The textbook as many of us have known it, it on the way out and the digital/widgetal textbook is in. Well, not exactly, just yet but it’s coming. This brief description of what’s happening may be of some value to those new to this type of textbook but also to those who intend to write a textbook as well as to students who want to know why the change is happening. All of the major publishers and a variety of smaller publishers are engaged in creating these interactive textbooks. They’re all betting that this is the wave of the future and will become standard in the not very distant future.
The Digital/Widgetal Textbook
A digital textbook is simply an e-book, a book that can be read on your computer, laptop, tablet, or phone. Except for the fact that it can be accessed electronically, the digital textbook is little different from a print book. A widgetal textbook (see glossary at the end of this post), on the other hand, is not only digital but interactive. This interactivity is the hallmark, the defining feature, of the widgetal textbook. The student has to do things to read the book. So, for example, when a dialogue is presented the student can click the audio icon and hear the excerpt. To view a table, the student may have to click on the heading to reveal the contents of the table’s rows—not surprisingly called “click and reveal”.
Not too long ago, a widget stood for something that was unspecified because it was unimportant to the story line. And so, in How to Succeed, the company made widgets.
Or a table is presented and the student is asked to study it and, when ready, to click the start button at which point the second column disappears except for one item. The student’s task is to position the item in the correct row. Videos are built into the text so periodically, at the click of the arrow, the student can view a speech, an animated trip through the process of conflict resolution, or an interview, for example.
Figures are animated so that with various clicks, the student can view a process—blood flowing through the heart or the communication process from sender to receiver. Images of art work and maps, for example, can be examined in greater detail with a click of the + button. Definitions pop up when you hover your cursor over a bold-faced term. And periodically, usually at the end of each module, there is a brief quiz to assess the student’s understanding of the material. Similar quizzes appear at the ends of the videos. A figure that is referred to in Chapter 6 but was presented in Chapter 1, can be viewed with a simple click.
One of the most important changes is the incorporation of writing experiences throughout the textbook. Whether that is a commitment to “writing across the curriculum”—an approach we thought died in the 80’s—or a way to force the student to interact with the material or a way to, again, assess performance—or some combination of these and perhaps other reasons is not clear to me.
Ultimately these mini-essays—some ask for a limit of 200 words (a lot more than a tweet but a lot less than a traditional essay)—will be machine scored. Spelling and grammar checks are easy—thematic coherence and well-reasoned arguments will be a lot more difficult for the program to assess. But, clearly, the movement is to take away from the instructor the role of assessing the student’s performance. Of course, instructors don’t have to count in their assessment what they don’t want to count, the widgetal textbook makes it very easy to use what is built into the system.
Part of these writing experiences is one called Shared Writing—at least in my books—and is meant to be shared among students. In a way, this builds a community, a closeness as would any sharing of one’s thoughts.
These and various other widgets can be viewed on YouTube and on the websites of a variety of publishers.
Reasons for the Move to Digital/Widgetal
There are lots of reasons for the move from print to digital/widgetal. Perhaps the economic reason comes to mind most easily. Print books are expensive to produce, to ship, and to buy. Digital/widgetal textbooks, on the other hand, will be less expensive for the publisher to produce and for the student to buy. It also eliminates the used-book market from which no one but the bookstore makes any money.
Another reason is convenience. Books—especially textbooks—are heavy. According to Amazon.com: Ciccarelli and White’s Psychology weighs 3.9 lbs, Mader and Windelspecht’s Biology weighs 4.8 lbs, and Stewart, Redlin, and Watson’s Precalculus weighs 5.1 lbs. Communication texts generally weigh less; my Human Communication weighs 1.8 lbs, O’Hair, Wiemann, Mullin, and Teven’s Real Communication weighs 2.2 lbs as does Verderber, Verderber, and Sellnow’s Communicate! And so instead of carrying around 3 or 4 books weighing ten or more pounds, the textbooks can all be accessed from a lightweight phone or tablet which the student carries around anyway. Another convenience factor is that instead of waiting for the book to ship to the student or waiting in line at the bookstore, the book can be accessed immediately. This will prove especially important to online courses that enroll students from different parts of the country and the world. All will have equal and easy access to acquiring the course materials.
Still another factor is that students interact more with the computer/mobile screen than with newspapers, magazines, or books and so the digital/widgetal textbook simply uses the format with which students are most comfortable.
There is also an education or pedagogical reason and that is that the new textbooks promote more active learning and provide easy-to-use assessments.
How Digitizing and Widgetizing is Influencing/Changing our Textbooks
With this widgetization come a variety of changes. One major change is that uniformity—across textbooks as well as across disciplines--is promoted. Tables, for example, cannot have captions within the widgetized table and key terms must be outside any widget and put into the basal text.
The author becomes more than a content provider—and ideally and ultimately will become a director, visualizing the content not just in print but in video, in animated figures, and in tables that test the students understanding, for example. Right now, that’s handled by the publisher’s widgetizer, a kind of developmental editor who examines the content and then tries to fit various pieces into a pre-existing widget template. However, the new and successful author will be one who can visualize the content in widget terms, who can create and present content in ways that can be made into interactive experiences, i.e., widgets.
The digital/widgetal textbook, as already noted, is assessment focused—with quizzes and writing assignments positioned throughout the book. This frequent assessment—whether for good or ill--would be virtually impossible in a print book. Because of the emphasis on assessment, the learning objectives must be very specific and need to be phrased in behavioral terms—we used to call these behavioral objectives, in fact—and so objectives like “the student will understand the principles of interpersonal communication” or “the student will be able to prepare and present a speech of demonstration” are replaced by such learning objectives as “the student will be able to paraphrase the principles of interpersonal communication” and “the student will be able to identify the principles for preparing and presenting a speech of demonstration.” Along with the specificity of learning objectives, is their repetition, ideally to keep the student focused on what needs to be learned. And so, the learning objectives are identified first in the chapter opener, then at the beginning of each module, and then again, in the summary.
The new textbook becomes more like the instructor. It takes over many of the previous responsibilities of the instructor. Most obviously, the testing. But, in providing audio, for example, it provides, say, the correct pronunciation for difficult terms—something the instructor would normally do when using a print book. In providing videos, it makes the decision for the instructor as to which videos to show. No longer do you have to search the available film and video catalogues. Of course, you can but you don’t have to.
A change that is likely to come in the future is that content choices will increase. Right now, in the print books, the content is limited to what is covered in the majority of courses—no more, no less. Part of this is due to the legitimate complaint from students that they don’t want to pay for chapters that aren’t used. And the physical book can get overwhelming in size and in cost if realistic limits are not imposed. Not so with the digital version. Whereas a print text might contain 12 chapters, a digital text might contain 15 or even 20 chapters, giving instructors the freedom to make selections that perhaps better reflect the needs of their students and their own focus. In this sense, each book can itself be customized. But, digitizing will also increase cross-text customization because of the ease with which such a customized book can be put together, the uniformity in their style, and the ease with which the varied choices can be examined. And likely the cost will decrease.
Some of the terms and definitions in this glossary are standard; some are made up to provide a way of talking about the new textbooks.
Basal text (noun) The main textbook content—minus the chapter opener, boxes, end of chapter material, photos, captions, tables, figures, and marginal notes.
Digital textbook (noun) An e-book, a book that can be read through any number of electronic devices.
Learning objective (noun) A statement that identifies what the student should be able to do after reading a specific part of the text.
Module (noun) A main section of the chapter
Static text (noun phrase) A text without a widget
Widget (noun) An interactive. More precisely: According to WhatIs.com: “A widget is an element of a graphical user interface (GUI) that displays information or provides a specific way for a user to interact with the operating system or an application. Widgets include icons, pull-down menus, buttons, selection boxes, progress indicators, on-off checkmarks, scroll bars, windows, window edges (that let you resize the window), toggle buttons, form, and many other devices for displaying information and for inviting, accepting, and responding to user actions.”
Widgetal (adjective) Interactive
Widgetal textbook (noun) An e-book that is interactive
Widgetization (noun) The process of making something digital/widgetal
Widgetize (verb) To create a widget out of static text
Widgetizer (noun) Someone who creates widgets out of static text
Widgetizing (gerund) The act of creating widgets