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The future of the book

The future of the book

October 18, 2013
By Brad Miller

I've had a lifelong love of books.  Since my grandma Sundahl bought me a copy of "Charlotte's Web" in third grade, through my nerdy middle school and junior high years where the public library was my refuge, and the librarian always saved the latest Hardy Boys book so I could be the first to check it out. On a shelf in my office, right next to my Radio Shack pocket computer, my original Macintosh, and a first generation Palm Pilot, sits a device called the Rocket eBook Reader, I purchased this device in 1998 for a whopping $500. The Rocket could hold about 20 books, weighed over a pound, and  was discontinued after a few years. It was a device ahead of its time.  It had everything a modern Kindle has except the wireless download, and the backing of Amazon.

Today, Morgan Stanley estimates that Amazon will sell $4.5 billion worth of Kindle e-readers, and another $3.8 billion in digital media for the devices. In a few years we will probably look back at Today's Kindles with the same sense of nostalgia I find when I look at the shelf of digital gadgets in my office.

What will change about digital books over the next few years?  Of course it's always difficult to predict where technology will take us.  Digital ink, on flexible paper-thin media? Who knows. But I do know that there is a key thing that is missing from today's ebooks. Interactivity.

Right here at Luther College we are making our own contribution to the future of the book by developing an interactive textbook for computer science. My colleague David Ranum and I are leading Runestone Interactive, and open source project to develop both tools and books for building interactive textbooks for computer science. You can take a look at this free and open source resource on our website http://interactivepython.org.

Runestone Interactive

Runestone Interactive began years ago as part of my sabbatical, which was supposed to be about developing a course on iOS programming, and updating two textbooks to new editions. But after spending hours programming my iPad, and even more hours writing about data structures for the printed page, I had enough. As I was writing, I kept thinking about all the great visualizations and interactive learning aids that could be embedded in a book, if it was brought to a platform like the iPad. Unfortunately there were no tools, and no ability to bring a book to the iPad that was anything more than an electronic version of a book written for paper. So, we decided to invent some.

Three years later our experiment is really taking off.  Today we have around 4,000 unique students using the textbook each day. Since the beginning of the school year we have had 160,000 page views from people in 178 different countries. Colleges including Duke University, University of Toronto, St. Mary's, University of Minnesota Moorhead and almost 100 others are using the book in their classrooms. What surprised me, was the number of high school teachers that contacted me about using the book in their school. This is really great news, as computer science is taught in fewer high schools today than it was in the 1980s when I was a high school student.

Beyond the classroom, we have thousands of people who want to teach themselves computer science. These people have found us on Google, and are working their way through the book. In its own way, this book has similarities to a Massive Open Online Course, although its a self-paced MOOC, with no teaching assistants to grade your homework. (Answers to the odd numbered questions are provided.)

Teaching with an ebook

What is most interesting is that we are just beginning to understand what we can learn from this new technology. An interactive electronic textbook gives us insights into how our students learn that we've never imagined before. We are collecting Gigabytes of data on how people interact with the book. As a computer science professor, I can replay a student's thought process as they struggle to get a homework assignment correct. I can recreate their steps as they try one thing, and then another until they finally get it right. I can see the the most common mistakes, and I can see empirically which concepts and problems are causing them the most trouble. Most importantly, it has given me a new way of thinking about teaching.

Headshot - Brad MillerBrad Miller is associate professor of computer science at Luther College. Miller's research focuses on the topics of networking, programming and graphics. Read more by Brad on his blog "A Reputable Journal." His company, Runestone Interactive, has developed (and continues to work on) a more interactive textbook.

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