iPad 3G and the vacancy of the connected textbook

Last Friday was iPad 3G day and, at my house, the FedEx truck barely made it out of the driveway before the iconic Apple-designed packaging was discarded on the floor and my iPad was busily synching it’s pre-purchased apps.

iBookstoreFor the past couple of years I’ve been pulling out my iPhone and my Kindle in meetings, laying them on top of each other and saying, “There — something like that” when asked what the digital textbook would be like. It was an attempt to convey a fuzzy, absent space in my thinking where a tool should be that could serve as a window to the Internet, to an engaging world of content that invites exploration, and to communities of peers and others that enrich learning. Friday, I finally got to hold a beautifully designed piece of hardware with equally beautifully crafted digital books and learn a little more about the shape and structure of that fuzzy space.

The Elements, Alice, and Jack have been reviewed extensively elsewhere. My personal experience? Delightful. Engaging. Fresh. In an earlier post, I characterized the 21st-century textbook as, among other things, living, interactive, and connected. The artful books I enjoyed on my iPad brought home just how well authors can deliver engaging books that are living and interactive using the technologies of today. The fuzzy vacancy in my mind is filled up in places by rotating images of Boron and Ytterbium, or by a jar of Orange Marmalade falling down the rabbit hole. In other places, the fuzziness persists.

My iPad is connected, via Wi-Fi or 3G, almost anywhere I go. Why aren’t the books?

As far as “connectedness” goes, these wonderful new books are the App Store equivalent of ringtones: content that is created, then downloaded to live out its existence within the confines of a single device. A connected book, on the other hand, whether it be a textbook, a storybook, a reference book, or a novel, is a medium through which people interact. The shape of that interaction begins to emerge in conversations about shared underlines and margin notes and dog-ears and real-time chats about the plot twist in chapter 8, and things that make “book club” implicit in the book itself.

Largely, though, that shape is still amorphous. Somehow, connected texts will help us leverage our collective intelligence. Somehow, they will help provoke learning and expertise building at the level of individuals and communities. Somehow, they will support both broad exploration and deep dives and continue to evolve as the boundaries between the book and the community that engage with it start to blur.

Today, a textbook under the iPad model would be engaging as all get-out. Perhaps ‘ringtone’ is too stingy a parallel — call it a single-player casual game: engaging, interactive, current, well-designed. What, then, is the equivalent of the serious online massively multiplayer version?

There’s a vacancy where the connected textbook ought to be, so I look at all the things that connect us on-line: the social networks, the blogosphere, the gaming world(s), the photo-sharing sites, the collaborative on-line works, and so on and I conclude only, “There — something like that.”


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