A new ‘gold standard’ in higher education?

Alternatives to the traditional textbook suit diverse learning needs.

We’re not all four-year undergraduate students living on campus. Many of us have jobs, kids, families, and mortgages. Some of us commute on public transportation, are coming back for a second career, or are getting our diploma after a long hiatus from school.

Our learning styles are as diverse as our demographics—we’re not all “A” students, fast readers, question askers, or test acers. We learn best by listening, or by watching, or—as I do—by being actively engaged in material in order to internalize it. Some of us need repetition, some need highlighters and flashcards; we all need motivation. In today’s technology-driven society, even the fundamental notion of what constitutes a “classroom” is being questioned. Hybrid classes and online degrees are becoming increasingly popular, as we look for more efficient and effective ways to get an education.

Once upon a time, the textbook served as the “gold standard” in the classroom, but alone, these “hardcovers” are failing to meet the diversified needs of today’s learners. Thus our old (heavy) friend, the textbook, is rapidly being replaced by eTextbook platforms. And the new gold standard? Meeting the individual needs of each learner. Education in our digital age has the potential to offer something we, as students, have been hard pressed to achieve in the past: a real voice and a sense of ownership over our educational process.

Recently, I was lucky enough to participate in a student focus group for a new eLearning platform called Tuatara. This is the first digital platform I’ve encountered to place its primary emphasis on the student’s workflow, and the focus group reached out to varied types and demographics of learners. Their goal was first to understand, and then to address, the specific individual needs of students.

This was quite exciting to be a part of.

There are lots of students who are struggling, whether financially, with family or work obligations, or with learning disabilities that make grasping new material difficult. These are marginalized students, and unfortunately, they are also the students most often denied educational opportunities. Soon, organizations like Tuatara will be able to use technology as a bridge, linking students who might otherwise fall through the cracks with the resources and alternatives they need to succeed.

The focus group learned that instructors could place their lectures and notes on file with tutoring and support centers. The tutors then work with materials straight from the classroom, allowing them to better supplement the instructor’s lessons. For those of us in need of extra help, we can use these support centers, confident that the information being covered is coming directly from our instructor. From personal experience with less-than-effective tutoring and support services, this notion of collaboration between tutors and instructors is no small feat.