From Instruction Manuals to Collaborative Course Resources: The Future of E-Textbooks

What publishers typically call “eTexts” in 2011 do not radically reimagine the idea of an interactive learning resource. We need to move toward the untapped potential for course-based learning resources to foster students’ abilities to be more “knowledge-able” (to move from only knowledge-consumers to also being knowledge-producers).

What might they look like? They will need to be more than just textbooks on a computer or any other mobile device. Custom textbooks of this kind are already out there.

But what should eTexts look like in 2020 and how will they be used? Who controls the contents? Copyright issues and other costs, paid to whom?  We may hope that digital rights management issues can be worked out so that downloading, remixing, and republishing in a different way is possible, but this will take concerted political action as well as the kind of inovation represented by Creative Commons.

“Living textbooks” could provide a dynamic, curated body of knowledge with all learners (faculty and students) able to add websites, links, show examples of projects,  and connect to social networking sites. Traditional educational goals would remain. Critical reading and thinking will always be at the core of a liberal education, whether the sources are oral, print, or electronic. Yet these “living textooks” would also help students understand the space and the need for their own contributions, even as they are learning.

By 2020 there should be databases of non-platform-specific eTexts compiled by the instructor; students could also “create content” in eChapters: e.g., case studies, notes, links, video content, etc. Such a database could offer access to previous student work with other students receiving “credit” in iTunes-like, eText accounts; students could build on previous student/group work while learning proper citation and remix/mash-up in a Creative Commons world.

For some initial possibilities, see Richard Baranuik, Rice Univ. and Connexions: “Goodbye, textbooks: hello, open source learning”:

For more details, visit the Connexions site: a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc. Anyone may view or contribute: authors—create and collaborate; instructors—rapidly build and share custom collections; learners—find and explore content.

Most of all, we need to provide technology tools to enable people to find each other to learn from what others have learned. E-textbooks should not simply deliver content. They should help create communities of learners. We need to form communities of practice beyond the current structures for teachers and learners. These communities should be synchronous and asynchronous, formal and informal. They should also foster an environment of critical awareness in which data are tested for accuracy and the question of “who controls this knowledge?” is always in the mix.

The power of knowledge is in who’s controlling it. Universities have historically been the stewards of knowledge; who will be / should be stewards of knowledge in 2020? What is the role of publishers in being stewards of information?

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