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The 21st-century Textbook

The following was originally posted on O'Reilly Radar on October 27th

With new technologies constantly coming on-line, and with states like California, Texas, and Oregon allowing digital curriculum to replace printed curriculum, the question arises: what will textbooks look like in the coming years?

In a recent post on O’Reilly Radar, Dale Dougherty’s post, "A hunger for good learning," featured a fantastic video about teaching math. In a few brief minutes, Dan Meyer showed us a photo of a math problem involving filling a tank of water and calculating how long that would take, then showed us why traditional approaches to teaching this problem stifled student learning. The picture showed a traditional math problem with a line drawing of the tank, a problem set-up written in text (octagonal tank, straight sides, 27oz per second, etc.) followed by short sub-steps that are needed to solve the problem (calculate the surface area of the base, calculate the volume). Then, finally, it asks the question “how long will it take to fill the tank?” Dan’s view is that this spoon-feeding of problem solving in little steps trains students not to think like mathematicians and not to have the patience for solving complex problems. Instead, Dan prefers to show his students a video of the tank filling up, agonizingly slowly, until the students are eager to know “How long until that tank fills up, anyway?” And then they’re off – discussing, questioning, and, most importantly, formulating the problem on their own, just as good mathematicians do.

It seems that what the textbook looks like in the 21st century is a lot more like Dan's presentation than the bound paper tomes we grew up with. If the 21st century textbook is delivered digitally to students, we can expect it to be far more than a .pdf representation of a traditional text. For example, let's say the textbook publisher chose to experiment with findings from the research community that kids learn better from authentic and difficult problems than they do from bite-sized steps laid out one after the other. The publisher does what Dan Meyer did, recreates the tank problem and updates a version of the textbook for a handful of beta testers. The next morning, Dan’s students walk into class and open the book to chapter 5. The old problem is gone, instead there is just a video of a tank and instructions that say “watch me fill up – when you know how long it takes, please enter the answer.” Sure, a student might choose to watch the video for seven-plus hours and finally write down the time it took. But when boredom sets in, a more engaging option is to just play with the problem. By staying up to date with new information and practices, this textbook is living.

In this example, the student finds all the needed tools lying around the page. A ruler for measuring the size of the tank, a cup of known size and a stopwatch to measure the rate of water flow, as well as various other tools, leaving it to the student to decide which ones are relevant to solving the problem. This textbook is interactive.

On the opposite page of the book is a chat window where students can share hypotheses, discuss approaches, share results from using the tools (I get 18.4 inches for the height, but you got 18.7). This textbook is participative.

Of course, for the kid who already understands this deeply and finishes quickly, there are better challenges waiting. Similar problems with trickier shapes to the tank, problems where there is more than one pipe filling the tank up, problems where the rate of the water varies. This textbook provides each student with the right level of challenge at any given time – it is adaptive.

If some of these problems require new tools and concepts, the student has the ability to research on the Internet, connect with tutors in higher grades, chat with other students across the world who happen to be wrestling with this same problem right now, or find and watch a YouTube-sized lecture on a relevant topic. This textbook is connected.

In addition to living, interactive, participative, adaptive, and connected, we can expect the 21st century textbook to be personalized and mashable. Beyond that, though, could the 21st century textbook hold out a unique promise – that the student who uses this kind of textbook no longer needs to wait for high-stakes, anxiety-inducing tests to determine whether he had learned a topic? What if the digital textbook were instrumented to collect and interpret data in such a way that it could tell a student's level of mastery without test-taking, just from how he engaged with the content? Some of these measurements and interpretations are easy to imagine, such as: 'Which digital tool did the student first pick up to make measurements in the tank-filling problem', and 'What keywords did he search for on the internet?' Other kinds of data will be harder to interpret, such as: 'What solutions did he try on his scratch pad', 'What questions did he ask his peers', and 'Which of his peers' questions did he answer?' But to any degree, what would it mean for a textbook to understand a student's level of mastery in real-time from his work in this digital medium? With what information could a teacher know exactly what next challenge would be optimal for each student’s learning on a daily basis?

What if the textbook publishers could see, in aggregate, how effective their content is, learn from that, adapt their textbooks, and redistribute new and improved content in months, weeks, or days rather than the current seven-year adoption cycles – much in the way that Google measures our interactions with their applications and improve them based on the results. Depending on how well the beta testers in Dan's classroom learned to solve algebra problems, the textbook modifications might become standard for all algebra students. What if the instrumented 21st century textbook were able to measure both a student's learning and its own effectiveness, and that capability moved education innovation itself to Internet time?

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