The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One-size-fits-all textbooks don’t make sense in the digital age. Here’s a better option.

It’s 2014, we can do a lot better than paper textbooks. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)
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For years, high school students have received identical textbooks as their classmates. Even as students have different learning styles and abilities, they are force-fed the same materials. A nonprofit based at Rice University believes we can do better.

“Imagine a digital textbook where because I’m a different person and learn differently, my book is different than your book,” said Richard Baraniuk, founder of OpenStax, which received a $9 million grant to develop a prototype textbook for AP Biology and high school physics. “Because I understand things in a different way from you, the book itself should change. It’s exploding this whole idea of this paper, canonical textbook and creating something that’s much more like a pathway a student explores.”

OpenStax will spend two years developing the personalized, interactive books and then test them on Houston-area students. The idea is to make learning easier, so students can go on to more successful careers and lives.

Baraniuk isn’t just reproducing physical textbooks on digital devices, a mistake eBook publishers have made. He’s fundamentally rethinking what the educational experience should be in a world of digital tools.

To do this means involving individuals with skills traditionally left out of the textbook business. Baraniuk is currently hiring cognitive scientists and machine learning experts.

“Education in the future is going to be this type of team enterprise. Certainly there are going to be subject-matter experts and teachers. There are also going to be an increasing number of cognitive science experts and machine learning teachers and practitioners,” Baraniuk predicts.

Baraniuk wants to use the tactics of Google, Netflix and Amazon to deliver a personalized experience. These Web services all rely on complex algorithms to automatically tailor their offerings for customers.

Just as Netflix recommends different movies based on your preferences and viewing history, a textbook might present materials at a different pace. The textbook — which will be housed in the cloud and viewable on a range of digital devices — will automatically adjust itself thanks to machine learning. As a student learns about a topic, she could be interrupted by brief quizzes that gauge her mastery of the area. Depending on how the student does, the subject could be reinforced with more material. Or a teacher could be automatically e-mailed that the student is struggling with a certain concept and could use some one-on-one attention.

This personalized learning experience is possible thanks to the wealth of data a digital textbook can track.

“You know which page a student is on. You also know as they’re scrolling around where they might be within the page,” Baraniuk said. “You know when they’ve clicked on different simulations, practice problems, videos, etc. You have a sense of whether they’re playing those videos through to the end, going back to review material.”

Baraniuk also envisions using this data to better track students’ progress throughout a course. Parents and teachers can monitor a student’s development and chime in with more fitting assistance.

His research on his own students at Rice has convinced him of the power of information presentation on how well a student learns. Baraniuk found that when he began spacing out homework on given lessons throughout a semester, his students’ grades improved by between a half and full grade point. Rather than cramming  — where what is learned is quickly forgotten — the extended approach to learning created superior recall.

The books will go through a peer-reviewed vetting process similar to traditional textbooks, Baraniuk said. He expects 60 people to review each book before publication to ensure its quality.

Given the wealth of data and personalization that digital learning experiences can provide, it’s reasonable to expect students’ achievement levels to leap forward thanks to the digital age. With personalized learning methods, our students’ talents will be better developed. It’s an exciting possibility, and let’s hope more attention goes to reinventing the textbook. Paper textbooks got a lot of us through school successfully, but now something even better is possible.