The Fuss About Digital Textbooks

Last week, two major events stirred up the digital learning field.

On Thursday, Apple held their Education Event during which they launched iBooks 2 and the corresponding iBooks Author tool. While much hay has been made on Apple’s proprietary expansion of the relatively new EPUB 3 standard, others have pointed out that Apple really isn’t raising the bar when it comes to digital learning.

To that end, researchers gathered on Wednesday at the Cyberlearning Research Summit in Washington, DC to discuss the latest developments in the field. The overall trend of the summit seemed to focus on how digital educational applications are moving to mobile platforms, and particularly iPads. As one example, Vinay Chaudhri and Debbie Frazier presented a novel approach to making eTextbooks more interactive by building in an ontology engine. This has the potential to help students make and synthesize their own connections between concepts. It’s clear this is still an area ripe for research and innovation.

Personally, I think the greatest opportunity (and challenge) for advancing digital education is figuring out how to provide interactive experiences for students that allow them to explore and comprehend individual concepts. As Chad Dorsey points out, this is what is most intriguing about iBooks 2 announcement, that is, it’s support for HTML5/JavaScript based widgets, and to a lesser extent, the easy creation of widgets via Keynote as well.

Indeed, this is where much of our development emphasis at Rutgers is focused. With new visualization libraries like d3.js and the continuing rise in web services for accessing data, the barriers for creating novel tools to explore and engage in scientific datasets are increasingly being reduced.

To me, this will be education’s “deus ex machina” in the digital age. Textbooks, or their more modern corollaries, web portals and e-books, are still needed to house large collections of knowledge. But true learning opportunities will come through the smaller interactives students play with. Several other speakers at the Cyberlearning summit alluded to this fact, including Melanie Cooper and Mike Klymkowsky’s BeSocratic software, and Cliff Konold’s observations on how people understand Data visualizations.

I think digital textbook are solving a different problem: distribution. They’re trying to get as much content to as many students as possible, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle.

But ultimately, student learning is about content and the educational environment. For students to succeed they need to

  • learn how to ask good questions,
  • outline mental models of their understanding,
  • conduct experiments,
  • develop techniques to analyze the results of their investigations, and
  • adapt their mental models and understanding with the evidence they uncover.

To do this they need good mentoring from teachers and well developed lessons, lessons that help them investigate relevant and interesting problems.

The textbook, digital or not, is only one part of an educator’s toolbox.

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