Where are the interactive textbooks?

– Posted December 17, 2015 the refsmmat report · a blog at refsmmat.com

When I was an undergraduate five years ago, I took an introductory genetics class and, for the first time, used an electronic textbook. iPads hadn’t yet become a massive success, so it was a fairly simple browser-based system: the text was converted into a set of linked webpages with pop-up figures and little interactive quizzes. The website was clunky and awkward, but it worked fine for reading, and we didn’t use any of the interactive features.

Recently I got curious: how are electronic textbooks doing now? Apple touts iBooks for textbooks as “more engaging than ever”, extending the standard EPUB format with various interactive features. Every big textbook publisher is building interactive textbooks in some form or another. I’m interested in teaching, and I’ve written a book of my own, so I decided to see how textbooks have advanced these days.

So I fired up iBooks and started downloading free samples. It looks like textbooks have a long way to go.

How can you make a pickle glow? Is it possible to read by the light of a glowing pickle? Although it sounds absurd, an ordinary dill pickle from the deli can be a source of light! Metal forks are inserted into the ends of the pickle and connected to a source of alternating electric current… The mechanism by which this light is generated is not fully understood, but it is clear that conduction of electric current by the pickle is an important factor.”

This writing, from Pearson’s Chemistry, is a missed opportunity. The author is clearly trying to catch our interest, but the bland writing, faked enthusiasm, and passive voice drag the paragraph down. The electric current “is an important factor”? I would never have guessed. But this is an electronic textbook—why not just lead with a video? A giant fluorescent pickle1 is worth a thousand stilted words:

Where are the sweet pickle raves? (source)

The poor writing isn’t exclusive to electronic textbooks, of course, but the book is clearly not taking advantage of its medium. Good videos and animations can supplement writing. (Even poor writing.) The sample chapter offered several “interactive” diagrams, but these were just static images with pop-up labels; the interactivity added nothing while making it more difficult to read the entire description.

I checked the free sample of Pearson’s Biology to see if it was better. It features pop-up animations illustrating biological concepts, like this video demonstrating that horses have teeth like nail clippers:

Horse pedicures: the next hot trend?

Naturally, this was accompanied by a paragraph of text presented as a pixellated JPEG.2 What purpose does this animation serve? Does it have any more value than a diagram and a caption? Do high school students really need a video to see that teeth can bite things? And why does the book need two gigabytes of these useless videos?

Next I tried Modern Chemistry, a high-school introductory textbook by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt designed to offer “unparalleled motivating and supportive features” which “engage students in unique and exciting ways.”3 The free sample was chapter 11, on gases; naturally each section started with a list of “key terms” so students would have something to memorize.

The first interactive feature was on pressure, using a ballet dancer to demonstrate that pressure varies with the amount of area:

Pressure ballet: the only thing more boring than ordinary ballet
Pressure ballet: the only thing more boring than ordinary ballet

This is the book’s primary definition of pressure—the equation is not given in the main text.4 I’ve saved you some trouble by presenting only the summary slide—the three stages were spread out in a slideshow with one sentence of content per slide, presumably to remind the students of the worst of online clickbait.

At the end of the chapter is a short set of five multiple-choice review questions, which are exclusively recall questions or basic unit conversions. There are small “Critical Thinking” questions scattered in the margins of the chapter, but of course these can’t be automatically graded. As far as I can tell, the review questions don’t take advantage of the computer to offer more practice—for unit conversions, for example, a simple script could easily generate endless random questions and answers.5

Of course, these are introductory texts, and even in print they’re not known for clever instructional design. Introductory texts aimed at high school and college usually tend to be overproduced full-color glossy heaps of personality-free writing—just look at OpenStax’s (free) College Physics for my favorite example:

“Marie Curie sacrified monetary assets to help finance her early research and damaged her physical well-being with radiation exposure.”

Really? She spent her own money to experiment with radioactive materials that eventually killed her. Why do we have to talk about “physical well-being” and “monetary assets”? I thought we were trying to be engaging.

Instead of more introductory books, I next tried something a little more meaty: the TSRA Primer of Cardiothoracic Surgery. It opened with an autoplaying video blasting Ivan Gough and Feenixpawl’s “In My Mind,” as a poorly lit hand demonstrated that it could swipe through pages and animations on an iPad at an impressive pace. Apparently medical textbooks need teaser trailers.

Apart from this minor example of poor taste, the book took some advantage of interactivity, with annotated surgical photos pointing out which parts of the heart you should stick your clamp onto. Clickable labels allow more text to be crammed into the diagrams than would be feasible in a print textbook, and while the free sample didn’t include any videos, the reviews suggest it contains useful surgical videos as well.

Higher-level textbooks tend not to have interactive electronic editions at all. Most graduate statistics textbooks (my field), for example, are just PDFs produced by the authors with LaTeX, and even good diagrams are rare enough that you often see title pages advertising “With 24 Illustrations.” Publisher assistance is restricted to basic editing and minimal marketing.

It seems that textbook publishers are only willing to invest effort in multimedia, animations, and interactivity for big intro books—books which will sell tens of thousands of copies to bored students who will generally avoid reading them. Books intended for more advanced courses, where textbooks are an important supplement and reference, get nearly zero publisher support. Authors draw their own diagrams, supply their own plots, and do their own typesetting.

And their books are likely the better for it, judging by the quality of interactive hogwash put out by the major publishers.

Has anyone put serious effort into good interactive books which take advantage of technology instead of flaunting useless slideshows? Books which illustrate concepts with interactivity instead of illustrating things with little photographic slideshows? Books which use video and animation to do anything a paper textbook couldn’t?

I’ve only seen a few examples, and none at book length. One is Amit Patel’s Hexagonal Grids tutorial, which demonstrates hexagonal grid coordinate systems and algorithms for working with them. Every algorithm and formula is accompanied by an interactive demonstration which invites exploration. Amit has several other interactive tutorials on his home page, and it’s easy to lose a lot of time playing with them.

Another is Mike Bostock’s Visualizing Algorithms. Its success is hardly a surprise—Mike is the creator of D3.js, one of the most popular tools for interactive visualization, and he produces graphics for the New York Times. The maze generation algorithms are especially captivating.

I’ve tinkered with minor interactivity before as well, though with less elegance. I used a simple interactive table to illustrate false positives and negatives for an experimental design course (click and drag on the numbers). I helped build a rudimentary special relativity simulator for my modern physics course, to play with length contraction and time dilation using common examples.

Why don’t we see more of these? They require specialized skills, of course, and though a good visualization is worth a thousand words, creating a good visualization is much harder than writing those thousand words. (The relativity simulator took months of off-and-on work, and still needs more work to be suitable for unsupervised student use.) And while you can still learn from mediocre writing—just ask the students using the textbooks I quoted above—a mediocre visualization can be confusing or downright misleading. A lot of editing and experimenting goes into every successful visualization.

You may have noticed that these examples don’t feature “unparalleled motivating and supportive features”. They just do a very good job of exposing the ideas, and let the ideas speak for themselves. This, I think, is the fundamental difference. Introductory textbooks feign excitement and stretch simple ideas into animated slideshows, hoping to generate interest but instead turning off students. They fail to recognize that learning is not something inflicted upon you—learning is something you must do inside your own head. And so they spoon-feed concepts, their fear of inducing boredom a guaranteed recipe for generating it, instead of giving students ways of exploring the concepts and satisfying their own curiosity.

Good interactive textbooks respect their readers and let the concepts stand for themselves. Let’s start making some.

  1. Fluorescent Pickle would be a good name for a rock band. More specifically, a “mildly alt-folksy psy-Italo synthrock” band, according to a friend of mine. “You know, like contemporary Göteborg-style psychill/downtempo combined with the evergreen sonic landscape of 80s European dance music.”

  2. So much for electronic textbooks bringing accessible education to the blind. But that’s beside the point.

  3. Just like pickles offer unparalleled lighting and electrical features.

  4. And it’s an image again, so blind students will have to do without reading the equation.

  5. Khan Academy is developing an exercise framework which should make it easy to generate questions and answers for online books.