to understand, for students to preview and review.
  3. A game or exploration to help students practice and assess their learning.
  4. A video demonstration of the process being discussed in the chapter (especially important for skills courses like writing and public speaking).
  5. A longer reading that goes into more depth than the core content section.
  6. An application or role-playing scenario in which the student practices the skills or teaches the concepts to another student.

The marketing team identified three areas for improvement:

  1. Physical improvements: the future textbook needs to be short and portable, with sidebars summarizing key ideas and helping reader navigation.
  2. Social networking: students need to be able to build conversations around the texts, and to add content and ideas of their own.
  3. Tactile improvements: current ebooks are flat and two-dimensional. The text of the future needs to employ more touch-based interactivity.

While one class of grad students is a small sample size for building a model around, I would argue that the students did touch upon some of the key issues in the design and organization of textbooks today. In many ways, the project highlighted some of the topics we in the textbook industry have been wrestling with for some time.

Students want to be able to engage with and use textbook content, not passively read and consume it. All three of the groups came up with multimodal concepts that used a combination of text and media to present concepts. Textbooks that use media and audio in combination with written text are effective for a broader range of learners.

The idea of modularity emerged in all three groups as well. Textbook authors have known for some time that long passages of running text are not effective (students simply don’t read them). The students preferred a model in which short mini-lessons on topics could be arranged in flexible ways by an instructor.

Finally, students advocated a model in which students would participate as contributors and even co-teachers, using social media and other applications to apply and produce material and teach it to other students.

Ultimately, the model that emerged from the students’ work was something more than a “textbook” per se; it might be described as a learning ecosystem, in which author, instructor, and students collaborate in the design of a learning experience.

What can textbook authors today take away from my students’ explorations? I think the biggest lesson is that students want to be able to explore and engage content in their own ways, following multiple learning paths. This would argue for building texts in shorter units, and developing media and other accessible formats to support a wider range of learners. It argues, too, for a hybrid model using both print and digital media to present content and skills from different perspectives.

Does this mean that textbook authors need to become digital media producers? Not necessarily, although I have done just that myself, and I’ve learned that producing video lessons can be done inexpensively and without a major investment of time in developing technical skills. It does mean, I think, that authors may want to consider how concepts presented in text could be presented using visual or audio modes as well.

What my students taught me, above all, is that students today want to participate in the learning process. They want to be creators as well as consumers. Developing texts and digital learning experiences that invite them to create and collaborate may be the best thing we can do to ensure their success and ours, as authors and as teachers.

Michael GreerMichael Greer of Development by Design offers content strategy and development editing for textbooks in writing, composition, and rhetoric. Michael has worked with higher ed authors and publishers for over 20 years, has developed a number of successful textbooks and digital products, and can help authors at any stage of the manuscript development process: conceptualizing and organizing a proposal; revising chapters; adapting print content for online or multimedia environments; revising based on market feedback. Michael has extensive experience with content strategy and design for digital apps and online courses. Development by Design specializes in helping authors design content for students in today’s digital and multimedia culture. 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. TAA members receive 10% off Development by Design services. View his TAA Professional Directory listing.