In 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan declared: “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete.” As schoolbags decrease in size and paper and pen take a backseat, the questions surrounding the fate of the textbook continue to escalate. “Textbooks offer structured teaching and learning in a well-organized, aligned and unified manner” says Jim Butler, founder of adaptive learning platform, Fishtree. “The paper form of a textbook probably will disappear, but the compendium of material in a textbook still holds great value.” But as schools move with deliberate speed towards the paperless classroom, can textbooks maintain the pace?

The Paperless Classroom

A report carried out by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) outlines that at least 22 U.S states have launched a digital textbook initiative, and/or an OER initiative. The report further suggests schools should make the transition to digital instructional materials by no later than 2017. The rise of blended and online learning models are further focusing attention on the necessity to move towards a digital age of teaching and learning. Yet, many remain adamant that the essence of the textbook will never lose its value.

“It’s important to understand that physiologically we are very much wired for text. Our brains have evolved over the past five thousand years to understand information in text form as that has been the primary information medium. Probably the fastest way to get information from outside the brain to inside the brain, in as coherent a manner as possible, is through text. So even if the textbook tome is changing to a digital entity, the content and modality will certainly not go away”, says Butler.

Textbooks of the Digital Age

As newspapers and paper-based materials continue to face similar questions, it remains unanswered whether or not the textbook can survive within the digital environment. “If the publishing industry recognizes that their basal content, when broken down into constituent parts (regardless of form or sequence), holds great value in a digital world, then they will automatically become part of the future of education content delivery, where they will survive and thrive”, says Jim. Emphasising the need for publishers to “play with other publishers in a curated fashion [through learning platforms]”, Jim uses the analogy of record companies reverting to selling songs as playlists, as an alternative to selling physical albums.

Learning platforms like Fishtree are paving the way for what would previously have been textbook content to maintain a firm place within the learning sphere, working with leading publishers to make content personalized and adaptive. Pointing out the logic behind the collaboration, Jim states “publishers have the content, platforms have the delivery mechanism, and both have the ability to work symbiotically to deliver personalized experiences, with every teacher, directly to every student.” Combining the expert content from trusted publishers with Open Educational Resources (OER), real-time media and adaptive technology, Fishtree is building a movement that blends modern with traditional, in an effort to form the ideal instructional platform.

Better Education Solutions

With learning systems and publishers working together to form better solutions, the future of education publishing looks bright. This collaboration not only means that traditional content can now meet the demands of the digital world, but reach new heights in education, providing content that automatically aligns to standards, and continuously adapts to every learner. Building a stronger relationship between student and teacher, adaptive platforms are empowering educators, offering a real understanding of how every learner can be best supported, using the best content.

Butler predicts the future of education publishing, describing “atomic units of learning in mixed modalities coming together from different publishers in one system, getting recommended to users based on learning path and profile, then rated, based on usage and performance. This will allow the highest performing, most appropriate content from the highest performing sources to get used the most, establishing this essential link between content and user.“ He emphasizes the idea of technology pulling apart the textbook, and recommending pages or individual pieces of core content, “scaffolded by other content snippets from diverse sources, delivered in a way that works around each individual learner.”

As educators continue to reach for technological solutions, there appears to be one path on the horizon. Yet, as the pages get put aside, the value of well-edited text by experts in education solutions remains unquestioned. As Jim aptly states, even as the delivery moves into the digital sphere, “the medium or modality of text will never go away.”

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About the author:


Lorna Keane is a teacher of French, English and ESL. She specializes in language teaching and has taught in second and third-level institutions in several countries. She holds a B.A in languages and cultural studies and an M.A in French literature, theory and visual culture. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

Image credits: BiblioArchives/ LibraryArchives / CC BY 2.0