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September 22 2011

Textbooks should not be consumed in isolation

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months.

Textbook publisher Inkling recently published its 51st textbook for the iPad. Company founder and CEO Matt MacInnis (@stanine) recently sat down with O'Reilly's Joe Wikert to talk about the company and how its goals go way beyond traditional textbook education.

Highlights from the interview include:

  • Textbook design is going to change — "We don't think the products people pay for a few years from now are going to be as distinct as the textbook is today from other print products ... when you think about learning about cellular biology or something medical, or you think about learning how to crochet or cook or travel — a lot of those products are going to start to look much more similar. They're going to be more modular or they're going to be more hierarchical — they're going to be more interactive. Although our focus today is most certainly on the textbook, there's a whole world of opportunity for this kind of technology." [Discussed at the 1:51 mark.]
  • The way textbooks are consumed is going to change — "When you think about the chapter, it is a division of content that's really rooted in the structure of the book ... [We think that as we work with publishers] to build natively digital content, you won't have a chapter. You'll actually have an object or you'll have something that is learning- and outcome-focused that you'll pay for as a modular bit of content." [Discussed at 4:13.]
  • Social features work particularly well with textbooks — "Human beings are wired to learn from one another. The textbook is a fundamentally isolating experience, and sometimes that's good ... but with a textbook it's not such a great thing to be totally isolated from the world around you. It's okay to focus, but you also need to bounce ideas off people and ask questions and have people show you things you don't understand. Our goal is to bring the community of learners around you into the textbook experience so that the content is one of the ways you learn when you're using Inkling." [Discussed at 7:30.]

For more on Inkling check out the full discussion in the following video:

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


  • TOC Preview: The Future of Digital Textbooks
  • The time is now for digital textbooks
  • More TOC Podcasts
  • July 19 2011

    Four short links: 19 July 2011

    1. Tame.js -- async programming library for use with node.js and other V8 projects. (via Hacker News)
    2. The Rise of PDF Malware (Symantec) -- detailed whitepaper showing the incident rate, techniques, and evasion techniques of PDF malware. Despite the fact that the number of PDF CVEs [Common Vulnerability/Exposure] are close to Microsoft Office’s numbers, the amount of nonunique PDF attacks Symantec has seen have increased dramatically, which shows that the PDF file format is being targeted more often within the last two years.
    3. cocos-2d -- iPhone 2d game framework. (via Chuck Toporek)
    4. Nature's Biology Textbooks -- Nature changing the textbook publishing model, trialling in California. 50+ authors write the ebook, filtered through a (hard-working, I'm guessing) editor. This beats Kindle textbook rentals hands down. Another article says of the Nature trial: each school will be testing a different licensing and access model, which I hope for some includes printing out because Princeton's Kindle trial showed (PDF) that ebooks don't measure up to print books for annotation and some other key uses. (via The Daily News)

    September 21 2010

    The time is now for digital textbooks

    Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that says that evolution isn't a straight line. Species remain the same for long periods of time, and then suddenly there's a burst of dramatic change.

    That's how I see digital textbooks. We're poised to see all the years -- if not decades -- of predictions and debate left behind. Change is here. It's driven by technology, by the arrival of ebooks and the digitization of print, and by a consensus among publishers and educators that the time is now.

    Sooner than later, more learning will flow into minds of students from digital than analog source materials.

    This point was made dramatically -- and for me, too sensationally -- by Nicholas Negroponte at a recent Techonomy conference. He proclaimed that the "physical book will be dead in five years."

    Now keep in mind that I'm co-founder of Kno, a start-up digital textbook company that has a very strong point of view about what an educational device needs to be. Nonetheless, pronouncements about the imminent demise of textbooks aren't helpful. It feels like digital gloating. This isn't a matter of sides, it's a matter of what's best for students, for faculty, for the future of America -- and how to eliminate the barriers to digital adoption.

    Barriers to digital adoption

    Barriers to digital adoption exist on three levels, and they will not fall away overnight. But by understanding them, and dealing with them intelligently and collaboratively, we can create an environment where the pursuit of academic goals, a reverence for tradition, and an embrace of technology can exist healthily together.

    The first obstacle is structural. The educational establishment has been built on the scaffolding of printed textbooks. Semesters and courses are structured around them; professors write and review them; publishers are part of the fabric of departments and the administration.

    The second gating factor is emotional. Universities are traditional and slow to change, particularly when such a seminal component of the college experience is at stake. This is not a new complaint. More than 70 years ago, H.G. Wells wrote "We are living in 1937, and our universities, I suggest, are not half-way out of the fifteenth century. We have made hardly any changes in our conception of university organization, education ... for several centuries."

    The third hurdle is political. Textbooks are proxies for surrogate wars over hot-button issues like evolution, gender studies, and competing views of history. They're even fought over subjects seemingly as non-controversial as algebra. Because digital textbooks are fundamentally an open platform -- capable of being continually modified and adjusted -- this new architecture is threatening to all those with vested interests.

    Overcoming the obstacles

    Three events are needed to overcome these barriers:

    1. The development of a device that honors the textbook while incorporating a full digital experience.
    2. An open platform that encourages innovation.
    3. The development of extraordinary applications that will push education to new levels of pedagogical discovery.

    It will also require the full participation of publishers, educators, and administrators in this process.

    As for the political obstacles, these will fall away. Advocacy groups will realize that they can't make textbooks a battleground anymore. The open world of the Internet has changed the game forever. It's no different than brands learning they can no longer control the dialogue: any shopper can go to or and read negative consumer reviews of products being offered for sale. Not long ago, experts said it was impossible for merchants to allow that on their sites.

    So despite the obstacles, I believe we have reached the point of punctuated equilibrium and change will happen. I wake up every morning increasingly excited by the potential for transforming the education system.

    We've spent decades on distracting debates about issues like the role of technology in the classrooms. Meanwhile, we've been failing our young people. As evidence, look to this recent The New York Times article: "The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations."

    Let's encourage the spirit of innovation in higher education that we need to succeed in a global marketplace. Digital textbooks are a critical first step.


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