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The textbook was a technological advance.  What comes next?

AdobeStock_362857205Over the past 5+ years, there has been a steady trend towards not just replicating the traditional textbook in electronic form, but creating interactive and adaptive learning products that are used in lieu of a textbook (e.g. MyLabs, ALEKS, Connect). We broadly group these products under the umbrella of ‘interactive courseware.’ The underlying technology for these advancements has been around for 20+ years and casual industry observers may look at this evolution and ask “why has it been so slow to take off?”

First let’s explore the purpose of course materials - vehicles through which to facilitate knowledge transfer between content and the learner. 

Course materials manifest in a variety of forms including textbooks, OER, professor created presentation materials, YouTube videos, and journal articles or other materials that, when aligned to learning outcomes and appropriate assessments with effective instruction, facilitate knowledge transfer.   

Textbooks have historically been a highly effective vehicle for facilitating knowledge transfer.  Textbooks are portable, concepts can be communicated succinctly in written form and until recently, have been relatively inexpensive. In fact, the textbook itself is a technological advance – albeit a centuries old one - and represented a major leap forward relative to orally sharing knowledge from the teacher to student.

Roughly 20 years ago, when the first commercial eReader came out, many observers thought this would be the next evolution of the textbook. In fact, about 10-15 years ago many textbook publishers launched their first ‘e-editions’. Pundits indicated digital textbooks (“eBooks”) would revolutionize the landscape and that sales in this new medium would result in the demise of the traditional hardcover text. Yet that did not occur and even given the sharp rise of eBooks in the pandemic, print is still the predominant form factor used by institutions today.

Inertia certainly plays a role in this. Faculty who have been used to teaching with a certain set of materials are reluctant to switch. University bookstores are used to the sales associated with physical items and historically have had impediments to selling electronic materials. But the rise of eBooks has been slow largely because as a vehicle to facilitate knowledge transfer between content and learner, it has only modest pedagogical advantages over print. They have gained traction and resonance due to rapid delivery (near instantaneous in most cases) and price advantages.     

We believe that the slow adoption of eBooks with modest pedagogical advantages is meeting a new disruptive force - the rise of interactive, adaptive courseware. In many circumstances, publishing houses are now developing software platforms which include the text contained within a traditional book and augmenting it with simulations, peer-to-peer learning exercises, quizzing engines and more. In select examples, the content that the student sees adapts on the fly to their individual needs based on prior work in the platform. It also provides educators with data that enables them to target instruction and interventions that meet students at point of need (adaptive learning platforms). Collectively, these innovations represent substantial improvements relative to the facilitation of knowledge transfer and as a result, represent a strong and potential successor to the traditional text. As the cost to create content decreases and publishers get more sophisticated in terms of what drives value for faculty and students, we expect substantial growth within this medium.

From where we sit, these advancements are exciting and will be a substantial factor in driving better student learning outcomes when effectively aligned with quality course design and instruction. They represent positive strides forward in creating a more effective vehicle for knowledge transfer between the content and the learner. If – just if – more and more content is packaged up in this new and improved form, digital will indeed leapfrog physical as those pundits predicted many years ago.

Written by Raj Kaji, CEO Akademos and Dr. Andrew Shean, SVP/CAO National Education Partners and former ACAO Digital Fellow