Viewpoint: Thinking outside the book

eTexts can help students purchase material they need, saving money.

eTextbooks already have triggered what is shaping up to be a seismic upheaval in the way we think about academic course material. Digital materials offer highly mobile, on-demand access to academic texts in formats that allow students to store hundreds of books on a single device.

The physical aspects of this change are, on their own, monumental: Just reducing the volume of paper required to publish a textbook in digital form means that eTexts have the potential to save millions of dollars in shipping, distribution, and—eventually—waste.

Certainly, there are front-end costs in building the devices that allow readers to view eTextbooks, and while these are not negligible (and do indeed produce waste), publishers are gravitating toward a distribution model that eliminates the single-use device, opting instead to make eTextbooks accessible on laptops, tablets, and even smart phones.

Using already active devices means further efficiencies and less fiber in landfills and recycling centers. However, these potential environmental benefits will take years to realize, making this more of a promise than a reality.

At the same time, there are more immediate benefits to eTextbooks that make these materials capable of actually taking the teaching and training process to a new level, especially for instructors engaged in customized, individualized instruction and a more active approach to helping learners to build knowledge and share it with one another—and the world.

Beyond black text on a white page. One of the most obvious benefits of eTextbooks is that they can deliver multimedia-rich content to students. Course materials that connect text, images, audio, video, self-directed quizzes, and interactive components such as simulations might offer reluctant learners several “ways in” to engage with difficult or challenging material.

Using multiple modes for instruction and training provides opportunities to tailor learning in ways that best fit learners’ and instructors’ individual needs. Moreover, when material is broken into modular chunks—as several publishing houses are already doing—eTextbooks can allow students to purchase only the material they need, not necessarily an entire textbook.

Combine this flexibility of content with the easy access that tablets and smart phones provide, and what results is a whole new method of delivery and consumption of information that extends far beyond a paper textbook on a campus bookstore shelf.

Integration with social media also allows students to share achievements and milestones with their classmates, cohorts, and even potential employers.

Crowdsourcing. Perhaps the most exciting and transformative aspect of eTextbooks is that they hold the potential to be dynamic—allowing instructors, curriculum designers, and even learners themselves to contribute to, break apart, re-organize, and remix the very textbook that guides their learning.

Such a “living, breathing textbook” model blurs traditional boundaries between expert and novice, allowing tools like wikis and blogs to become part of an evolving conversation about content—one that demands close attention from instructors.

It is here, in an environment where even the very foundation of a course, the textbook, can be exploded and reconstructed in a novel fashion, that a fascinating new co-creation of knowledge might occur.

Such crowdsourced eTextbook materials also might hold another advantage over their traditional paper predecessors: Because they are compiled and selected by the people who deliver and consume the course material, they might be more context-sensitive and more efficient at delivering precisely the information specific cohorts need to learn best.

Future groups of learners also might benefit from their predecessors’ tailoring the eText content to match with their local geographic, cultural, or political contexts—linking learners across time and offering a version of a text with more immediacy and relevance than a generic printed text might hold.

One size no longer needs to fit all. The real story of eTextbooks is far more complex than just the amount of money or environmental benefit a no-printing solution creates—even though both are absolutely important factors, not to mention ones that might add to the support of a broader-based adoption of eTextbooks.

The most transformative innovations of eTextbooks are how much closer they bring us to a place where course materials begin to mirror the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of the past, a place where technology might allow instructors and learners to customize, change, and co-create their curriculum to satisfy the dynamic needs of diverse and modern learning contexts.

Dr. Drew Ross, the dean of the School of Graduate Education, has worked at Kaplan University since 2006, first as a part-time teacher education faculty member, and then as the founding academic department chair of the Department of Sciences. In March 2009, he returned to the School of Graduate Education to become the dean. Dr. Ross’s research in online learning focuses on online communities of adults, organizational theory, and qualitative data analysis. He earned his doctorate at Oxford University in England and returned to New York City in 2004, where he founded an online learning consulting firm that has worked with major U.S. universities, small nonprofits, and blue-chip corporations.

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