When I was a kid, I loved my textbooks. I loved their heft, their musty smell, and the long list of names of previous users in the back. I loved the confident, definitive prose that led into new worlds of thought and experience. When I grew up, I even wrote some textbooks myself.
So it is with mixed emotions that I'm witnessing the demise of the textbook as we know it. Apple recently announced that it will be partnering with major publishers to create online textbooks, and the Obama Administration set the goal of having e-textbooks in the hands of every student by 2017, It's only a matter of time before the textbook goes the way of the slide rule, the typewriter, and the chalkboard.
The end of the paper textbook will lessen the weight in students' backpacks and perhaps reduce schools' costs, but will it be beneficial to students' learning? It's our job to make it so. If electronic textbooks are just like paper ones, there is little reason to expect them to be more effective. But e-texts offer many possibilities for innovation. Electronic texts can be linked to videos, including tutoring or alternative and more in-depth explanations. They can provide study aids, such as outlines, summaries, self-assessments, and embedded definitions. They can connect students in online study groups to jointly prepare each other for assessments. They can continuously assess students' understanding and prescribe either remedial work to fill gaps or offer extensions for students willing and able to go beyond the ordinary. Digital textbooks may be linked to content shown by teachers on interactive whiteboards, tablets, or other electronic devices used in classrooms to supplement teachers' instruction. They may communicate to teachers students' current levels of knowledge and skill so that teachers can adapt their class lessons to meet the needs of their class and identify individual students who need additional assistance.
Using video, games, online study groups, and other means, electronic homework might actually become something students want to do, perhaps even replacing some of the vast wasteland of mindless television and shoot-'em-up video gaming that currently occupy a huge proportion of children's days.
The move toward electronic textbooks will soon require that every student has secure, reliable access to technology at home that connects to school-approved networks. When teachers can count on the idea that every student (and parent) has access to technology, the possibilities for home-school collaboration will be limitless.
Of course, all of these possibilities are just that - possibilities. When electronic textbooks become the norm, it will also be possible to rigorously evaluate each of hundreds of variations in how they are used. Even if electronic textbooks are no better than paper ones at first, e-textbooks can be rapidly and continuously improved in a way that paper textbooks never could. A hundred years ago, cars were not much better than horses, as they were expensive, difficult to maintain, and prone to breakdowns. However, it was easy to see that eventually, the car would prevail. Horses had reached their limit, while cars could be progressively improved.
Electronic textbooks will provide opportunities for researchers and developers to create exciting, astonishingly effective learning opportunities for students. They will also provide opportunities to create "killer apps" that turn out to be ineffective or even harmful. As we cross this digital bridge, the onus is on us to test the numerous applications and know which are beneficial and which are not, not just which are popular.
I, for one, will miss the old-fashioned textbook, but I welcome the great potential of its electronic successor. Now let's make sure that this potential is realized.