Hacking textbooks

A few of my favorite people to talk to are Shane Lofgen, DJ Strouse, and Max Marmer. Shane I’ve known since eighth grade geometry, DJ was Shane’s roomate freshman year, and Max is a bright, just-graduated from high school Californian from the Twitter-sphere. All four of us are quite interested in reforming the university system from the technologically-backwards state it’s in to something that’s useful in an era of ubiquitous information. Today’s topic was reinventing the textbook.

DJ has an idea for augmenting the traditional textbook or, as Max puts it, adding an “onion skin” on top of the text. Meta data and meta conversations to make studying a collaborative exercise. If you think of the textbook as a platform from which learning can take place, then there are digital tools that can be built to make information flow happen more organically (think commenting, videos of professor explanations, quizzes, etc.).

The physical, analog textbook has a specific information flow which offers design constraints. We started the conversation with the assumption the content was digital, and therefore flexible, but the hacking DJ would like to do would work under the consideration of augmenting the existing textbook. His solution would be a web service or application to co-exist with the physical book.

Many existing textbooks, or at least the ones in my experience, offer crappy websites with supplemental information. With DJ’s idea, the service would offer an iPhone application that would complement the analog book. We talked about specific deliverables and the consensus was that a collaborative sticky note application could offer immediate value. I think a company like Flat World Knowledge might even take the project under it’s wing. Students would use their existing social graph to identify the people in their class and, when they launched the application, they would have access to existing notes left by their classmates or teacher as well as the ability to leave their own. These notes would be specific to the page, which the student could either “flip” to or have it automatically progress by specific reading page. The class doesn’t just need to meet in the classroom.

We started the conversation, however, with a higher level discussion about the difference between analog and digital content, and opportunities that might present themselves five or ten years out. With a traditional textbook, there is what I’m calling a “flow of learning” that is defined by the author. There are a certain number of chapters with a certain number of pages and, overall, it sets a foundation for the learning experience. When that content is digital, however, the “flow of learning” doesn’t need to be defined (necessarily) by the author. They’re just bits that could be defined by the teacher or aggregate voting by the previous class. If the content is malleable, then the textbook can change from student to student.