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The Future of Textbooks

By Brendan | 2021-03-16

This past weekend, we hosted a roundtable discussion exploring the future of textbooks.

While our focus at Hyperlink is on live, interactive learning experiences, the content that supports these experiences — lesson plans, readings, worksheets, assignments, artifacts and more — is also important, and ripe with all sorts of possibilities for further experimentation.

Already, we're seeing a number of course creators exploring interesting ways to create and share learning materials, from 'micro-textbooks' to dual-publishing workflows for web + print output to iteratively developed texts for specific courses.

We wanted to explore questions like:

  • How can textbooks connect to social learning experiences?
  • How can textbooks respond to the needs of individual learners?
  • How can learners contribute to / manipulate / diverge from a textbook?
  • How can learning materials adapt across workflows, branches and forks
  • How can we create stronger shared contexts for reading and writing?

Here are our notes from the session — we covered quite a lot in an hour! — plus a collection of links and projects for further perusal.

Show and tell:

  • Lester talked about his data science research and how he's trying to identify digital textbook content to run NLP models on
  • Colin showed us the conlang textbook he's writing with LaTeX and PDF, touching on linguistics-specific workflow challenges
  • Frode gave an overview of his work with augmented text tools, including affordances for inline references, and "visual-meta" for metadata + structural data
  • Max showed an awesome list he made of "e-texts", as well as introduced us to the "ScholarPhi" project for interactive display of math equations

Interesting topics we touched on:

  • The "open educational resources" movement; open source textbooks
  • Publishing as an evolving process, and possibilities for "phases" e.g. transitioning from an open and fluid text to a more solid bounded artifact
  • Authority; the "finished" nature of textbooks… What happens to books over time? What books are canonical, and how do such definitions change?
  • How textbooks can be made or conceived of as more interactive, e.g. prompting and incorporating student artifacts as examples in various contexts
  • How we define a "textbook" in the first place; what distinguishes a textbook from other books, wikis, or other texts and resources used for learning?
  • How textbooks might fit into our antilibraries
  • The changing nature of the syllabus, from shared context to multi-directional or group-annotated source
  • Environments for sharing structured data, from LaTeX to JSON to the clipboard


Let's continue the conversation. We've opened a discussion on the Hyperlink forum — we'd love to see any follow up questions, additional examples, proposals, open problems, or other ideas.

In particular:

  • How can facilitators and learners play with these ideas on Hyperlink?
  • How best can we help support that?

We look forward to exploring these topics further!