TITLE: The Evolution of the Textbook
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 30, 2010 6:02 PM
Over the last week, there has been a long thread on
SIGCSE listserv about writing textbooks. Most
interesting to me was
note, "Thinking about electronic books". Kim noted
Apple's announcement of the iPad, which comes with
software for reading electronic books. Having
written dead-tree books before, he wondered how the
evolution of technology might help us to enhance our
students' learning experience.
If we can provide books on a general-purpose computer,
we have so many options available. Kim mentions
one: replacing graphics with animations. Rather
than seeing a static picture of the state of some
computation, they could watch the computation unfold,
with a direct connection to the code that produces
it. This offers a huge improvement in the way that
students can experience the ideas we want them to
learn. You can see this difference in examples
Kim posted of
his printed textbook
his on-line lecture notes.
Right now, authors face a challenging practical
obstacle: the lack of a standard platform. If a
book requires features specific, say, to an iPad
or to Windows, then its audience is limited. Even
if it doesn't but a particular computer doesn't
provide support for some near-standard technology,
such as Flash on the Apple products, then users
of those products are unable to access the book
their devices. It would be nice to have an
authoring system that runs across platforms,
transparently, so that writers can focus on what
they want to write, not on compatibility issues.
As Kim points out, we can accomplish some of this
already on the web, writing for a browser. This
isn't good enough, though. Reading long-ish
documents at a desktop computer through a browser
changes the reading experience in important ways.
Our eyes -- and the rest of our bodies -- need
With the evolution of handheld devices toward
providing the full computational power we see on
the desktop, our ability to write cross-platform
books grows. The folks working on
and other spin-off technologies have this in mind.
They are creating authoring systems that run across
platforms and that rely less and less on underlying
OS and application software for support.
As we think about how to expand the book-reading
experience using new technologies, we can also see
a devolution from the other side. Fifteen years
ago, I spent a few years thinking about intelligent
tutoring systems (ITS). My work on knowledge-based
systems in domains such as engineering and business
had begun to drift toward instruction. I hoped
that we could use what we'd learned about knowledge
representation and generic problem-solving patterns
to build programs that could help people learn.
These systems would encode knowledge from expert
teachers in much the way that our earlier systems
encoded knowledge from expert tax accountants,
lawyers, and engineered.
Intelligent tutoring systems come at learning from
the AI side of things, but the goal is the same as
that of textbooks: to help people learn. AI promised
something more dynamic than what we could accomplish
on the printed page. I have not continued in that
line of work, but I keep tabs on the ITS community
to see what sort of progress they have been making.
As with much of AI, the loftiest goals we had when
we started are now grounded better in pragmatics,
but the goal remains. I think Mark Guzdial has hit
upon the key idea is his article
Beat the book, not the teacher.
The goal of AI systems should not be (at least
immediately) to improve upon the perfomance of the
best human teachers, or even to match it; the goal
should be to improve upon the perfomance of the
books we ask our students to read. This idea is
the same one that Kim Bruce encourages us to consider.
As our technology evolves in the direction of
reasonably compact mobile devices with the full
computational power and high-fidelity displays, we
have the ability to evolve how and what we write
toward the dream of a
We should keep in mind that, with computation and
computer programming, we are creating a new
medium. Ultimately, how and what we write may
not look all that much like a traditional book!
They may be something new, something we haven't
thought of yet. There is no reason to limit ourselves
to producing the page-turning books that have served
us so well for the last few centuries. That said, a
great way to move forward is to try to evolve our
books to see where our new technology can lead us,
and to find out where we come up short.