Some Thoughts on Digital Textbooks

McGraw-Hill made news by launching the first ever digital-only, cloud-based K-12 math and science textbooks. That distinction should be made, since most interesting digital textbook offerings thus far have come at the higher education level — which makes sense, after all — and/or are supplemental to their print-based counterparts. So could this digital-only approach be a sign of things to come in the world of textbooks?

You can find out more details at the CINCH Learning website.

Upon closer perusal, this actually strikes me as more of a learning management system, than just a digital textbook — and this in itself is an interesting question: will the distinction between digital textbook content become less clear as more online functionality becomes part of the evolving textbook technology? In the meantime, the hardware question is still one of, if not the biggest, question about digital questions in the classroom.

There was much ado about schools quickly moving to adopt the iPad into their classrooms when it was first released (those lucky kids). Perhaps even more surprising that iPads were finding their way into preschools and kindergarten classrooms as well (Chicago Tribune: “Finger paints, picture books and iPads — the newest classroom tools for some preschools, kindergartens”). And for a measured perspective, which brings up the very good and practical arguments about price and available educational content for the iPad, see also — Gizmodo: “Why iPads Aren’t Ready for Classrooms … Yet.”

On that topic, The New York Times (“Digital Textbooks Slow to Catch On”) earlier just this month noted digital textbooks still have much room for growth before they really become mainstream. According to one study: “e-textbooks made up only 2.8 percent of total U.S. textbook sales in 2010.” The article’s worth a read to see some of the things online textbook companies such as CourseSmart, Inkling, Kno, and Flat World Knowledge are up to. Tablets open up new legitimate possibilites for the learning experience — how those possibilities are played out is anyone’s guess, really. For me, and speaking from the educator’s perspective, thinking about how students use their textbooks now (not necessarily what else they could be doing with digital textbooks) is still the primary objective. That means the note-taking and highlighting types of things which students do to interact with the text in a book; and then, the value-added rich media content that further enhances the textbook experience becomes even more compelling. Flat PDFs of printed textbooks are still kinda/sorta useful as supplements, but those are inevitably going to be today’s version of that not-terribly-useful CD-ROM that was packaged with old textbooks, if they’re not there already: “In this industry, print has been the premium experience. In our model, it’s the degraded experience, and this means we’ll have an easier time translating into the tablet market.” (In fact, this gives me an idea for a future post on the different kinds of learning styles that word vs. image-based content might impact. Hmm).

So, the shape of things to come with digital textbooks depends somewhat on your worldview. If you’re a the-glass-is-half-empty kind of person, digital textbooks have a lot of catching up to do. If you’re a the-glass-is-half-full kind of person, there’s going to be a lot of interesting developments and experimentation ongoing — anything that enhances the learning experience is going to be worth keeping an eye on.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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