Let’s breathe interactive life into the common textbook

By Smita Bakshi , written on April 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Students learn in a variety of ways -- they listen, read, create, speak, share, engage, ask, get assessed, receive feedback, get mentored, and eventually maybe become a mentor themselves. Some need to read less and listen more, others need to “do” first then read. Some need to ask, others need to share, others need to drill. The permutations are endless.

But by and large, students aren’t provided with the tools to customize their learning to their needs: Lectures are one-sided with no interactivity, as are courseware and other materials. Feedback from quizzes and exams can take weeks. And, if a student is stuck on a problem at 11pm? Good luck finding help unless he can find the answer on Google.

Luckily many bright minds are questioning the status quo, and we’re beginning to see new technology, tools, and services emerge. Take massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for example, which allow thousands of people worldwide to access courses led by professors from leading universities. They use technology, peer grading, and online discussion forums to support ratios such as 60,000 participants to one instructor and a sprinkling of teaching assistants.

However, other aspects of learning -- especially textbooks -- remain fundamentally unchanged. Books, designed for a paper-based medium, are static, bloated, expensive, and increasingly irrelevant in a Web-enabled world, where students consume information using different media and devices. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons MOOCs have high dropout rates – you cannot combine new ways of teaching with old style learning material and expect transformative changes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Courses of any type – traditional campus-based, blended, online, or massively online – can be overlaid on to the modern “textbook.” I use the term textbook loosely, referring to content, tools, and services that have been built specifically for the Web and, when woven together, form a customizable, integrated learning environment. Concepts could be explained using animations, interactive tools, games, and topic-specific simulators, enabling students to truly engage and to “learn by doing." This level of interactivity would be particularly well suited to science, engineering, and math, but also could apply to analytical and qualitative topics within other disciplines like economics, medicine, business, and psychology.

Students could assess themselves with frequent embedded questions and receive immediate feedback. The material could also be adaptive to the student’s learning ability and style – smart algorithms working on large banks of configurable examples, animations and problem sets could personalize learning pathways for individual students. Homeworks and quizzes could be provided within context and could be graded automatically using discipline-specific tools and proctoring technology. Help could be available when a student needs it, either from peers, online tutors, or sophisticated technology that could pinpoint the precise point the student doesn’t grok something.

The modern, integrative textbook could also be modular, malleable, and customizable, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. Instructors could select specific examples and problem sets, teach material in any order, interleave it with pre-lecture videos and adapt it for any length of class. The modern textbook never has to get stale; it can be continually updated, refined, and re-released. And perhaps best of all, the modern textbook could be a gateway to collect data on usage and learning. All student and instructor activity could be logged and analyzed to address an instructor’s questions on performance, outcomes and efficacy, as well as to provide metrics to the modern textbook authoring teams on what’s working and what needs to be addressed in a future revision. As the field of big data analytics advances, so too would be the relevance of the feedback and metrics.

So what would a modern textbook look like to a student? Let’s look at some of the interactive elements. An animation plays out a concept step by step that in a textbook would be explained as a series of figures with steps, or with statements that begin with the words “Let’s imagine” or with paragraphs that contain “First ... Next … Next … Finally.” Few learners can actually visualize in that manner on their own, but nearly all learners could watch the animation play out the concept step by step. So, these integrative texts would replace hard to follow paragraphs with an animation that could be played, paused, and replayed.

Here’s an example of an animation that illustrates two different ways of searching for a number on an ordered list. Looking at it, it’s easy to understand that breaking the list in half then searching in one of the two halves (binary search) is generally more efficient than starting serially from the first element (linear search).

Animation: Linear versus binary search.

Interactive Tool: Binary number tool.

Set each binary digit for the unsigned binary number below to 1 or 0 to obtain the decimal equivalents of 9, then 50, then 212, then 255. Note also that 255 is the largest integer that the 8 bits can represent.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 (decimal value)
128 64 32 16 8 4 2 1
27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20

Meanwhile, another interactive element would be a topic-specific simulator that, loosely put, demonstrates cause and effect. It would force the learner to do something – enter a value, move a dial, click a series of buttons – then see how the output changes.

Let’s take another example. You probably know what a binary number is. In a textbook, a first introduction to a binary number consists of about two pages of text that explains how to represent a number as a series of 0's and 1’s. In the integrative textbook, this would be shortened to a few sentences and an interactive tool that lets the learner toggle individual digits and watch how that translates into a decimal number. It’s a more efficient and intuitive way of grasping the concept.

A learning-centric system like this would be more disruptive than incremental. Educational software has existed for years, but this would be different. It would be built for the Web and could be entirely accessed on a tablet or laptop. It’s interactive, adaptive, customizable, and integrated.

Students could use this system to learn by listening to short video lectures, running animations, playing educational games, using interactive tools, and solving problems – lots of them. The system would be adaptive to their needs, but if they got stuck, they could start a chat session with a teaching assistant or a peer. Depending on the course, they might go into class a day or two per week or not at all.

In class the instructor would primarily discuss topics that he or she knew students were struggling with, or leave it open for Q&A and problem solving. Students would most likely never again have to attend a 200-person traditional lecture, nor lug around a 300-page, three-pound textbook. His experience would be simpler, with everything in one place and a clear path through the material.

With these integrated textbooks, learning would be more intuitive, and that in turn would allow students to create, invent and excel. And, my guess is they would learn more in half the time.