What a textbook could be

Last week, Ralph was kind enough to lend me a copy of Simply Physics, an introductory physics textbook that his father, Terry Hall, wrote in 1980, the year I was born.

A clear example of how Simple Physics uses clear, simple diagrams which encourage thinking about how to design experiments to test physical phenomena.

A clear example of how Simply Physics uses clear, simple diagrams which encourage thinking about how to design experiments to test physical phenomena.

As I fingered through it, I knew that this book was different than our text now. First, it’s small: less than 200 pages, as compared to our current book which is a order of magnitude greater. What also struck me were all the simple images of lab equipment and the ties to how you could test these fundamental physics ideas in the real world. Now it seems that texts are filled with these ridiculously long passages of text, complicated images, and almost no discussion of how you could design experiments. In fact, eye-tracking software has actually shown that students spend more time looking at the distractors in these complicated images than the relevant picture. For instance, if there’s a truck on an incline plane and the truck driver is standing near the truck, people divert their attention to the driver rather than the truck. Simply Physics keeps it simple. It’s about the physics, the experiments and practice problems for students to try on their own. Hmm..if Terry Hall wrote Simply Physics in the world of new media, what could his book do?

Last class, Janine and Nathan challenged us to create a metaphor for future new media, and Bob’s Dream Machine seemed to strike a chord within our group (Ralph mentioned guitars..I can’t help myself). This got me thinking…what if we could take a book like Simply Physics and make it an interactive simulation (go ComputerLib!) which anticipates our thoughts and reasoning processes in order to provide us with a targeted laboratory experience?

The screen opens with a virtual piece of lab equipment (let’s say it’s a pendulum bob) and shelves of tools/meters/watches/probes etc. You begin to play with the equipment while eye tracking software and mouse tracking software record how you observe and interact with the pendulum. It then asks you to state your observations and based on these inputs, it presents a few open ended questions to guide your thinking towards important relationships. What do you think would happen if the length of the string were longer? Like a good inquiry based teacher, it won’t let you try it until you give a prediction. You enter your prediction, then change the length of the pendulum and record your new observations. If there’s something that you notice (it swings faster at the bottom now than it did before) but you didn’t notice that the whole swing took a longer amount of time, it might say, “What do you think would happen to the period of the swing?” You give it your prediction. “How can you test this?” You have to realize what equipment to grab, get it from the virtual shelf, and try it…Students can create their own experiments (motivation!) and be prepared for a more elaborate lab experience in the classroom setting.

Could this be the future of pre-lectures? I think it would beat Khan Academy.

7 thoughts on “What a textbook could be

  1. Superb post! My mind is buzzing. I’ll connect your vision with what I heard Dr. Alan Kay (his own self, no less) say at the Summit meeting of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education just last spring:

    “iPads are being sold as textbook replacements. We don’t want to replace textbooks! They suck! The textbook of the future is where you’re not shown something … [instead] you’re given advice on how to create a model for yourself of this knowledge.”

    Janet Murray has some great things to say about media as opposed to tools. I can’t wait for her to be in our seminar today. I feel like Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster–except it’s me with Janet Murray. 馃檪

  2. I’m glad someone brought up the notion of “textbook”… it occurs to me, after reading your intriguing post – that the future of texts could be by design a perfect balance between needs and desires of the learner and the possibilities and tenets of the field of study…?
    This seminar has created my first experience in a long time with a text book. I have to admit that I set that text on my coffee table at home the evening of the first seminar meeting, and it has not moved from there since. A large part of my modus operandi for required reading is convenience. So I’m going to read when and where I discover some uninterrupted opportunity… and am NOT going to lug the book around with me everywhere. I’ve found every reading assigned available as a PDF online, and I read on my iPad. I’ve even discovered a great app for PDF annotation, so I can now make notes, highlight, etc. The second thing important to me as a learner is easy access to additional resources… so finding these things online makes finding related resources and ideas an easy part of the process. I also have a philosophical challenge with how fixed printed texts are (related to the above, I guess)… I’d appreciate something more dynamic…

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