TITLE: The Evolution of the Textbook AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 30, 2010 6:02 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Over the last week, there has been a long thread on SIGCSE listserv about writing textbooks. Most interesting to me was Kim Bruce's 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 and 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 something more. 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 Squeak, Croquet, Sophie, 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 dynabook. 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. -----