Textbooks are awesome

I’ve been writing a lot about big ideas like research, policy, and expertise lately. Today, I’d like to take a step down from the big ideas and lightheartedly discuss something real, tangible, and ubiquitous that I love: textbooks.

Yeah, those big, heavy, out of date, expensive printed books that contain a substantial portion of all of the human knowledge ever discovered. Not those e-books, not these e-textbooks, and definitely not websites masquerading as textbooks. I’m talking about the pile of books in millions of students bags, desks, and bookshelves.

Awesome? How are textbooks anything but terrible, let alone awesome? Let me count the ways:

  • You can read at your own pace. Slides, videos, and other time-based media out of your control are a pain to navigate. Textbooks move at exactly the pace you want to move.
  • You can see everything all at once. All the content is there, always. There are no animations, transitions, or other segmentation of content that you have to wait for, and so you can browse it.
  • You can access any piece of content at any time. Want to skip ahead to chapter 5? Go for it! No need to wait for the professor to get to week 7 of class, for the e-book to “unlock” the next section, or for that slide transition to finish animating. Satisfy your curiosity now.
  • You can memorize the location of any content. No need to recall which day a teacher discussed an idea and ask for their slides. No need to search for that video you remember on Kahn Academy and try to find that segment that was particularly instructive. In fact, there’s probably still a stain from that meatball sub on the page that will give you a subtle cue of the places you’ve already been and what content it was related to.
  • The screens are HUGE. Some of these buggers are up to 16″, which is basically like having a large laptop to view your content.
  • The screens very high contrast. You can read in pretty much any light except for no light. There’s no glare. And that brings me to…
  • The battery life is infinite. Crank that screen brightness up all the way, cuz this thing will last forever. (Unless you drop it in the toilet).
  • The information density is off the charts when compared to slides, handouts, and whiteboards. You can fit text, images, diagrams, commentaries, citations, and a million other kinds of content that these other media are terrible at supporting.
  • You can zoom into content by just moving your head. No buttons, no keyboard shortcuts to memorize, no awkwardly standing up in the middle of class to get closer to the projector screen. It’s like a VR headset: you just move your body and it works.

Yes, the Internet has some advantages. It has a lot more information and you can carry it around more easily. It can also be updated more easily, which is handy, since science and knowledge are always evolving. But isn’t a textbook plus a smartphone even better? Imagine an augmented reality textbook application that allows you to see edits from newer editions or interactive content in diagrams. Imagine social commentary on textbooks for your current page. Imagine scanning a citation and seeing the research paper the statement was based on.

Who does research on these things? Where’s my augmented reality textbook app? Do any of these features better promote learning? Where is my textbook hoverboard?

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