The Textbook of the Future?

I came across a story on TechCrunch early this afternoon about Time Inc’s plans for a digital version of Sports Illustrated. What they’re doing here is really cool and it’s worth a look because a big part of my ideas here are based on what I saw in the video.

Clearly I’m not expecting our children to have access to Sports Illustrated magazine while at school! But while many other nations, along with some districts here in Canada and the US, have been experimenting with laptops in schools, in one way I’m glad it hasn’t gone very far here. Why? Because tablets, such as the one seen in the video, are finally far enough along the technology evolution scale that they’re actually useful.

What I mean by that is you no longer need a stylus to interact with the computer. What I’m envisioning, instead of magazines, is an era where all students have laptops with instant access to the textbooks the school district (or other governing body) chooses and the textbooks are always up-to-date — almost like Wikipedia, but not provided by Wikipedia (though they can be a part of the equation).


When I went to school, my fellow students and I constantly found factual and grammatical errors in our textbooks; textbooks that were often written the year we were born (though we were now 10, 13 or 18 years old). History textbooks that incorrectly stated a series of events or attribute discoveries to incorrect people (Christopher Columbus was certainly not the first to “discover” America, the Vikings found North America long before that) or contained incorrect answers to mathematical equations. How about a world where such things can be flagged, submitted to the publisher and revisions can be distributed as soon as a change is made?

I’m also thinking of an era where contextual menus let you share important finds within project groups (highlighting text and sending it around as something the group needs for its final report), or simply sharing interests with the rest of the class. An era where knowledge doesn’t end at the textbook, but where the menu can provide links to Wikipedia entries, search engines, videos on National Geographic or Discovery and the like. An era where a child’s natural curiousity for knowledge can be satiated almost instantly!

One other way this helps students is that such dynamic textbooks could easily bend to accommodate for other learning styles – visual, audible, and tactile.

Maybe your child learns best by seeing someone else perform an experiment. Perhaps they’d like to have both the audio and video running, so that they can follow along themselves but glance at the video (plus rewind and fast forward) to make sure they’re doing things right. Maybe they’d like to have a virtual sandbox on-screen where they can interact with a 2D or 3D representation before doing it in the real world. The possibilities are endless!

One major issue I had when attending school, especially getting into high end math, was that I experienced a lack of support at home. My parents are loving people, and smart, but the day they remember how to solve a quadratic equation — something they probably haven’t seen in over 20 years — is the day I volunteer for a demotion! What can be provided to students is a social networking-type area where they can help each other out after hours. Log on, chat about friends and gossip, whatever kids talk about these days… but let there be a dedicated area where kids can ask for and get help either from  within their school, other schools or possibly even the publisher.

At the end of the day, I don’t care who produces the textbooks – just that they work well and students are able to interact with them in a way that it properly enhances their educational experience. If they can’t do that, then clearly it’s not worth pursuing. The other obvious caveat is how would schools pay for textbooks that are constantly updated? Well I’d like to see a model where schools pay for a subscription to the textbook on a yearly basis and the vendor guarantees that the textbook is up-to-date and that any updates can be pushed as soon as they are verified.

If you would like to see the official demo video, you can watch it below (warning: contains images & video of SI Swimsuit Edition).

UPDATE 01/28/10: Good news! I’ve found two organizations doing exactly what I’m talking about above. Check out Inkling and CK-12.