photo by Mary Beth Hertz

I am humbled to be part of a team of educators, many of whom are esteemed peers, converging in a little under a week at Discovery Education headquarters  to discuss the future of the textbook, specifically the digital textbook. As an elementary teacher, I know that my opinions and experiences with textbooks differ from those who teach high school and higher ed. However, my experience using textbooks in high school and college helps mold some of my views on the topic.

The first textbook I ever remember using was my French textbook in 6th grade. Before that, I don’t have any clear memories of textbooks. After that, my memories are that of doing the odd problems at the end of the chapter in my math textbook, reviewing my notes and trying desperately to figure out the magic in the explanation in the book that would make me able to figure out how to do a problem. I remember my textbook for AP US History, for Global Studies, and a couple of textbooks that were anthology-like. Most of these were heavy and used mostly for homework and for memorizing things that were on a test.

Once I got to college, the only textbooks I bought were for classes I took to satisfy requirements. Psychology, Astronomy, Anthropology (huge, impersonal lecture hall classes)…..  As a French major, I had the delightful experience of shopping for novels and poetry each semester, all hand-picked by the professor for a particular reason (a class on French Vietnamese literature, a class on Medieval French literature). Some of my classes in other subject areas (or seminars as I guess they would be called) involved a mixture of novels picked by the professor and mini books of articles and selected chapters pulled together by the professor. I still have many of those mini books because they were like little gold mines of information and a great resource to refer to later when I was thinking of a particular class discussion.

My textbooks? I sold them back to the store or left them in the attic of my parents’ house to rot.

Moving back in time to elementary school, I am disheartened by the heavy reliance that teachers have on Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin textbooks. I am even more disheartened to hear instructional directors call these “curriculum.”

I was overjoyed to hear about a principal who collected all of the math textbooks from the teachers and told them to teach math the way they wanted to. This was in response to teachers expressing frustration with teaching math and with kids learning math. The result? After stages of anger and helplessness, the teachers figured things out. They taught math better and the kids learned math better. Very few, if any teachers, according to the story, came back for their textbooks.

So what does this have to do with the future of the textbook and digital texts?

Two things.

First, we need to be careful that we don’t waste this new technology by doing the same things in a different way (similar to the way the glorious Interactive Whiteboard still remains a teacher-centric digital chalkboard in many classrooms). Second, we need to use the digital technologies available to allow for professors and K-12 teachers to build the kinds of resources that fit the needs of their classroom. No longer should educators be forced to asked their students to purchase a $100 textbook so they can use the 3 chapters that are relevant to their course.

I also see educators pooling their knowledge to crowd source courses and texts that are inexpensive, flexible, across many digital platforms, are specific to their students, their specific course and that are easily amendable should new information arise that is relevant to the course. This is already happening, and will only become easier as the technology gets better and easier to use.

Another aspect of the new digital textbook is the opportunity to display information through multimedia and interactive activities. Again, I will point back to my first statement above. These tools and mediums are amazing and match much of what brain research shows us about how people learn in different ways and through different modalities. However, let’s be smart and avoid using this new technology to embed lectures or videos that could be found with a simple Internet search or to create fancy “end of chapter” activities that are a waste of time.

I’m not trying to pretend that I have an answer for how we can leverage digital texts to truly do something different, but I won’t accept a Pearson-produced textbook with a built-in dictionary and highlighter with a few videos embedded here or there to be the limit of innovation.

What do you think?

Please share any links, resources or opinions you have in the comment area!


  1. Melissa


    This was beautifully stated. If we don’t use technology to help make kids learn better, it is just fluff. For many of my colleagues smart boards and doc cams are simply glorified overheads. Digital texts, unless we learn how to use them to engage kids differently, are no different.

  2. Reply

    Going one step more, the act of creating a digital textbooks can also be a learning experience for your students. Teachers at Chardon Local Schools and Beachwood Schools in Ohio have had their students creating their own online 7th grade history textbook over the past six years. The students have learned more history than ever before, and have learned much more than just history. For more details, see the video here:

  3. Reply

    Hi Mary-Beth,

    I see that so far three people I know have been invited to this Discovery Education conference. Is this a US educator only type of thing? I’m pretty interested in what lies “beyond the textbook” myself and have written quite a bit about it, as you know.


    • mbteach


      A little late to the reply, but Mark, what you describe was a big part of the conversation at the forum. Why a book at all? The resources are already there, all we need is a way to curate and organize them–something that many of us already do.

  4. Suzanne


    In many districts, the curriculum directors create binders and every teacher on a specific grade level must be on the same page on the same day.These same directors see the “beyond the textbook” simply an easier way to transmit said information to the students. Engagement is critical, but engagement does not necessarily equate teaching or learning at a level called proficient or advanced.

    • mbteach


      I would think that anyone who want teachers to be on the same page is less worried about engagement and more worried about test scores.

  5. Pingback: Beyond the Textbook » Philly Teacher « cleave21

  6. mari


    In regards to suzanne’s remarks, I agree that engaement does not mean that one is learning proficiently. I am concerned that a novel idea, such as beyond textbooks, may have some regrets later. Take for example the “No Child Left Behind Act” which in and of itself was and is a great fundamental idea. HOWEVER, I have read articles from veteran teachers who have said that if they had the same forsight as they do hindsight, they would not have agreed to it. Will we have the same regrets with “beyond textbooks”?

    • mbteach


      Mari, I see your question as a double-edged sword. Will we regret going ‘beyond the textbook’ or will we regret that we didn’t? It’s hard to say. My gut instinct tells me that millions of people are learning every day without needing a textbook, so we are already headed in the ‘beyond’ way. The path we take to get there on a larger, systemic scale is what makes all the difference.

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