The digital textbooks have landed!

The launch of a formal, deliberate, across the board attempt to produce digital textbooks has arrived. Not just digital version of paper texts. Not just .pdf pages mimicking textbooks. Not just webpages trying to walk like a textbook. No, this is a sincere attempt to redefine the concept and use of a textbook firmly planted in the spirit of the digital. This means the strengths of a digital text are maximized while the weaknesses of such a thing are minimized.
The digital textbook has been around for as long as our digital imagination, which for me has been several decades. The list of challenges to making functional digital texts is lengthy, and by no means have all the items on the list been crossed out. But today we are closer than ever especially now that some serious weight, money and most importantly commitment has been thrown behind the effort.
On January 19th, Apple launched several products designed to make digital textbooks not only a physical reality, but also a reality across multiple dimensions. First, there is iBooks 2, the primary vehicle for serving up the content to student eyeballs and ears. Second, there is iBooks Author, a free Mac desktop computer application for designing digital texts. Third, the bookstore in iTunes has a dedicated virtual shelf for digital textbooks. And finally, a formidable trio of major textbook publishers has jumped into the Apple digital textbook ecosystem with both feet.
While the iBookstore textbook shelves are pretty thin right now, the content that is available is promising, and will no doubt cause a conceptual redefinition of what a textbook actually is, as well as the expectations student will hold when they arrive to class. A Volume Purchase Program is also in the works so some of the current paradigms of buying digital content will shift as well.
One free digital textbook example that is available is E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth. At the moment only the first few chapters have been created, but within those pages exist a magical expression of what textbooks could become, well, maybe are in this case. Life on Earth on an iPad held in the portrait position (vertical) produces more of a book-like presentation with 2/3 of the screen in text-heavy scrolling. Simply rotating the device 90 degrees to landscape completely changes the relationship between the words and visuals. Instantly graphics, pictures, videos, and JavaScript or HTML widgets take precedence with the text wrapping around the objects. Using a two-finger pinch-out gesture fills the screen with the imagery. A simple two-finger pinch-in shrinks the visual back to a conventional size. Landscape view also makes the movement through content in a page-turning simulation rather than the scrolling of portrait.
The free application program used to make digital books that play well in iBooks is called simply iBook Author. It has the look of a word processor and the buttons of a website building tool. Taking the software for a spin around the block, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will take before schools, districts, or even organizations like NSTA collaborate on a grand scale to produce a textbook in a fraction of the time normally afforded to such tasks. Imagine 10 or 50 or 500 teachers each contributing a small but stunningly high quality slice of a digital text. Almost over night, a book perfect for the task goes from a floating light bulb above someone’s head to a complete and completely downloadable textbook. And should an error be found in the book, it can be fixed with an update just like we do almost daily with our other software.
As with many tech-driven changes in the educational ecosystem, digital textbooks will likely have as many unintended outcomes as intended ones. The entry of real digital (oxymoron?) textbooks will be a fun transition to watch, and as a teacher, even more fun to be a participant.

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4 Responses to The digital textbooks have landed!

  1. Eric Cromwell says:

    Does anyone have good sources for elementary science content? There is plenty of secondary content but little for K-5. Science happens here as well.

  2. Martin Horejsi says:

    Here’s a link to an elementary school level science digital textbook adoption that might help.

  3. Eric Cromwell says:

    I am familiar with DE. We are actually composing our own epubs but finding grade level appropriate material is difficult.

  4. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Eric you might pose this question on the NSTA Learning Community Elementary Forum if you have not already.
    This thread might lead to some answers: Home > Elementary Science > Question: Science content knowledge?
    Or you could start a new one. The Learning Community is open to all with free registration.

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