What I Want from a Digital Textbook

There has been a lot of buzz lately around digital textbooks due in large part to today’s announcement from Apple.  As many of you know, Discovery Education has been in the “digital textbook” game for the last few years starting with the adoption of our science service in Oregon and now with our Discovery Education Science Techbook being used by over 5,000 teachers and 200,000 students in K-8 classrooms around the country.

This week I was in Cincinnati showing the Discovery Education Science Techbook to a group of teachers who were seeing it for the first time.  Before I got into the content, I asked them to give me the first thing they think of when they hear the word “techbook.”  The general consensus: ebook, textbooks in PDF format, our current book online, our current book online plus some interactives.  No one said the Jetsons or “fear,” both of which I’ve heard recently.   To me, a digital textbook is really none of the above.  It’s a different way of thinking.  Thinking outside the box, perhaps.  Or more appropriately, thinking outside the book.  So, here are some of the things I want to see when it comes to the whole concept of digital textbooks.

I want to see educators and their students set the expectations for digital textbooks rather than having one or two textbook companies define it for them.  Now, is that hypocritical since I work for Discovery Education, a relatively large company who has its own digital textbook?  No.  See my next point.

I want to see new products evolve from the ground up based on the needs and expectations of teachers and students.  Several articles over the past few days referenced the concern of digital textbooks being nothing more than a digital version of a standard textbook with a few added bells and whistles.  Matt MacInnis, founder of Inkling, said it best in the USA Today this week, “Unless you construct content from the ground up, it’s just lipstick on a pig.”

Developing a product from the ground up is what we’ve done at Discovery Education with our K-8 Science Techbook.  An amazing team of curriculum and product development specialists assembled our techbook and made it very elegant, but educators built the concept, requested the content, and continue to design it to this day through their feedback.  And as a result, it doesn’t look like a textbook at all.

I want to see the focus of this whole digital textbook conversation on teaching and learning and not on the tool through which the content/book/product is delivered.  Seven years ago I worked at the PA Department of Education in the Office of Educational Technology and remember a lot of our conversations being focused on the commonwealth’s student to computer ratio.  “Did you know that Delaware is 4:1?”  “Really?  We’re only 6:1.  What are we going to do?”  Seven years later, I fear that we still get sucked into that conversation too often.  This is not to dismiss equity issues; rather, it is to focus the discussion on equity of instruction, equity of learning, and not on equity of devices.

And to do so, I want to see people stop equating the “book” with the curriculum.  The curriculum is the course of studies within which learning objectives are defined.  And there are many resources that help students “complete” the course of study.  Do most educators have a primary curricular resource?  Of course.  Is there any singular resource that is the curriculum? No.   Does flipping from page 20 to 21 mean you are following the curriculum?  I don’t believe it does.

Finally, I want to see local communities decide what resources best meet the needs of their children.  The simply glorious part of the whole digital textbook discussion is the potential.  Current and future potential.  We have access to so many different resources and types of content that our ability to differentiate instruction for learners of all different interests and styles is truly possible.  And possible in large part due to the flexibility of all things digital.

So those are a few of the things I’d like to see.  How about you?

Oh yeah, one more thing I’d like to see is tons of educators joining us next Saturday, January 28, 2012 for DEN SCIcon where we’ll be talking about effective strategies for going digital and showcasing the Discovery Education Science Techbook.  For all of our STAR Discovery Educators we’ll have a special digital textbook announcement of our own.  See you there!


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  1. Juan García said:

    I particularly think that the traditional book is charming and will not stop there. If it is true the vast possibilities of the digital book

  2. jim miller said:

    The article makes some very valid points here. Digital learning tools do tend to talk too much about themselves drifting focus away from the bigger purpose- of advancing the development and consumption of academic content. That’s where I think the Khan Academy and CK12 FlexBooks make for a refreshing story. Both sprang up out of the sheer passion of providing good content conveniently. Khan with its videos and CK12 with its FlexBooks. FlexBooks especially have been a brilliant resource for both students and teachers delivering personalizable learning material without compromising on the academic rigor.

  3. Pingback: Discovery Education announces updates to it’s Science Techbooks | My Blog

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