The 21st-century textbook

Future textbooks could improve update cycles and create feedback loops

With new technologies constantly coming on-line, and with states like California, Texas, and Oregon allowing digital curriculum to replace printed curriculum, the question arises: what will textbooks look like in the coming years?

Dale’s post, “A hunger for good learning,” featured a fantastic video about teaching math. In a few brief minutes, Dan Meyer showed us a photo of a math problem involving filling a tank of water and calculating how long that would take, then showed us why traditional approaches to teaching this problem stifled student learning. The picture showed a traditional math problem with a line drawing of the tank, a problem set-up written in text (octagonal tank, straight sides, 27oz per second, etc.) followed by short sub-steps that are needed to solve the problem (calculate the surface area of the base, calculate the volume). Then, finally, it asks the question “how long will it take to fill the tank?” Dan’s view is that this spoon-feeding of problem solving in little steps trains students not to think like mathematicians and not to have the patience for solving complex problems. Instead, Dan prefers to show his students a video of the tank filling up, agonizingly slowly, until the students are eager to know “How long until that tank fills up, anyway?” And then they’re off — discussing, questioning, and, most importantly, formulating the problem on their own, just as good mathematicians do.

It seems that what the textbook looks like in the 21st century is a lot more like Dan’s presentation than the bound paper tomes we grew up with. If the 21st century textbook is delivered digitally to students, we can expect it to be far more than a .pdf representation of a traditional text. For example, let’s say the textbook publisher chose to experiment with findings from the research community that kids learn better from authentic and difficult problems than they do from bite-sized steps laid out one after the other. The publisher does what Dan Meyer did, recreates the tank problem and updates a version of the textbook for a handful of beta testers. The next morning, Dan’s students walk into class and open the book to chapter 5. The old problem is gone, instead there is just a video of a tank and instructions that say “watch me fill up — when you know how long it takes, please enter the answer.” Sure, a student might choose to watch the video for seven-plus hours and finally write down the time it took. But when boredom sets in, a more engaging option is to just play with the problem. By staying up to date with new information and practices, this textbook is living.

In this example, the student finds all the needed tools lying around the page. A ruler for measuring the size of the tank, a cup of known size and a stopwatch to measure the rate of water flow, as well as various other tools, leaving it to the student to decide which ones are relevant to solving the problem. This textbook is interactive.

On the opposite page of the book is a chat window where students can share hypotheses, discuss approaches, share results from using the tools (I get 18.4 inches for the height, but you got 18.7). This textbook is participative.

Of course, for the kid who already understands this deeply and finishes quickly, there are better challenges waiting. Similar problems with trickier shapes to the tank, problems where there is more than one pipe filling the tank up, problems where the rate of the water varies. This textbook provides each student with the right level of challenge at any given time — it is adaptive.

If some of these problems require new tools and concepts, the student has the ability to research on the Internet, connect with tutors in higher grades, chat with other students across the world who happen to be wrestling with this same problem right now, or find and watch a YouTube-sized lecture on a relevant topic. This textbook is connected.

In addition to living, interactive, participative, adaptive, and connected, we can expect the 21st century textbook to be personalized and mashable. Beyond that, though, could the 21st century textbook hold out a unique promise – that the student who uses this kind of textbook no longer needs to wait for high-stakes, anxiety-inducing tests to determine whether he had learned a topic? What if the digital textbook were instrumented to collect and interpret data in such a way that it could tell a student’s level of mastery without test-taking, just from how he engaged with the content? Some of these measurements and interpretations are easy to imagine, such as: ‘Which digital tool did the student first pick up to make measurements in the tank-filling problem’, and ‘What keywords did he search for on the internet?’ Other kinds of data will be harder to interpret, such as: ‘What solutions did he try on his scratch pad’, ‘What questions did he ask his peers’, and ‘Which of his peers’ questions did he answer?’ But to any degree, what would it mean for a textbook to understand a student’s level of mastery in real-time from his work in this digital medium? With what information could a teacher know exactly what next challenge would be optimal for each student’s learning on a daily basis?

What if the textbook publishers could see, in aggregate, how effective their content is, learn from that, adapt their textbooks, and redistribute new and improved content in months, weeks, or days rather than the current seven-year adoption cycles — much in the way that Google measures our interactions with their applications and improve them based on the results. Depending on how well the beta testers in Dan’s classroom learned to solve algebra problems, the textbook modifications might become standard for all algebra students. What if the instrumented 21st century textbook were able to measure both a student’s learning and its own effectiveness, and that capability moved education innovation itself to Internet time?

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  • andy

    Take it one step further – why do we need textbook publishers? What benefit do they provide in an environment where teachers can find better ways to do things and where the bar is low to sharing ideas and encouraging social interaction?

    Teams of interested teachers could get together and share lesson plans and problem sets. Developers could create applications, frameworks, and domain-specific languages that make it easy to create interesting interactive tools for students to learn with. Other teachers could benefit by the work of the dedicated few (an open-sourcing of textbooks, as it were).

  • Marie Bjerede

    Andy – it would be great to make it easy for teachers to develop and share content. Teachers know their students well and are skilled at adapting materials to engage their interest and advance their learning.

    I like to think about curriculum development on two levels. The first is developing fantastic problems the way Dan’s lectured showed us. If the 21st century textbook is mashable, teachers will be able to infuse their own textbooks with great innovations like that.

    The second level is taking these great problems, assignments, experiences and putting them together into an overarching arc – a “learning trajectory”, if you will. That can be a pretty resource-intensive effort and I suspect it will always have value whether it is performed by publishers, Open Education Resource collaborators, or educators themselves.

    One of the questions in my mind is what interfaces need to be standardized and which ones need to be left open in order to create an architecture for participation on both of these levels?

  • Lucy Gray

    Great description of the ideal 21st century intelligent textbook, Marie! I particularly like the assessment part. The cynic in me, however, wonders if and how we can breakdown traditional elements to make this sort of thing happen. And, in the current educational climate, are teachers going to be given enoughtime and autonomy to artfully construct curriculum as Andy describes above? Can this type of textbook be effective within our current school structures?

  • Marie Bjerede

    Great points Lucy! Will the 21st century textbook first evolve inside or outside traditional schooling?

    What if, as a parent, I could by my kid a textbook that let him work at his own pace, connect with students and tutors, and recommend learning materials for me to buy, along with some sort of effectiveness rating?

    If there was evidence that Internet Time educational innovation helped families who could afford access, would it cross the bridge to become available to everyone?

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Very interesting post, Marie! I love books–probably even more than the next gal–but still feel compelled to ask, why books at all? What you’ve described could well be an interactive website (that stores student data in the cloud). The physical display device might be a laptop or a netbook or an iPad. What’s magical about the concept of “book” that need to describe these wonderful, interactive lessons that you’ve described as “books”?

  • Chris Kubica


    This is EXACTLY the kind of book I’m hoping to build at

    See a demo here:

    I just need an angel investor.


  • Marie Bjerede

    Elizabeth –

    Yes, the notion of book becomes pretty metaphorical at this point, doesn’t it. There is a professor at Stanford that talks about teaching math through middle school as a World of Warcraft type game. Check out Keith Devlin:

  • yannisguerra

    This is almost exactly what is described in the Diamond Ag, a Sci-Fi book from Neil Stephenson, where he describes how a girl with an interactive computerized tutor (in a book-like form), instead of lessons, different “problems”, and with that, trains her to be the next generation leader.
    I am thrilled to think that this may happen while I am still alive!

  • Scott Berkun

    I dig your enthusiasm, but I’m simultaneously baffled by where you are aiming it.

    What you’re suggesting is textbooks should replace part of what teachers do – as what Dan did is an example of what good teachers, teachers who know their students, can do. So this reads to me like you want textbooks to play a *larger* role in this system, which is bizarre.

    Part of why Dan was/is successful is he is a living breathing human being who has earned the student’s respect, standing physically in front of the room, and he’s burning calories pushing/persuading them to *do something*. Conviction is really really tough to replicate, It’s rare enough in people, much less in machines. Add persuasive ability, and now it’s extremely rare.

    > This textbook provides each student
    > with the right level of challenge
    > at any given time — it is adaptive.

    Adaptive anything has been a long standing research challenge for both Computer scientists and UI designers. I know, because I was one. It has been a very qualified failure for many of the reasons all general purpose AIs have been failures. And this has been true for *decades*. Troubleshooting, which arguable is what part of teaching is, is very difficult to automate as it requires different levels of problem solving and abstraction, which computers are awful at.

    What Dan, or any good teacher, does in his head while at the front of the room is a kind of orchestration of skills and observations so far beyond what billions of dollars of computing power and a team of the worlds best computer scientists can do. Yet he’s likely paid a rounding error of those research budgets. I have no doubt in my mind the world is better served by changing that inequality than by worrying about textbooks.

    > What if the digital textbook were instrumented > to collect and interpret data in such a way
    > that it could tell a student’s level of
    > mastery without test-taking, just from how
    > he engaged with the content?

    The history of standardized testing in America suggests that it’s not teachers that like test-taking, it’s parents. Unless these textbooks can change parents expectations, the textbook is not the problem.


  • Marie Bjerede

    Chris – Fantastic demo! Really shows the potential of mashable, connected and updating on Internet Time. I particularly like being able to see who else is studying that same chapter, and share notes and comments in real time or asynchronously.

    Do you have an idea of what the ideal device is for consuming this kind of book? Does it look like a traditional e-reader? Is it a tablet? Is it a netbook or a smartphone?

  • Ian Barker

    This is an excellent article! It highlights the two key ingredients needed for “tomorrow’s” textbooks: interactivity and personalization of content.

    We need both the ability to mashup content and the enabling tools to make this happen. And none of this is complete without underlying royalty and usage systems enabling creators to get compensated and users (students, educators, creators) to see what’s working and what isn’t.

    I think one of the things that we all tend to collectively miss is that 99.99% of the best written content hasn’t yet been enabled with an interactive, immersive experience. We’ll get there, but in the meantime what we can do is enable mashups to get that mass of existing material into the hands of educators and students the way they want it, and build in some interactive tools to support enough interactivity to foster learning.

    For those who might be interested, we make it easy for educators to provide learners with exactly the right mix of digital materials, in a way that meet the needs of creators, educators and learners.
    One Book From Many presentation:


  • Kathy Sierra

    I like the attributes you envision for a textbook: living, participative, adaptive, connected, and instrumented.

    The part I’m not sure about (but could be misreading your post) is the lack of distinction between textbooks-in-a-classroom and self-study texts. What Dan Meyer does in class is precisely *about* the classroom experience, and though the discussion IS a huge point of his process, it’s very much a discussion artfully crafted and guided by a skillful teacher.

    So, while the “drop the students into the problem with just a question and some tools” approach works fabulously when there’s a skilled Dan Meyeresque guide/storyteller/teacher present, this approach usually fails miserably when learners are left on their own, no matter how much they collaborate with one another, and no matter how many tools you place in their hands.

    You do mention the possibility of connecting with tutors, but unless that tutor (or the best artificial intelligence science can give us) is fully baked-in to the learning environment, then something different is needed.

    The problem with most traditional textbooks (and much of traditional learning) — and the problem that I believe Dan is working on — is that they’re focused on What To Think rather than What To Think About. A 21st century textbook needs to provide a context where learning can happen in the most effective way, but a context for self-study is dramatically different from Dan’s classroom.

    All that said, I believe there are many different ways in which a textbook can be designed to offer at least some of the benefits of Dan… without Dan. And perhaps the interactivity could be layered in such a way that you get one experience when there’s a teacher available (realtime class or online), but if not… then the AI teacher-in-a-box kicks in to offer the graduated hints (using the ‘adaptive’ attribute you mention) that keeps the discussion on the correct track. And yes, for most topics there is most certainly a *correct* track in that the goal of most learning is to move our ability to apply new knowledge ever closer to that of someone who is much more skilled at performing whatever it is we’re trying to learn.

    Any track might have a lot of variation and side-trips, but just as a skilled filmmaker keeps us moving forward while engaging our imagination, a skilled teacher — either real of virtual/in-a-box/”smart” textbook — keeps us moving forward while ultimately leaving us with that feeling that the answers are surprising-yet-self-evident. Or as “What The Best College Teachers Do” puts it, “by the end of the course the students feel as though they’ve invented calculus.”

    I’m all for making books that don’t *need* a teacher as part of the learner’s real-time experience with the book; it’s how I make my living, and it’s very, very scalable. But I doubt that in my lifetime that it will ever replicate what Dan Meyer does with his students. Still, that shouldn’t stop us from trying :)

    I just think we must be mindful and clear when discussing textbooks whether the book is meant for self-study or to be used as part of a program with a skilled teacher. And by “skilled” I don’t mean subject-matter skills as much as the skills for teaching/supporting/engaging the higher-level cognitive skills associated with the subject (the “think about x” vs. “think x”). And if the goal is to have a book that can be used for both, I’m all for that too… as long as the modes are clearly defined (AI vs. Real Teacher, etc.)

  • kathy Sierra

    Oh, and a big +1 to everything Scott Berkun said.

  • Ian Barker

    Re: what the ideal device is for consuming this kind of book?

    I think the answer is we have to be agnostic about it, in the sense that as we don’t want to dictate how a learner accesses and consumes content we must be prepared to support multiple distribution channels.

    So I think the answer is that living, participative, adaptive, connected, and instrumented textbooks must be available via “traditional” online, device (e.g., iPad) and even print on demand.

    – Ian @IRBarker

  • Marie Bjerede

    Scott – you’re right.

    No machine, software, algorithm, or process will ever take over the judgment that a teacher exercises. The teacher knows his students, knows his field, and improvises daily. Science-fiction level ‘adaptive’ is as elusive as artificial intelligence or the semantic web.

    A teacher collects all kinds of data about a student that puts his work into context and teachers are frustrated by a system that forces them to evaluate students on the basis of high-stakes testing. They do on-going assessment and evaluation of students day in and day out and know things that can’t be characterized by least-common-denominator exams.

    So one question is, what kinds of data could an instrumented textbook collect that is helpful to the teacher in his understanding of the student…not how can the textbook replace the teacher.

    A skillful teacher will walk around the room as students struggle with a problem, guiding here, giving feedback there. Can digital content increase the bandwidth of that data collection? If the teacher isn’t able to make it to every student during their work, can the digital data-collection give him more insights?

    If a student is far outside the distribution as far as his math level goes, even a great teacher may not have time to give him a private lesson on something new while the other kids are mostly working on today’s lesson. Could other peers and students who are not sitting in the same classroom keep this kid from getting bored and tuning out?

    If kids are working through the text at home, would that give the teacher more flexibility in how to use classroom hours?

    As for the promise of adaptive – it can be useful without being indistinguishable from magic. Stanford’s EPGY On-line math program can tell when a student understands a topic and doesn’t make her drill to the extent that a struggling student does. Check out school of one: helps figure out what the next activity is for a given kid.

    I’m also involved with some folks at the Friday Institute in North Carolina who are experimenting with math content that performs “invisible assessment” for math learning in young students – early days but highly intriguing.

    Technology is not for replacing teaching. Writing didn’t replace teaching in Socrates’ time and computers and e-readers won’t replace it today. It’s a pretty complex challenge to even figure out how to use it to support teaching really well. My enthusiasm is for how technology can serve as a more powerful platform for teachers and learners.

  • Scott Berkun

    Hi Marie:

    > A skillful teacher will walk around the room
    > as students struggle with a problem, guiding
    > here, giving feedback there. Can digital
    > content increase the bandwidth of that data
    > collection? If the teacher isn’t able to
    > make it to every student during their work,
    > can the digital data-collection give him more
    > insights?

    My primary argument is I think this is far from the most important problem to solve for teachers.

    Now I’m not a teacher, and it’s not my thread, so my opinion on this isn’t worth much. Better textbooks might be a worthy goal.

    But from what I know, the dominant problems teachers face or the bureaucracies that handcuff their work in the classroom, the resources ($$ & time) wasted on (useless) standardized tests, and the large class sizes that impossibly divide their attention – these are problems that negate all others.

    I believe you could have the best digital textbooks in the world, and the quality of education would barely improve if the above problems are not remedied or reduced.

    I’m firmly in the camp that education should be designed around teachers – they are the stars. If it were a sports team, they’d have the $10mil contracts. And as as technology is concerned, that conversation must start by asking actual teachers which of their problems are possibly solved by technology. My guess is that most of the important problems are not technological.

    From watching Dan’s video, what it seemed he desired was a decently written textbook. You don’t need a iPad to do what he described. You don’t need the web either. You likely just need someone unencumbered by bureaucracy, legacy thinking and politics willing to listen to what teachers actually need and designing for it.

  • Dan Meyer

    Thanks for the thoughtful write-up, Marie.

    I suspect we’ll render textbook publishers obsolete before classroom teachers. If you go with that assumption, my question is this:

    How do we get math teachers developing, using, and sharing great curriculum? How do we do that at scale?

    It kills me, basically, how little dialog there is between teachers and technologists. The fundamentals of a strong online community are not unknown yet somehow the knitters got their site for professional development and resource sharing before we did.

    At one point I thought it would be enough to create a site where teachers passed high quality resources back and forth. Kathy Sierra, through a lot of her recent commentary at my blog, has made me realize how much the experience of using that site has be exhilarating and transformative for teachers themselves. It has to revitalize a corps of teachers who have been numbed by the very curriculum they’re forced to teach. It has reconnect them to the joy of learning good math.

    In short, I’d discourage the commenting body here from teacher-proofing school and encourage them instead to use scalable Internet technologies to drop teachers into a whirling vortex of professional development where they’re using great curriculum, then they’re learning how to make it, and then they’re sharing it themselves.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Kathy –

    Agree – I should make the distinction between AI and Real Teacher. For the record, then, I’m not holding my breath waiting for AI. I’m talking about textbooks that collect information, some of which will be useful in letting students move at their own pace, some of which will be useful to a teacher in guiding the student.

    One of the reasons the distinction blurs has to do with an assumption I make about how teaching and learning will change. I fully expect that in an educational system that teaches kids how to think they will have more ownership of their learning than ever. I expect that a lot of the things that currently happen in the classroom, such as lectures and drill will happen as homework in the future. Some portion of what a teacher does as lecturer is the same year after year. Why not record the lecture and let kids watch it as class preparation? And a textbook that lets them engage with content and their learning community as part of homework -that’s useful, too.

    Why do this? To give teachers more time and more flexibility in the classroom. Flexibility to teach all the things we talk about as 21st century skills, higher order thinking, collaboration, problem formulation and selection – within the context. language and organizing principles of a given field. In a math classroom, to teach young people to think like mathematicians, not to perform rote operations.

  • Marie Bjerede


    Re:My primary argument is I think this is far from the most important problem to solve for teachers

    Fair enough. Unleashing teachers from the gordian knot is hardly a one-dimensional problem. A lot of challenges have to be addressed or the remaining ones will prevent progress. A great teacher inspired me in one dimension – the potential of digital textbooks.

    Like you, I’m not a teacher – I just hope to learn from them in as many dimensions as possible. And just for the record – I like what you have to say, so, please, ‘my thread is your thread’.

  • Marie Bjerede


    Wow – thanks for coming over and weighing in and saving me from presuming “What I think Dan would have wanted is…”

    “Don’t teacher-proof school” – I like that. When I was a young engineer back in the ’80s, we had quality standards to build to that were so restrictive that the cost to build anything became prohibitive and the job of ‘implementers’ was not to think or use judgment. We used to refer to it as ‘legislating intelligence’ and mock how it immediately reduced us to the least common denominator.

    “How do we get math teachers developing, using, and sharing great curriculum? How do we do that at scale?”

    Let’s dialog – I’m a technologist, you’re a teacher, the community on this blog has more of both. What do you think are the real challenges, and where can technology help?

  • Kathy Sierra

    Thanks Marie.
    I like the goal “give teachers more time and flexibility in the classroom”, though I don’t share your assumptions about how other things will change. And even if I did, I don’t believe that giving kids “more ownership of their learning” is the place to focus.

    Most of us do not want/need more *ownership* of our learning… we want/need *better* learning. And the link between *ownership* and *better* is sketchy. Or rather, most studies say we basically suck at making choices about our own learning, even for those with high metacognitive skills, and even when motivated.
    ducation system.

    If we’re looking for models of excellent, deep, efficient learning, they surround us — though not as common in public school classrooms. But we can look at sports, music, passionate hobbies, etc. any place where young (or old) learners are excelling at continuous growth and refinement. And where you find THAT, you nearly always find a learner who has quite willingly given total control/ownership of the learning experience to a coach, trainer, teacher, tutor, mentor, or program. Every aspect of learning and practice is carefully crafted by someone other than the learner, but designed in such a way to have the maximum impact for both motivation and performance.

    There is science that tells us how effective and efficient learning happens, science that tells us how expertise develops, and science that tells us how motivation happens. I’d love to see us exploring more ways to apply what is already known in these areas, and from what I’ve read, many of the things you mention would be very useful tools but are not the most fundamental areas we should be focusing on.

    From a systems perspective, I believe that Dan’s comment on education and technology offers the best place for leverage: “use scalable Internet technologies to drop teachers into a whirling vortex of professional development where they’re using great curriculum, then they’re learning how to make it, and then they’re sharing it themselves.”

    Thank you so much for bringing up this topic and giving us a chance to discuss it. My own two kids have finally graduated out of the public school system, but it’s still an emotional topic for me as it is, I imagine, for most parents (and teachers).

  • Ian Barker

    “I’d discourage the commenting body here from teacher-proofing school and encourage them instead to use scalable Internet technologies to drop teachers into a whirling vortex of professional development where they’re using great curriculum, then they’re learning how to make it, and then they’re sharing it themselves.”


    Again, this is nicely put. Agreed that we have to arm educators with the means to create “great curriculum.” Because, at the end of the day the educator is the specifier of the great content that constitutes the backbone of great curriculum. They are the ones who not only know the body of research, but how to organize it in such a way as to deliver the best course.

    It’s the unique role of educator-as-specifier that gets continually ignored by technologists. And we should also note that as content can now be made available in more granular form, more influence and power accrues to educators. This is because educators are no longer trapped in a world of limited choice, picking, say, 1 generic textbook from among 5 available. They can now select 2 chapters from one publisher, three from another, 1 from yet another, and then blend in podcasts, videos and their own course materials.

    Add in the capacity to present and emphasize student-generated content and you really have a brand new world in which instructional materials are completely unique to each course — indeed each section of a course.

    We call these unique bundles of instructional materials — which feature publisher, educator and student-generated content — liquid textbooks. They are constructed by educators, who select the best possible content from multiple publishers and formats. I’d like think this is the sort of scalable Internet technology Dan Meyer is referring to!

    – Ian

  • Dan Meyer


    The website that will transform (math) teaching worldwide will need the freeform tagging of Delicious, the community management of Vimeo, the reputation currency of Stack Overflow, and the simplicity of Tumblr.

    I’m not going to pretend that because I can rattle all that off in a paragraph that it would be easy to design. But I’ve spent my entire (short) career watching a dozen lesson-sharing sites start up and flame out spectacularly, owing largely to reasons of quality (teachers are web users, of course, and these weren’t sites that web users would use) but also because teachers are an extremely weird, territorial, possessive bunch. Luring them out of that state and into the kind of virtuous cycle I described in my last ‘graf above will take a very uniquely selected set of incentives.

    The most pressing question I have for technologists is this: what kind of online activity (either creative or consumptive) would convince a teacher to change her practice? I’ve written some essays that focus on the mental state of a typical teacher but, in terms of inspiring participatory models online, I reach my limit with that first paragraph above.

  • Marie Bjerede

    OK, this is cool. Up until Kathy’s last post I would have said I agreed with the positions of the posters. Thank you, Kathy, for continuing the conversation!! FWIW, I agree with much of this last post as well. Technology has an important role to play in scaling the best practices of teaching and learning, but it is not a solution to questions at that level. Still, it’s got some pretty cool potential and I like to talk about it. I think it’s fine to discuss what technology can do, even before the big problems are solved – it’s not an either-or.

    I’ve got little ones in primary school myself, so I doubtless have much to learn about what that is like as they grow and move through the school system. And I will confess that this makes the questions far more than academic for me as well.

    Now (I say rolling up my sleeves) let’s talk about ownership. I think it is an important place for focus and I’d like to talk about why. First, I guess I should clarify that when I talk about ownership I don’t mean radical constructivism where students are expected to recreate all the knowledge of civilization from scratch, essentially unguided. But I have bought in to the kinds of pedagogy my educator colleagues promote that refer to the teacher as the “guide on the side” as opposed to the “sage on the stage”. Yes, these learning experiences are scaffolded. Yes, they require careful teacher crafting – more so than traditional stand-and-deliver lecture-then-test pedagogy does.

    When I talk about ownership I mean that students should and need to have experiences as members of learning communities that parallel the experiences of professionals in communities of practice. Let’s take a drama club, or school newspaper, or other activity which, while scaffolded by adults, require students to set direction for their own development as actors, journalists, etc. Those kids are not just going through the motions and they are not passively waiting for a teacher to tell them the next thing to work on – they are exploring their talents and are effectively coached.

    I’ve seen this in school as well. In my previous radar post here: I talk about how students very effectively created learning communities where students helped each other with math on-line, after school, as a supplement to great teaching. Different kids had different levels of understanding and they collectively developed a capacity to both do math and to learn math better. And tools help. They don’t do the teaching or the learning, but they help.

    Without the use of technology, I’ve also seen math teachers group kids together to explore math concepts. Those kids have ownership – they are not just following a script. They are also coached – they have a teacher who put in all the extra time to create a learning experience where they could gradually, over time, take more and more ownership of their math learning. By the time my kids finish college I hope they will have complete ownership of their own life-long learning and professional development.

    When I talk about ownership, I mean in the sense of expertise-building. In choosing to repurpose the cognitive resources freed up by the automation of simple tasks towards solving more complex problems. In engaging with a community in reflection and metacognition. Not in the place of expert guidance, but within an expertly designed structure.

    There is a profound difference in the kind of learning you do in established areas and those you do on the leading edge. There are tremendous resources dedicated to the best ways to teach football or the violin – I suspect this is because those are areas where it’s easy to judge the results: did you win more football games? We know how to do that. Great – go for it.

    In other fields such as science, engineering, or teaching, it is a lot harder to measure “better” – this is one of the core reasons for the controversies around the ‘great teacher’ goals at the federal level in assigning Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants. The things that are easy to measure go to the lowest common denominator, but the things that really differentiate great teaching are hard to measure. Where checklist evaluations fail, it is up the community to understand, recognize, and in some ways constantly reinvent excellence. Ownership is crucial to success in this kind of environment – when I hire engineers I look for the ones who can take ownership and move the ball forward rather than those who wait passively for me to tell them what to do.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Yes, and Yes on this comment by Kathy:

    There is science that tells us how effective and efficient learning happens, science that tells us how expertise develops, and science that tells us how motivation happens. I’d love to see us exploring more ways to apply what is already known in these areas,

  • Dan Meyer

    Ian: “We call these unique bundles of instructional materials — which feature publisher, educator and student-generated content — liquid textbooks. They are constructed by educators, who select the best possible content from multiple publishers and formats. I’d like think this is the sort of scalable Internet technology Dan Meyer is referring to!”

    Right. And Ian’s earlier description of the teacher-as-specifier is pretty good too.

    I think on my best days, I’m doing something like curating, selecting interesting, challenging mathematics I’ve accumulated and ordering them sensibly for my students.

    One of these days, when I’m feeling like staring at my navel for a few hours, I’ll ponder the relationship of teachers to mixtape DJs, creative people who have a trove of old records and instrumental samples they’ve picked up over a lifetime which they then order for a listening audience in a way that, as Kathy quoted Walter Murch, “surprising yet self-evident.”

  • christina oreilly

    This model really excites me since it gives room for an educational model that I learned about years ago from a physical education teacher in Newton, MA. The model was called Efficacy Training and it was based not on the theory that there were talented, smart students and “dumb” ones. The training theory was that every student needed to be properly assessed at what level they were at in a particular skill. And then, and this is important, the teacher would talk with the student to see how high the challenge bar should be for that particularl student. Some students thrive on a huge challenge. Others don’t. In fact if the bar is consistently set higher than the student’s challenge level all the student gets is discouraged and feels dumb. This teacher had vertical teaching materials. If the lesson was to throw a baseball and the student couldn’t the teacher would give a softball, if not a softball then a bigger ball if not that ball then a balloon. Then the pupil would work their way up from there. And the most amazing thing was that with this system all the students were PROUD of their accomplishments.

  • Ian


    Curating is an apt term. It implies more than harvesting and storing content: informed organization and the adding of meaning are present as well.

    I think the trick to all this lies in making the process of educator curation — and teaching using curated materials — far easier than generic materials locked in limited formats allow us to at the moment.

    ian AT

  • Chris Kubica


    A Neverend Book can be read in any modern Web browser. If the browser supports HTML5 (like the iPhone/iPad do, for example) then you can even read offline.

    So any device. Almost any browser. Platform/hardware agnostic.


  • Chad Dorsey

    I’m glad to find this post, though I already feel as if I’ve stepped in a bit after the conversation has begun. At the Concord Consortium (site redesign coming soon…) we’ve been thinking about this problem from many angles for quite a while, and it’s exciting to see the conversation flowering in so many places. We’ve been working hard for the past fifteen years to create good examples of the elements that could make up just such a textbook for math and science, and are now starting to pull this all together.

    Marie: We heartily agree with your description that a digital textbook must make full use of all that technology has to offer, and be much more than simply a digital PDF version of a paper text. We’ve been calling these deeply digital texts to make this distinction. I was pleased to see that the facets of these texts that I wrote about recently overlap nicely with those you cite.

    Scott: We also agree that the teacher is prime in this equation. Efforts that have attempted to remove or replace teachers have generally been quite unsuccessful. We do, however agree that much can be done to help teachers by providing useful information and feedback.

    In the vein that you mention about instrumenting texts, Marie, we have been working at developing examples of multi-level models and simulations that can monitor how students interact with them and report on this interaction at multiple levels. We’ve begun this with success in a prior project involving electric circuits which we are currently extending. We are now developing interactive models that use this information to help categorize students along an “inquiry index” depending upon whether the students interact with them in a more systematic or more random manner.

    We are also looking at how such tools can help provide current or even real-time information about how students are doing in class. Our LOOPS project provides multiple examples of how teachers can be brought into greater interaction with students using these rich sources of information. For example, a teacher can view all the responses from the class and select a certain subset for the class to respond to. We believe that this type of information on a well designed teacher dashboard will do the opposite of taking the teacher out of the equation. Instead, it gives the teacher an even more powerful platform and set of data to work with.

    And, Elizabeth: Yes, the “book” part is certainly up for grabs. Many of our existing examples are currently in Java, but most of our up-and-coming material is Web-based, so that the “book” is anything you want it to be – iPad (and often offline) included…

  • Chad Dorsey


    The element you may have foregone in your great analysis is the depth to which the interactive role of deeply digital texts can enhance the equation. Far too many descriptions of digital texts stop at describing the inclusion of video or animations. Truly interactive possibilities provided by multi-level models and simulations expand the equation many-fold, providing opportunities for “digital inquiry.” Some examples of our experiments with this help students appreciate the role of molecular dynamics across multiple subjects in science.

    We have also done this with genetics materials, allowing students to explore the genetics of artificial dragons from creating basic breeding schemes to allowing them to mutate the dragons’ DNA or control genetic recombination to fashion the traits they want in their child dragons.

    These type of interactive models, when well designed, can make a huge difference in how students learn concepts that are too abstract or occur on time or length scales that are not accessible to the classroom. Including them in digital texts will be a tremendous enhancement of the possibilities of today’s classrooms.

    Another area that shouldn’t be forgotten when discussing interactivity is the potential of students to collect their own data using probes and sensors. Even a simple $20 temperature probe can make a huge difference in how students explore and understand the world around them. And data from these probes can be combined across students, used in an individual’s report about his or her learning or viewed later by the teacher. By enabling teachers to create and customize their own activities using probes and sensors, we have seen great success in both student learning and teacher engagement. Deeply digital texts that embed data from probes and sensors will bring interactivity out of the book itself and into the world around.

  • Galina Bernstein


    and first, congratulations to Marie on such an interesting topic and such an intriguing discussion.

    I want to apologize if I may have not understood everything you’re posting about schools – implying American schools- for I am from Germany.

    I’m out of High School for less than a decade, so textbooks are still pretty “fresh” on my mind.

    I would have killed to have a good, interactive Math text book like this. My Math teachers in grades 5-10 were basically bad. Really bad. They had no real talent for teaching Math, so – although I came to 5th grade with very good grades in Math, and interest, too – I soon lost it. Some things very too easy for me, while some things the teacher could not really explain or teach in an interesting way, so they kept being a dark mystery for me. A book like is described by you may have saved my interest in Math, and subsequently in Physics & Chemistry, which very strongly depend on mathematical knowledge. When I got a good Math teacher in 11th grade, I kind of rekindled my interest for Math, but it was hard to catch up, since basics were missing.

    What I want to say is, that of course there is no replacement for a GOOD teacher. But, let’s face it – there are a lot of BAD teachers around. And maybe it would be a replacement for them (in the eyes of the students), or at least a complement.

    And, another idea that instantly came to my mind as I read the article is that such books, when properly usable on mobile devices would be a great asset for children in developing and transitional countries, where it’s sometimes easier to have access to cell phones than to schools. It could provide access to education for girls in Afghanistan as well as to nomad children in Mongolia… Well, it’s just an idea – but I hope you’ll get what I mean.

    I’m really looking forward to see what the future brings in this regard.

    Kind regards from Munich,

  • Marie Bjerede

    Thanks for your comments, Galina. It made me sad to think of your engagement in math being lost due to poor teaching – what a waste!

    Also, I like your point about cell phones providing access to education in places where children might otherwise not have one.

  • kathy Sierra

    @Christine: your comment about challenge levels is the one place where I believe an “adaptive” model (and most forms of interactivity) could make the biggest difference.

    Where you have challenge, you have the opportunity for “Flow” (the Mihaly C. kind), and there are some interesting ways to do this without elaborate AI. Too little and they’re bored, too much and they’re frustrated. Of course, this assumes that the second condition necessary for Flow is present: the perception that you have continually increasing skills/knowledge needed to match the challenge. So, back to the learning part of the equation.

    @Chad — I do agree that we’ve overrated the benefits of multimedia and underestimated the potential of interactivity. But in all of these discussions I believe we’re still focusing on the wrong things… we’re looking at what *external* stuff WE (designers/developers/teachers/authors) can add to improve things.

    The multimedia (sound, images, animation, etc.) and interactivity that matters is not IN the software. It is between the learner’s ears.

    He/she/it that can trigger a learner’s imagination–sparking and then fanning the right levels of curiosity– wins. And it doesn’t matter how it happens; a campfire storyteller, indie filmmaker, Dan Meyer, poet, novelist, or computer simulation all have the potential to use their “powers” to incite deep learning. All that matters is what happens in the learner’s mind. Or rather, what happens when their learning journey for this topic *ends.*

    I used to teach interaction design at UCLA Extension, and we tried to remind our teachers that what matters most is NOT what we do in the classroom or in our book or in our interactive app. What matters most is: what would you discover if you could follow your learners for the next day/week/month/year? Where they changed in some subtle (but theoretically measurable) way by the experience? If not, then what was the point?

    In those days, our motto was: “All that matters is what happens when the clicking’s done”, to help us avoid the well-intentioned trap of making Totally Awesome Interactive Content while forgetting that our content–and even our interactivity–is the least important element, and all too often a massive distraction.

    Though I’m very encouraged that people aren’t arguing here in favor of adding “game mechanics” to our books!

    And another huge thanks to Marie :)

  • Mark Kunkel

    I really like Ian Barker’s explanation of the concept of the “Liquid Textbook”. A big challenge is to provide all students and teachers with affordable laptops, notbooks, iPads, whatever in order to take advantage of the content described in this article.

  • Stuart Gannes

    Also coming late to this post. Really appreciate the dialog. This may be too simplistic but in my experience learning happens individually and socially. Print text books try to step in and guide individual learners. The class room is social, led by the teacher, who may use a textbook, chalkboard, or other technology. Does it make sense to ask what piece of the learning process on-line textbooks want to solve? Or how we make ‘books’ work better outside of class? Maybe some narratives would be helpful, even in math and physics. Maybe students and teachers can share stories about how they learned a particular concept. I bet people will discover where flashes of insight happen, and where the stumbling blocks exist.

  • Richard Hartman

    Marie, sorry I took so long to read & respond to this…

    Learning has different phases. For a simplistic breakdown let’s call them “instructional” and “practice”. The step-by-step approach first illustrated would be appropriate for the instructional phase while the “watch me fill or solve the problem” approach would be appropriate for the practice phase. The kids first have to have become acquainted with the basic ideas of surface areas, volume, and flow rate before the could begin to solve the problem on their own, but afterwards it is a great idea to motivate them to use what they’ve been taught.
    Each presentation of the problem has it’s place in the educational spectrum. We really shouldn’t be considering one as a replacement for the other, but instead make use of both approaches as and when appropriate.
    Interactive books make some great things possible. On the other hand we should not be misled into substituting style for substance. (It would be nice to have both.)

  • Marie Bjerede

    Stuart – good point regarding both individual and social learning.

    Richard – Thanks! I appreciate your comments

  • Frymaster

    Well, I’m a little late, but I hope I can still add value with two perspectives and a question.

    1 — The conversation has mostly focused on ‘the future of the textbook’. But the title refers to the 21st century textbook, and the 21st century is now.

    The ‘now’ of the 21st century textbook is that it’s not a book at all. It’s a PDF. At least at the college level. When the kids get sick of on-screen reading, they inevitably hit CTRL+P, setting off a chain of events that ends with colleges metering / limiting / charging for printing. A 40-page humanities essay printed one-side times 20 kids in the class is 800 sheets. And that unrealistically assumes zero waste. Cost of electricity, inks, paper, recycling/trash hauling, etc. rapidly get out of hand.

    My firm is working with Providence College IT department and library (where much printing happens) to develop a symposium on this topic, probably not until next fall.

    2 — We’ve worked with PC IT for several years, but have only just met the library folks who are doing wonderful things. They’ve started using geo-tags to connect displays to online materials and volumes in the library. In their minds, this could end with a GPS function leading you to the book on the shelf.

    At the ‘higher math’ level, these two departments entering into collaboration could be seen as a realization that the library is turning into a giant computer, and the computer is turning into a giant library. (I think the folks over at Google get this, too.)

    Question — Now go from PC about 6 or 7 miles north-by-northeast to Central Falls High School, where 100% of the teachers got fired. CFHS has 20th century textbooks. If it has textbooks at all. The city itself is asking the state legislature to allow it to file for bankruptcy. Does this conversation even apply? What needs to happen to make this relevant?

  • Richard Hartman

    Now frymaster is getting into the more generic issue of ebooks vs. dead tree. There is a lot of discussion in this issue in the general sense (as opposed to specifically in the educational market) all over the place. The general consensus seems to be that there are advantages to each. Etexts can be searched well, but it can be a pain to read a screen for long periods of time.

    One /disadvantage/ to the ebooks of today is that they are generally only electronic versions of the dead tree editions. What Marie posited in the article was a much more dynamic, multimedia, presentation. (This, btw, pretty much describes the web…)

    In order to make effective use of dynamic interactive etexts you have to get a whole lot of expertise into the authoring of it. This expertise is likely to belong to a completely different person than the subject matter expert, so I expect dynamic textbooks to be a collaborative effort involving a content guy to supply the material and a rendering guy to create the work.

  • John A Arkansawyer

    I realize I’m a bit late to this party, but I have to ask a question:

    What will the 21st-century textbook do for the schools in my city which can’t afford 19th century textbooks for all their students?

  • Clancy Marshall

    Great article, Marie!
    This is exactly what we are trying to do with DynamicBooks, which we launched in Feb.
    DynamicBooks is an online and downloadable platform that enables instructors to continually update their favorite textbooks. This means no more forced revisions… and the DynamicBooks are about half the price of traditional texts.
    DynamicBooks is open to all textbook publishers and our first 25 titles will be available for sale Aug 1.
    I’d love to hear what you think!

    Clancy Marshall
    GM DynamicBooks

  • Tom

    If we continue to judge educational success by multiple choice tests I bet you’ll find adaptive memorization programs will be able to compete pretty well with teachers.