Initially, new media replicates the media it’s replacing. Early film and TV recorded theatrical performances for broadcast and early printed books mimicked handwritten manuscripts. This persists, but over time the producers of new media begin to understand it and see new possibilities. They see it as a unique medium that can be used in innovative ways.

We’re following this same progression with the transition to digital textbooks. Early digital texts are transcriptions of traditional textbooks moved to a new medium. It’s as if someone took a textbook, scanned it and put it on a tablet. The pages flip, they have leather bound graphics and other types of Skeumorphism (my favorite new word).

However, we’re now starting to see new possibilities for the digital textbook and new ways that textbooks can used.

We need to begin discussing what a digital textbook should be. What features would be useful? How can we better leverage the capabilities of devices and connectivity to make a more useful resource?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Reliable Interconnected Devices: Digital textbooks have to be accessed on reliable, dependable, easy to use devices. Traditional textbooks are limited but they are 100% reliable, and if the majority of educators are going to smoothly switch to digital they have to be able to count on them. The devices need fast wireless connections to resources and should be charged wirelessly to avoid battery problems. They’re going to be handled by students so they need to be light and sturdy and should be replaced every 3 years .
  2. Customizable Content: The content of digital textbooks should be open so that instructors can update and rewrite portions according to the changing needs of students. If students are studying the earth’s crust and an earthquake happens, instructors can add to existing content to give it increased relevance. In some situations students add content. Rather than being a definitive resource the digital textbook is a skeleton, a framework, with starting points that learning communities fill in as they learn. There’s a master control panel that allows teachers to adjust the reading level or content.
  3. Personalized Interface: Our digital media experiences are personalized. No one’s Facebook page or Twitter feed is the same. So it will be for digital textbooks. When students login to their textbook the content is seamlessly adjusted to individual learning profiles.  Content is presented in ways that maximize a student’s learning strengths. Students with visual learning strengths get more pictures. Vocabulary is adjusted, content is “chunked” appropriately and assistive technology (e.g. text to speech) is automatically incorporated.
  4. Interactive: Students comment on content and share opinions and insights on what they’ve learned. They add to and build on other’s comments, bringing in resources from other sources and posting them for others to use. Comments take multiple forms (text, podcasts, images, videos and other multimedia) and can be added remotely through mobile devices whenever or wherever students are inspired. Students “like” comments, so the best thoughts and opinions rise to the top. The most useful comments are shared with other learning communities to help their learning. Students see the best ideas from other locations and reflect and respond to them.
  5. Facilitate Personal Connections: Digital textbooks facilitate connections to resources outside the device. In addition to basic internet resources textbook “publishers” provide experts that students can schedule a conference with. Students ask questions to advance their understanding or “dig deeper” into a topic quickly and easily over voice or video. A recording of the conference is instantly available to review, edit and share with others. Students easily share what they’ve learned and get feedback from other learners.
  6. Integrated Assessment: Assessment is integrated into content and content adjusts based on feedback from assessment. Assessment takes many forms and is differentiated. If needed, remediation and review is automatically provided. Teachers check student progress in real-time, add observations and feedback to the student’s portfolio, and intervene and guide when needed.

That should be enough to get started with. Okay developers, let’s see some prototypes :)