Building content dexterity into your textbook

all you need is lessRecently my mentor, Paul Martinelli, was talking about creating and delivering content for various audiences and in a variety of ways. As part of his lesson, he said, “Content dexterity is key. You need to be able to speak on your subject for 3 seconds, 3 minutes, 3 hours, or 3 days”. Having taught many 3-hour class sessions in more than 20 years of teaching experience, that time period certainly is comfortable for me, but what about the others?

As textbook authors, we often write the book around the expectation of class sessions. We envision the classroom audience, the common structure of classroom time where our book will be used, and the depth and breadth of coverage of concepts necessary to meet the curriculum standards of the course. We then have a tendency to structure chapters and units around those constraints.

But I question whether that approach is effective in our current educational environment. Below I offer some ways that you might want to consider building content dexterity into your next textbook.

The 3-hour approach

For sake of comfort, I’ll start with the higher-education standard of a 3-hour per week instructional setting. Whether broken across multiple days or in a single block of time, the majority of college-level curriculum courses devote three hours per week to classroom instruction. Building textbook chapters or topic areas around this delivery time is still relevant and many books are structured in a way to easily break a chapter into three or four class sessions with clear goalposts or checkpoints included in the manuscript. Given the ongoing educational practices that maintain this traditional course format, I am not suggesting that we abandon the time-tested approach to learning, but rather that we acknowledge other ways to deliver content in different settings.

The 3-minute approach

Online learning, in particular, has driven the need to be more modular in our content delivery. The widespread shift to virtual instruction during this year’s pandemic – whether temporary or long-term – has required many students to become more self-reliant in digesting and applying the course material. It has also had an affect on time available for distraction-free learning and even where live lessons are being delivered virtually, they rarely are three hours long.

Those most comfortable with consuming information online are accustomed to doing so in three to five-minute chunks, not hour long video presentations, let alone three hours! To aid those students learning our textbook material, our content needs to be easily chunked into much smaller modules that meet this time constraint.

For some authors, especially those who have developed their books with a focus on mobile learning, e-book formats, or integration into various learning management systems, the structure of their content may already be modularized in ways that support this level of content dexterity. For others, it may take a fresh approach to your book’s structure to accommodate this form of learning.

The 3-second approach

For authors focused on the traditional 3-hour approach to learning and writing, this may seem extreme, but it is relevant. Obviously we can’t break our 48-hour courses into a set of 3-second segments with any realistic efficiency of design or delivery, but we can explore ways to incorporate the 3-second approach of content dexterity into our design.

Here’s how.

Rethink your introductions to the content. Instead of simply introducing the entire chapter with an overview and objectives, consider the specific purpose of your 3 to 5-minute subsections of a unit. Can you identify in a sentence or two (or even with the heading given to the section) the purpose and objective associated with that content? If so, both instructors and students can zero in very quickly on the content relevant to their current needs.

Putting it together

We can always combine subsections – even the 3-hour chapters – into larger timeframes to meet the 3-day or semester-long needs of our classes, so the focus of content dexterity is supporting the smaller expression of concept. Thinking and delivering in sound bites that efficiently and effectively help students understand what is being taught and why they need to delve further into the bigger concepts held in the section or chapter as a whole is key.

When written to fit the 3-second and 3-minute approaches, our textbook as a whole becomes more relevant to both students and teachers for use in any type of classroom environment.

Do you have experience writing with this type of content dexterity? Share in the comments below.


Eric Schmieder

Eric 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.