Will books become ‘less like glorified PDFs’ (and more like wikis)?

I’m anxious to see how book publishers address the challenge of enabling a more engaged classroom. Actually I’ve been watching this engagement space for years, covering employee engagement until recently.

So this statement from Pearson, about making digital content look “less like glorified PDFs” begs the question: What kinds of skin does it plan to give the information that once belonged in books? Less like PDFs and more like Videos? Games? Chat rooms? Blogs?

The gravitational pull of tablets will be hard to resist, for Pearson and its competitors McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Miflin Harcourt. Last year Pearson commissioned research on students’ tablet use and found that:

  • Seven in ten college students (70%) have read digital textbooks (from 62% a year ago)
  • Six in ten high school seniors (58%) have read digital textbooks (up from 41% a year ago)

Luyen Chou, a former teacher, and now in charge of content at the company must know this shift is happening faster than schools, publishers, and state education policy wonks could keep up.  To get a sense of where these content gardens might spring, and which engaged spaces we might be moving into, listen to Chou (who got my attention sometime back because of his reference to Maria Montessori). It’s a pre-Pearson speech at a TedTalks event.

So will the new digital books –let’s call them Un-Books for now– move fast enough so that :

  • We teachers might be able to tweak knowledge that is ‘born digital’?
  • Someone could effortlessly curate the material, enhance a chapter here, drop in a slide show, or embed a sound bite captured on a field trip?
  • I could give Peter a slightly different version of my walk down Boston’s Freedom Trail, from the version I give Paul? Could Peter and Paul add a Waymark of Benjamin Franklin’s print shop to the class wiki? (What’s Waymark? Short explanation here.)

I don’t see these un-books as a threat to the ones on our library stacks, any more than I fear that the camera phone is going to kill the SLR.

Perhaps Chou has some ideas.

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