Posts Tagged With: ebooks

The open textbook arrives

Textbook coverDownload the pdf         Download the epub         Download for Kindle

The title for this post might be a little premature, but the fact is that I am now viewing a proof-of-concept version of my open textbook on my Kindle.

There were two main questions that I considered as I worked through this experiment.  One question was technology related: what is the best way to build and distribute the textbook?  The other question was design related: what content should go into the book, and how should it be presented?

The technological question was the easier of the two to answer.  I decided to take Booktype for a test drive.  This tool is free to download and use… if you have a server.  Otherwise it is $16 a month.  Booktype has a nice interface, and I think its two main strengths are the ease with which it can convert a document to different electronic formats (especially those for e-readers), and the tools for collaboration.  I published my book to the following formats: pdf, mobi (for Kindle), and epub (good for just about any reading device other than a Kindle).

The best results came from the epub format when viewed from Mac’s iBook reader.  The pdf didn’t work as well due to technical difficulties, but the problems weren’t anything I couldn’t fix if I generated my own pdf files directly out of Word.  Those files could then be distributed via Google Drive.  I’d need to do some “market research” to determine whether it would make sense to stay with pdfs (good for Mac devices, PCs, and Kindles), or whether there would be a lot of demand for the epub format.

The design question was more difficult to answer.  I experimented with the idea of using course design principles.  I came to the conclusion that this is probably the angle the publishers are using—for example, every introductory geology textbook on my shelf starts each chapter with a list of learning objectives, and ends each chapter with discussion questions.  I can do that too, but I can’t compete with the publishers’ ability to design and incorporate multimedia learning tools, or online self-assessment tools.  Here’s the thing, though—if the course is merely a textbook wrapper, then these things matter.  On the other hand, if the course is well designed then maybe it is ok for the textbook to be just a textbook.  Whether my course is well designed or not is another matter, but given that I will have to teach it, I think my time is better spent working on course design than on writing algorithms for dynamic assessment tools.

I will keep working on my textbook.  I’m going to focus on what I need it to be, and fill the gaps left by the other textbooks available to me.  Despite all of the bells and whistles that come with textbooks these days, there are indeed gaps.  It may be a while before I can rely entirely on my own book, but each bit of progress will improve what I can offer to my students.

Categories: Learning technologies, Textbooks | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Open textbooks and cognitive load

While sketching out a plan for my open textbook, I’ve hit upon a design question:  how “printable” should it be?  A “printable” open textbook would contrast with one that is more akin to a series of webpages: if it were heavy on hyperlinks and multimedia then it would lose functionality when printed, because extra steps would be required for the user to access the online resources.

On one hand, being printable might seem to be about accommodating preferences—those arising from a learning history with print materials.  But what if there is a more basic reason for these preferences?  What if the act of learning is fundamentally different with electronic course materials?  Could that difference make it inherently more difficult to learn from electronic materials?

I think learning is different with electronic materials, and I think it is harder.  To explain why, I have to make a big leap from my comfy geology headspace into the alien terrain of cognitive psychology.  Please do excuse me if I land awkwardly…

The difference between Y, P, G, I, A, G, N, K, B, and PIGGY BANK

The concept of cognitive load describes a sort of mental balance sheet in which learning is associated with a cost, and the learner has only so much to spend in her mental piggy bank.  The learner will spend some of her mental budget on the learning task itself.  Some of the budget will be spent on organizing the knowledge into a meaningful whole.  Both of these expenditures are good investments for the learner.

But there is also a kind of learning “overhead,” the extraneous cognitive load.  It is the cost of setting up the operation in the first place, and the more the learner spends on overhead, the less she can spend on accumulating and organizing knowledge.

When comparing electronic and print materials, the expenditure on learning tasks and organizing can be identical, but the overhead is different.  There is more overhead associated with electronic materials, and that leaves less of the budget for learning and organizing.  Some of the overhead associated with electronic materials will diminish over time.  For example, if the learner must first figure out how to use a computer, that would count as overhead.  Over time, however, using a computer might become second nature, and the related overhead would decrease.

What won’t change is the way learners interact with electronic media.  For example, consider how a learner constructs a mental picture of where the information is that she is after.  In a book, this location is a physical thing within a linear arrangement—you flip ahead, or flip backward.  If your thumb is already in the right spot, then you just go there without even thinking about it.  In electronic learning materials, you might scroll down a page, but there might also be links, videos to watch, recordings to hear, and other pages to cross-reference… the structure is branching, and there is no convenient place to stick your thumb.

An open textbook must be available electronically if it is to solve the problems of cost, updating, and distribution inherent in the textbooks offered by publishers.  The challenge is finding a learning-friendly balance between what can be included and what should be.

Categories: Learning technologies, Textbooks | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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