Future of the Textbook

WBA Bob Stein was kind enough to invite me to a conversation with the historians (Stephen Brier, Joshua Brown, Ellen Noonan, Penee Bender) who wrote and maintain Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History. The first edition of that text was accompanied by a CD-ROM which was designed by Bob Stein’s company (with the world’s first crossword, no less). That CD-ROM was built using Hypercard and Quicktime, and sadly is no-longer functional (at least the Hypercard bits but probably the QT codecs as well).

The question: How can we re-think that textbook, now in its third edition, along with its interactive/multimedia components, now?

More than anything, I was amazed by, and greatly admired, the intellectual honesty and willingness to re-think central assumptions at display in the meeting. The little bits and pieces of the oral history of the project that I picked up, made me realize how incredibly “safe” my generation of historians has become. These graduate students who wrote the first edition were also the editorial board of Radical History Review – intent on re-telling the history of America, from the perspective of the ordinary Americans. Their emphasis on multimedia was precisely to enable wider dissemination of history beyond the traditional classroom.

In a sense, the vision of teaching history through multimedia, to spread it outside of the classroom, is now a reality. The archives of Google, Flickr, Youtube are crammed with amazing historical artifacts. More importantly, a highly synthetic account of history (of whatever kind) exists within easy grasp at Wikipedia. Given this landscape, what next?

To really re-think the textbook, one has to be able to jettison the very model of a unitary text. The textbook should be constantly evolving, socially networked, modular entity that can easily transport across various media and delivery devices, from print to web to ipod/iphone etc. It should allow various points of entry, the ability to restructure one’s own narrative, to compile and comment modules as desired. In essence, it should be truly interactive.

My only contribution to the conversation was to insist that a XML encoded, micro-formatted and tagged base-structure will allow not only future-proofing the product but its ability to take on different forms. Along the same lines, is the imperative to stay away from other “closed” or “silo” systems of delivery. But what of the need to have the product look good? How does one provide a working structure that can handle everything from a scanned pdf to a youtube video? Consider that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – one of the best examples of expertly produced on-line compendiums – is severely limited in its aesthetic appeal. Perhaps intentionally so.

This textbook has have visual appeal, it must render text in a clear and legible (and readable) format, and it has to incorporate digital, visual media seamlessly. The web, for all its wonder, is horribly unsuitable to delivering even “good looking” print. Hence, the need for controlled environments like the PDF or Flash or QuickTime etc. My suggestion would be to do both – have a nice looking text built in, say Sophie, but also a vanilla Media-wiki incarnation.

Easier said than done, of course.

The conversation spurred me to think back on the dream of having a South Asia Sourcebook – a collection of primary materials for teachers of South Asia. Now that I have more time (theoretically), I want to really focus on cranking it out.

I am eager to listen in, and watch, the conversations about WBH, as they develop. Hopefully, they will have me back.