Post Textbook World

It's time to put technology in the hands of students--real 24/7/365 learning opportunity. Last year we crossed a threshold where it's cheaper to give kids devices and stop building computer labs and buying textbooks.

I appreciate the folks producing free textbooks, but with the shift to digital the whole notion of a textbook--a flat one-way tightly-edited trip through a sliver of the world's knowledge as it existed a few years ago--just seems obsolete. Most online courses aren't much better.

States and districts will adopt digital textbooks and review online courses for a while because it is a comfortable step into the digital world. But that won't last long. Education is gradually shifting from approving inputs to focusing on student outcomes. And the number and quality of learning opportunities online is exploding.

Most of the digital courseware being used is decidedly first generation--it's flat and sequential, not engaging and adaptive. But we're beginning to see adaptive content libraries that enable personalized digital learning. There will still be a role for curation but that will come in the form of content collections, learning games and virtual worlds, and playlists that (like iTunes Genius but smarter) that stitch objects and sequences together.

Because learning object libraries will replace textbooks, eReaders won't be big in education. They only make sense where there is a tight narrative. Tablets that can support a full web experience and are also a useful input device will compete with netbooks for 1:1 supremacy.

Digital native kids and teachers expect a more social experience than 'log in, follow directions, and email me if you have a problem.' The shift from digital textbook to content libraries requires more flexibility than current learning management systems offers and will kick off more data than anyone is ready to handle.

Dominant learning platforms will combine personalized content libraries, social learning features, smart recommendation engines, and aligned services for students, teachers, and schools--sort of Facebook, iTunes Genius, Google apps, and 1-800 support services for students and teachers.

It's exciting to look ahead a school year or two, but devices are cheap enough and content is good enough that there's no reason to wait--ditch the textbooks and go online. For teachers, it will unlock new opportunities to meet individual student needs. For students it will extend, engage, and expand learning. And it will beat lugging a backpack of textbooks home.