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Re-engineering the modern textbook: A conceptual shift from content delivery to learning design

Textbooks have historically provided the core content from which teachers develop and deliver learning experiences to their students – a static, paper manuscript delivering conceptual knowledge and exercises to reinforce the material. As mobile technology has provided alternative ways to access and read content in electronic form, most textbooks have been distributed in an e-book format (commonly ePub or PDF) as well, but is this “new” format providing any benefit to student learners?

Arguably the costs of this paperless format are less; search features can improve the speed at which content can be located; and assistive technology, such as screen readers and magnification tools, can improve the accessibility of the information over the print alternative. But, does the technology improve learning?

Michael Greer, textbook author and online instructor for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, challenges us to consider that the question many authors and publishers have been asking, “How do we make books mobile?”, might be the wrong question.

During the 2018 Textbook & Academic Authoring Conference in Santa Fe, NM, Christopher Kenneally, host of the Beyond the Book podcast series from Copyright Clearance Center, moderated a discussion with Greer and Max Riggsbee, Chief Product Officer of Gadget Software, regarding what it means to be a textbook author for a generation of mobile users.

The key element when transitioning to mobile, according to Greer, is a conceptual shift from textbook authoring as a content delivery process where the student is a consumer to a learning design process where the student is a participant. Specifically, said Greer, “We need to re-learn what reading means.”

Reading approach

On a spectrum of publications from literary to technical, said Greer, reading approaches range from full text reading to individual ideas. Academic and scholarly reading in a traditional textbook is centered around the chapter. When writing for a mobile user, however, he argues that we can’t count on the student reading in the sequence defined by the chapter layout.

This is due to both the placement of elements on a mobile screen and the navigational elements that impact how information is accessed. As a result, common transitions, such as “discussed above” or “in the next section” used for connecting ideas may not have the same logical meaning on a mobile device.

To account for the dynamics of the mobile environment, Greer said that each paragraph should be redesigned as its own unit, crafted as “mini-podcasts”, where the idea can stand on its own without the structure of the chapter format. This approach to designing the learning experience for mobile users allows the student to access the information in new ways and to build their own connections between the presented ideas. At the same time, it adds flexibility to how the teachers use the textbook to deliver the course material.

Riggsbee adds that mobile technology also supports multimodal delivery of content with audio and video enhancement capabilities that can actually improve learning, not simply repackage it. To see the full benefits of the technology, however, he said, the entire publishing process must be re-engineered around design thinking that meets the learner’s needs.

Quoting William Gibson, Kenneally encouraged participants to remember that “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” So, the question remains, are you ready to stop being a textbook author and become a learning experience designer?

Want more? Check out Greer’s interview with Kenneally, “A Mobile Direction For Learning“, on CCC’s Beyond the Book podcast series – also recorded at the TAA conference in Santa Fe.

Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.