The Textbook Transformed
New interactive approaches dispense with the written lecture and let students ‘do’ as they read.
By Chris Rogers
I have been very excited to see how the textbook—still a powerful learning device—is changing. In digital versions, it is slowly morphing from pure text to interactive multimedia pages that you can edit. Even more interesting is the transformation of the table of contents. If you look at old textbooks—say, fluid mechanics—they start out with a broad overview of the subject. Next comes a chapter of definitions, then a bunch of simple problems with sample recipes for you to follow. It is often not until the end of the book that you actually get to have an opinion, think for yourself, or really adopt a fluid mechanics mind-set. Through most of the chapters, you are following someone else’s footprints. In this way, the classical textbooks are not unlike our education system: 16 years of memorizing the knowledge of others with limited opportunity to invent, discover, and develop your own ideas. Graduate school is the place where your opinion matters, and learning becomes exciting.
As schools bring in constructivist and constructionist learning ideas, suddenly the 8-year-old’s opinion does matter and students start to learn ways of thinking (mind sets) as they acquire knowledge. So what happens to the textbook? Is it still something that takes 12 chapters of hand-holding to get to the interesting stuff? Why not start with the interesting stuff and use that to motivate the hand-holding as needed? How does one get students to “do” while reading instead of just passively taking in information? A slew of interesting new approaches are emerging, starting with flipping the book—placing the overview after the reader has worked on some exercises. Providing recipe examples as hyperlinks challenges students to think first about potential ways of solving a problem before seeing how the instructor/author did it.
A textbook can begin with something fun and tangible. That could be programming a blob/sprite to move around in a virtual space/stage (Apple’s Swift learning book, or MIT’s Scratch coding), making a robot drive to the edge of a table (Lego, Vex Robotics, etc.), getting an LED on pin 13 to blink (Arduino), or writing your first html web page (on W3Schools). In each case, you start with a goal and a gallery of examples. You can start with a “blank page” and start typing or dragging, or you can start from someone else’s story and modify it (remix in Scratch language). Most software now starts with very short “getting started” multimedia efforts—from animated GIFs to sample templates. The same is happening with online books. Mathematica and Matlab have done this very well for quite some time, and there are some new ones, like trinket.io, that extend the idea more.
Imagine that someday you will “open up” a fluids textbook and see a cool video of blood flow on Page 1. You can click in and discover velocity profiles and pressure distributions before really knowing what those parameters are (just as you blink the LED before you really know how LEDs work or how to connect them up). You will be able to modify the shape (or wall friction) of the aorta, change the pumping rate of the heart, or maybe simulate an aneurism. This will spark your curiosity, and you will start to look at the effect of diameter on the flow-rate and realize there is a correlation. You might even develop your own mathematical model before delving into the section on conservation of mass. If you have questions, you might post them on the forum (StackExchange, etc.), or find that someone else has already asked that question and received a clear answer.
Textbooks, I think, will move from a telling model to a conversation model. We can use the analogy of a faculty cocktail party, in which people believing themselves to be experts try to persuade others to their point of view. While someone might walk up to you and launch into a lecture, such an approach is seldom convincing, and most people avoid those conversations. Instead, people use a variety of social tools, including entertaining anecdotes, listening, questioning, and responding. Likewise, our standard textbooks rarely convince simply by telling. With the power of the computer, the textbook can use all the techniques of listening, responding, and probing, while making students feel like part of a group or community and giving them the opportunity to “do” rather than “talk.”
Chris Rogers is a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University.