Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by James Ashenhurst (@jamesashchem). He is a Ph.D. organic chemist, online tutor and the founder of Master Organic Chemistry, an online guide to introductory organic chemistry. In collaboration with Metamolecular he recently published the Reagents app for iPhone, a guide to the 80+ reagents in undergraduate organic chemistry.
Using the iPad makes it easy to imagine a digital backpack that will include all of your textbooks on one device. Investors in companies such as Inkling and Kno are making million-dollar bets that textbooks of the future won’t have much to do with paper. But what will textbooks of the future actually look like? One thing everyone can agree on is that it won’t just be a PDF of a paper textbook dumped on an iPad with a few video links and perhaps some social features. Here’s my prediction: textbooks of the future will combine not only these features in addition to those we associate with traditional textbooks, but they will also include many of the features we currently associate with mobile apps.
What are textbooks for, anyway?
Textbooks were developed to do three main things. First, they provide a comprehensive, self-contained walkthrough of a subject, guiding readers through chapters of gradually increasing complexity. Secondly, textbooks provide exercises and problems as opportunities to build skills and apply concepts. Finally, they serve as a reference, being the definitive source on their subject, whether that be zoology, calculus, or organic chemistry.
How has technology changed this? While textbooks still serve a role as a self-contained walkthrough of a subject, the rise of credible online resources have gutted their value as reference materials. It’s hard to imagine spending a few minutes searching a textbook for information about, say, elements of the periodic table, when so much information is readily available on Wikipedia. But the recent explosive rise in mobile apps have made the role of a textbook as a reference work even less important. Why even consult Wikipedia when you can have the Periodic Table Explorer app on your iPad, which can give you any information you’d ever care to know about each element in the blink of an eye? Similarly, when you have an app like iPathways available that describes biological pathways in detail, where else could you possibly want to go but to an app dedicated to this one task?
Similarly, mobile apps are also changing the role of the textbook as a source of problems and exercises. Students wanting to learn about naming chemical compounds (to take one example) used to have no choice but to work through the textbook problems. But the rise of the App store means that they can now choose from a variety of programs designed specifically to teach them this one skill, often in a more immersive and intuitive manner. Similarly, the preparing of flashcards used to be a rite of passage for many pre-medical students trying to pass courses such as anatomy and physiology. But now a student with a mobile device can bypass this necessity through downloading the appropriate flashcard program from the App Store.
In other words, mobile apps are now not only performing functions that used be exclusively the purview of textbooks, but they are also addressing needs that textbooks have not met previously. After all, what sets the mobile app ecosystem apart from that of textbooks is that the onus is on developers to make educational apps which are useful for an audience of students, rather than appealing solely to a course instructor. The App Store therefore represents a great experiment in which developers are competing to make apps that students will find the most useful. Currently, many of the most popular higher education apps are reference and self-testing apps (e.g. periodic tables and flashcards) but in time, it’s conceivable that apps will be developed to address many of the common sets of problems that students encounter in major survey courses such as biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, and so on.
So what does this mean for e-textbooks?
The rise of mobile apps that address specific needs of students represents a challenge for traditional textbooks, in that more and more of their traditional usefulness is getting “hollowed out” by apps. However, this same phenomenon may represent a great opportunity for e-textbooks. Rather than simply presenting the same content in a digital form, it’s possible to imagine a new generation of e-textbooks that contains not only traditional written material (as well as video), but also incorporates the best of what mobile apps have to offer. In other words, e-textbooks will have apps baked right in. E-textbooks will thus be able to take back what the rise of the web and mobile apps took away from traditional textbooks: a role as an indispensable self-testing and reference tool.
Picture: Morguefile user dtl