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April 3, 2012

Toward a Vision of the Digital Textbook – from Tom Daccord
Example of Digital TextbookAs I argued in my #beyondthetextbook post, I believe it’s naïve to assume textbooks will disappear from our classrooms anytime soon. A more realistic outcome, in fact, is a transition from the print textbook to the digital textbook. By this, I am not discouraging or discounting the incorporation of Internet resources. Rather I am simply recognizing that the time and skill needed to research and incorporate an array of “open” resources effectively is beyond the inclination and comfort of most teachers. Thus, it makes sense for us to focus now on what a digital textbook could/should be and how we can use it effectively. Most in the #beyondthetextbook Twitter discussion were keenly aware that a digital textbook can be much more than a static collection of text, images and links. Yet many outside of the edtech realm have never seen a digital textbook that looks and acts drastically different than a printed textbook. That’s not entirely surprising, since many “ebooks” continue to be little more than colorful PDF documents. (For those who disdain textbooks, this amounts to little more than “lipstick on a pig.”) The truth is that publishers are actively surpassing the affordances of print with a variety of technologies and innovations, including 3D simulations, embedded videos, audio commentaries, regularly updated and searchable content; music, interactive maps and photos, formative quizzes, reading and writing aids, and the ability to share notes and bookmarks. Some publishers are aiming directly at the iPad and creating engaging elements designed for tactile manipulation with one’s fingers. Loathe textbook publishers or not, they are offering us a more encompassing, robust, flexible and up-to-date textbook we’ve ever seen before: a social and interactive platform, constantly updated and searchable, that encourages inquiry-learning, nurtures differentiation, and builds communities of shared learners. Let me focus for a moment on the social and interactive elements of the digital textbook. The social textbook is already a reality. For example, Inkling digital textbooks provide users with the ability to converse directly on the book. For instance, users can share notes and engage in discussions on textbook pages. Students and teachers can leave notes in the margin, highlight elements on the page, and star selected notes. Inkling effectively takes user notes, highlights, bookmarks, and links and organizes it all into its “notebook” feature. And, Inkling’s note-sharing is not relegated to asynchronous exchanges. It is possible to exchange notes with someone in real time. So, teacher and student can meet “on” the book for after-class mentoring, or students can meet to discuss chapter material. Inkling even provides a ‘Community’ section to find and “follow” other Inkling users. As such, Inkling digital textbooks facilitate student-to-student and teacher- to-student connections and exchanges throughout an entire book. (Not surprisingly, these social “connections” make many school administrators and some teachers uneasy.) As I’ve previously noted, Inkling’s array of interactive elements is impressive. For starters, it features a scrolling interface and elements – such as vocabulary definitions -- that “pop up” on the page when touched. It also includes formative assessment tools such as interactive tests and quizzes and the ability to score one’s results. Furthermore, Inkling images contain hotspots that when touched allow users to progress from, for instance, the broad illustration of a bed of flowers to the minute depiction of a single pedal’s cell structure. Another interesting feature is the ability to go to a specific point in a piece of music as you’re listening to it. There are also audio recordings by “experts” on related chapter topics, and there are plenty of educational videos clustered in each chapter. Yet, I find that the most impressive elements are the 3D images. These can be rotated, zoomed in and out, and otherwise manipulated on an iPad. They provide an opportunity for hands- on, exploratory learning well beyond anything possible in a print textbook, or PDf document. I experimented with several in some of Inkling's science textbooks, exploring processes I’ve never really understood well. The ability to learn and explore via different modalities, including touching and touring 3D elements, and the variety of engaging, interactive features made me wish that I had these learning tools 30+ years ago in my high school biology class! So, if a digital textbook allows for students and teacher to connect and share, and includes an array of engaging presentations, interactive activities, and formative assessments, is it far-fetched to believe that one day a digital textbook could evolve into a powerful social network and  learning management system? Could it not soon include a blogging platform, a grading program, and media editing tools? Could it possibly become a foundational infrastructure for classroom learning and classroom management? And do we embrace or fight this scenario?