Digital Textbooks Provide Opportunities in Distance Learning

Audrey Waters, an education technology blogger for Inside Higher Ed, describes some of the frustrations of ebooks and the opportunities for digital textbooks to expand distance learning.

The original version of the Kindle didn’t make it easy to take notes. “Sometimes,” she writes, “it wasn’t that easy to find the notes I’d digitally jotted down.” And she often worried that her notes might disappear at any moment (which infamously happened with several Kindle downloads of Orwell’s 1984).

Despite these worries, Waters points out several opportunities for digital textbooks and how they can aid in distance learning, which she proposes as several “what-if” questions:

“What if we can more easily share our notes?”

In fact, we can. For instance, CafeScribe encourages readers to share notes and to search and learn from each other’s notes. Many other companies are racing to make note-sharing technology available to students.

“What if we could see the authors’ commentaries on their own works?”

This idea could be just as feasible as students sharing notes. I think this would be most helpful with older texts, where authors have had a lot of time to reflect on what they wrote. Perhaps ebooks could include new research or point out changes in the industry. This thought might work well with textbooks that go through several editions, so that curious students could see how the text and information has evolved.

“What if we could easily read experts’ highlights?”

See the first question, above. The only difference here is that we would need to know who adds which notes, so that we could easily identify which notes come from experts, and which from students.

“What if a class could work together on the pages of an assigned reading – asking and answering questions – in order to give the professor a sense of what’s being read and what’s being understood?”

Collaborative learning through digital textbooks would definitely be a breakthrough. That second part of Waters’ question, about professors seeing what’s being read, has started already. One example is Thuze, which can give schools the tools to measure engagement. With Thuze, one could capture key reader behaviors like frequency of visits, reading duration, and use of features to adjust their lessons.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael is a regular contributor to the Ashford University blog.

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