Are blog posts and online journal articles the new textbooks?

How much longer do textbooks have in the classroom?

There has been a big push to digitize textbooks, add in more interactivity and make them available in new ways. But is the concept of the textbook itself fading?

I’m taking two courses currently in graduate school. One has a standard textbook that is only available in paper format. The other has no textbooks and all the readings are either websites or PDFs. We’re clearly in a transitory phase, but I think the future is clear: packaged textbooks are on the way out.

Class readings, however, on a desktop or even a laptop don’t present a good user experience. We’re used to and enjoy the experience of reading books and textbooks. We’re used to the crisp typography. People can get lost in books for hours.

How many people really enjoy reading a 30-page PDF on their computer? A paper textbook wins that contest every time, even if the content is identical. You can’t just lay back and enjoy reading on a laptop like you can with a paper textbook, and most laptops are much harder on the eyes than print. We can’t underestimate how much harsher traditional computing displays are on the human eye than print is.

But we now have better options than our computing forefathers. I do my course readings on my iPad. It’s high pixel density display looks very similar to print, and is easy on the eyes. It’s a pleasure to use for long-form reading, and I can carry many textbooks worth of information in a small package.

Using an app like Instapaper, I can save the Web and journal articles to read later and throw them into a folder to keep them all together. I also have a device that allows me to look up further information while I’m reading. If I come across something in a paper textbook that I don’t understand, there isn’t much I can do. On my iPad, I can get out of my readings and search the Web for answers.

Journal articles are increasingly found online, professors and researchers are starting blogs and websites and academic-focused projects are popping up all over the Web. Where once textbooks were required for learning in most subjects, the Web and the Internet give us access to information from all over the world, across disciplines and cultures.

Professors can mix and match journal articles, blog posts, podcasts, news stories, etc. to form an up-to-date curriculum. They can easily add in new readings during the semester if something comes up. The idea of a textbook being out of date doesn’t apply in a world where professors can pick and choose from the best of the Web.

As education becomes more expensive, we can’t forget the savings to students. The textbook industry is a racket that sees students pay hundreds of dollars per semester on books and get back tens of dollars after the semester is over.

The Web is full of great free resources. It’s easier for a professor to start a Website than it is to write a textbook. It’s also a lot easier to get feedback and iterate with a website than it is with a textbook.

Tablets and smartphones are helping to make this a reality in a way that wasn’t possible five years ago. Laptops aren’t good enough. They’re not great for long-form reading. The iPad with Retina Display is, and we’ll see more high pixel density displays on the horizon that help make reading on computing devices a lot more pleasurable.

One of the things that I really like about using Web readings for teaching is these readings allow students to interact with authors. A professor who makes blog posts instead of book chapters can allow people to comment on his work. Students can poke and prod and the professor can respond. Textbooks will never offer that experience.

Now imagine a student asked to read five different blog posts from five different professors from around the world. In one week, a student has the ability to interact with five different experts. Blogs, websites and social media allow for a kind of free-flowing interactivity that can bring vigor to the learning experience.

We needed better, more portable and more readable devices to make this happen. Now that we are finally starting to see them, I believe we’ll see a lot more professors and teachers assigning students Web readings. As students take to this kind of reading, we’ll see more professors writing blog posts instead of book chapters.

Maybe the next step to taking the Web reading experience to the next level is for someone to make an app that allows students to group Web readings and journal articles together by g\class and project, while also allowing for easy social annotations. The biggest thing missing from Web readings is that Web browsers don’t allow for notes and highlighting. Let’s make this happen.