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E-Texts Spice up Higher Ed

Here at Via Meadia we have long argued that the internet and other new technologies offer opportunities to make education both cheaper and more rewarding for students. A recent article in the New York Times highlighted new advancements in online textbooks, noting that because the book was designed for the digital market,

Students will pay not for a printed edition at a bookstore, but for permanent access on the Internet ($49). […]

Still, this isn’t your usual technical tome. The pages have some pizazz: they are replete with punchy, interactive electronic features — from dynamic illustrations to short quizzes meant to involve students rather than letting them plod, glassy-eyed, from one section to the next. Audio and video clips are woven into the text.

“We want to take advantage of the things only digital media can do, and that are superior to print, to broaden the ways students learn science,” said Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and publishing director at Nature Publishing. “We want students to measure a chapter not by how much they read, but by how much they learn.” […]

Midway through a chapter, some interactive elements will quiz students on what they have just read — and provide hints and pointers when their answers are incorrect.

While I can’t speak to the value of this individual textbook, this is clearly a step in the right direction. Textbooks are often one of the largest expenses facing students after the not inconsiderable tuition and room and board fees; online textbooks promise to be both cheaper and more useful than their printed counterparts. Additionally, e-textbooks with interactive features have the potential to keep students engaged with the material during private study — a considerable benefit for students stuck in large classes with busy and disinterested professors.

Online textbooks alone are not the solution to the plethora of problems facing higher education in America, but they show that the opportunity for innovation is there for those willing to look.  In some ways education today has changed little from the ancient world when teachers read the text out loud to their students who made their own copies of the manuscript as the teacher read.

That immunity to change isn’t going to last.  Education is on the brink of the biggest revolution since the invention of writing.

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  • Anthony

    “Education is on the brink of the biggest revolution since the invention of writing” – how are we anticipating impending educational change? Nevertheless, if online textbooks engage students through quality content and demonstrate outcomes (as measured) reflecting comprehension, then instrument complements educational aims/purposes – and there is no false choice between what is read and what is learned.

  • LarryD

    Sorry, but when I went to collage, $49 was not a cheap price for a textbook, even used.

    And students won’t have the option buying used or selling the book back to the bookstore after the semester.

    And if the server giving access to the book ever crashes, or the company goes bust, well, then we’ll see how “permanent” that access really is.

    And research has shown that even modern collage students retain material better when reading from paper than from a screen.

  • Marshall

    > Students will pay not for a printed edition at a bookstore, > but for permanent access on the Internet ($49). […]

    This is problematic; I wonder what “permanent” really means here:
    * Until the end of the semester?
    * As long as they are students at the university?
    * 5 years?
    * 20 years?
    * For the rest of their life?
    * Until the end of time?

    Will it work on the machines of 2020? 2050?

  • peter38a

    So ordinary texts aren’t exciting enough and unless they get more “fun”, well darn it you just can’t expect much out of students. Gag!

    What are these “interactive” texts teaching is the question not how they’re teaching. Pap and dependency are debilitating no matter what the format. The revolution would be that during at least half of school time the students would be creating knowledge independently.

    I know some examples are in order. So back in the day when I taught a 7th, 8th combo…

    I was given a thick stack of 5X8s by the school system with mini projects. One that I recall was, “Go outside and find indirect evidence of something.” One student came back and said he had found indirect evidence of a law having been broken… across the street in the park, although there was a sign forbidding bicycles, he had found bicycle tracks on the path.

    They went out and interviewed people and found that if they interviewed at 8AM they got different answers from those going to work compared to afternoon people. They made grafts, they argued, they wondered “what if”, they learned.

    Ours was one of the first schools to get the new PC history texts that were coming out. They were so filled with half truths and lies that they were the finest texts I’ve ever had. Students that had always found books to be sacrosanct found themselves reading parallel information and discussing such questions as, why would a school system put out such material? Who was supposed to profit from this and what effect would it have on students and the country at large. What is the purpose of a text book, who should decide? And a lot more. The most “educational” text I ever had in the classroom.

    Since so much of school is nothing much more than “for the teacher” my class prepared math text books for other lower classes and enjoyed the praise or suffered the complaints for their materials. But when the texts were returned, the feedback was pounced upon by my students and discussions were hot as to improvements to be made. The discussions were pure music.

    We did orienteering… planning and action.

    And yeah, I’ll tell you this too. More than a decade later I visited one of my exstudents, a model in New York, and although I had a very good position she was making exactly ten times what I was making and while in her apartment she brought out a shoebox with a lot of our old lessons in them.

    Please don’t even bother to hector me about why this can’t be done, we’re Americans, we solve problems. You want “education” to my mind this was education and it was all done with paper and pencil.

  • peter38a

    A friend of mine teaches individuals who either have their doctorate in education or earning same. In the class coming up I suggested jettisoning the text and building the class around the question, “What’s worth knowing?” If at this late date they don’t know the answer or haven’t addressed the question what in God’s name is going on in their classes?
    WRM, sir, you’re more erudite than most, please, “What’s worth knowing?”
    Here are three good questions every “teacher” should ask themselves each morning.
    1. What am I going to teach today.
    2. What’s it good for?
    3. How do I know”
    …from “Teaching As A Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman.

    A last question…

    What is the difference between training and education?

  • peter38a

    I was remiss in not crediting the “training/education” question to Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”. Another thought in that book that I always found charming is: “I’d rather take a single journey with a thousand set of eyes than a thousand journeys with a single set of eyes.”

    Sigh, unfortunately, my eyes are all too often confined to those of Hugh Heffer, but then as a London taxi driver said to me profoundly one day, “We can’t all be bloody bishops all the time and have any fun now can we?”

  • Jim.


    Permanent, until you forget your old college passwords. o_O

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