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Digital Textbooks and the Future of Learning

Jordan Catapano

When I was in school, I always had to lug around several large textbooks from class to class. Fortunately for me, my locker was centrally located, making it easy to stop and change them out when needed.

But those textbooks were heavy, and only a few could fit in my bag at a time. And by the look of textbooks I see being carried around today, they’ve only gotten bulkier. Students slump under the weight of their creaking, ripping bags, doing their backs no favors and some are even opting for little rolling suitcases to help.

It’s no surprise that the National Safety Council, along with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commision, has warned that backpacks can cause serious back injuries to students. I used to worry that my own children—currently too young for school—would become burdened even further with cumbersome texts.

But recently, I recognized that children might not have to worry about this problem in the near future. The old behemoths have begun giving way to a new kind of textbook: the Digital textbook.

What a Digital Textbook Will Be Able to Do

Inkling—a digital publisher based in San Francisco—describes the types of upgrades to textbooks it believes we are already beginning to see. Textbooks are shifting to digital, becoming highly interactive, non-linear, and cloud-based. Digital textbooks will incorporate much more than static pictures and charts—they will feature video, audio, links, search capabilities, social media connections, and much more. Updates to textbooks could even be performed instantaneously, and we are no longer restricted to an 8.5” x 11” page size. In short, whatever digital connectivity can provide us, our textbooks will too. (Take a look at software developer Mike Matas’ overview of the upcoming textbook wave.)

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Instead of a page featuring one prominent picture, imagine dozens of pictures automatically scrolling through the layout. Instead of students reading a description of information, imagine them receiving links to videos or diagrams that illustrate that content. The possibilities seem endless, and these upgrades to textbooks will completely redefine the paradigm in which we structure and organize information.

How Teachers Can Take Advantage of the New Generation of Textbooks

Your school might not be ready to fully implement open educational resources via textbooks. However, the price of electronic textbooks is proving to be less than their print counterparts, and the steady advance of technology in classrooms may make these textbooks much more accessible in the coming years. Even without a fully digitized version of a textbook, you can still take advantage of these independent facets in various ways.

Connect students to more resources. A great benefit of digital information is that not all information needs to be contained directly within the resource. Simple hyperlinks can easily connect students to more information on specific topics, articles, or essays that share varying points of view, photographs, quizzes, or other resources you want your students to find.

Add our own links and materials. In addition to linking students to others’ resources, teachers can also create their own content. That content might be directly incorporated into the text itself, or simple links can bridge students between the textbook and the teacher-created supplements.

Community bookmarking/annotating. Students don’t necessarily have to study in isolation. Easy sharing and social media capabilities can help students interact with one another regarding the content. Annotations themselves can even be shared, allowing students to see what one another is thinking as they engage with the material.

Create our own books. One thing about the digital publishing platform is that there are fewer barriers to teachers creating their own e-textbooks. While it might not contain the flair and features of a publishing company’s work, it still allows teachers to organize their expertise and easily disseminate it to students.

If you’re interested in creating your own e-textbook, you might consider utilizing one of the following platforms to help you. These platforms will give you a product that looks and feels very different from a traditional textbook—but will provide your students with an interactive, non-linear, cloud-based learning resource.

  • Google Sites
  • LiveBinder
  • PBworks
  • Wikispaces

The extent of which these resources will be incorporated will vary, depending upon a few factors: Namely, the availability of school resources, but also your level of comfort with these tools. Soon, we won’t be limited to bulky, hardcover textbooks, or awkward PDFs—a new reign is here. The era of digital textbooks is dawning.

Are you ready for the next generation of e-textbooks? What are the biggest differences that you’re excited about or apprehensive of? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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