Books that glow Is the future digital for textbooks?

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Digital textbooks are to textbooks what the iPhone was to phones. Five years ago, making phone calls and sending text messages was just about all I could imagine that I could do with my mobile phone. Then along came devices like the iPhone and the game changed: phone calls and text messages gave way to email, social networking, internet browsing and just about anything else you could find an app for.

When I say digital textbooks, I am not referring to Amazon Kindles. Useful as they are, I am certain Kindles will end up, sooner rather than later, in a cupboard alongside the electronic typewriter, the fax machine and the floppy disk. The reason why I think this is the case is that Kindles are intermediate devices that have been developed to suit already existing content.

South Korea has announced recently that, by 2015, all the information that would once have been in paper textbooks will be delivered on screens. These digital textbooks will be available on computers, tablets, smartphones and even internet-capable TVs. Note how here the emphasis is on the content and not on the device: they want the content to be suitable for the devices, not the other way round.

When we think of digital textbooks today we tend to think of little more than books that glow. We generally fail to see the point because we tend to envisage the same content that was previously available on print delivered on a screen. I am certain this is not what the South Korean Minister for Education has in mind. By focusing on the development of new bespoke content that is designed for delivery on devices like the iPad, the South Koreans are putting the horse before the cart.

Over here, however, we are more likely to throw iPads at our students without having really thought about what they could do with them once they hit the on button. We may be putting the cart before the horse and giving fodder to those who think that digital textbooks are nothing more than books that glow.

This video of a TED talk by Mike Matas about the digital format of Our Choice, AlGore‘s sequel to book An Inconvenient Truth gives you and idea of what can be achieved when you adapt the content to the device, and not vice versa:

Putting aside the rather gimmicky wind blowing, the potential to transform the way we deliver content to our students quickly becomes apparent. Just like making phone calls on the iPhone, reading text is simply one of the options available to the learner. Not only are graphics brought to life before our very eyes and the boundaries between learning and playing blurred, but also, the content can be adapted to exploit all the other nifty things a tablet like the iPad can do.

So, just like the iPhone is so much more than just a phone, digital textbooks are so much more that just textbooks.

The future of education is glowing… in more ways than one.

What do you think?

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