Tampa, Fla. – (October 2006) – The next generation of textbooks aren't books at all. "Once upon a time," your children may one day tell their own kids, "parents complained about the weight of their children's schoolbags. Hunchbacked students stared at the concrete as they trudged to school. Many were even forced to drag backpacks on wheels, like little airline stewards. Until one day, someone had a bright idea . . ."
In Seattle, across the state of Utah, and in a few other places, backpacks have already started to get lighter. Physics and chemistry classes are turning to what could be called e-books, if that term didn't sound so dusty and old fashioned. Companies such as Kinetic Books and Trivedi Technology Innovations International are developing full, course-long, computer-based text "books" that require little more than access to a computer and, in some cases, regular Internet access. The digital format allows students to interact with the material, conduct computer-based experiments, and move at their own speed. And, attention, teachers: The digital textbooks even automate homework, saving hours of grading time.
"These days, I will lecture twenty minutes out of the fifty-minute class period and go over the basic topics and demonstrations, then they will get on the computer and start taking more notes from the textbook," says Ken Tong, a physics teacher at Seattle's Ballard High School. The textbook he describes, which retails for $29, comes from Seattle-based Kinetic Books and combines a complete course's worth of instructional text, with hundreds of simulations, game-like exercises, and assessment tools. Tong is lucky enough to have twenty computers in his classroom; still, he often puts two students to a computer and says many students work better in groups.
"They can help each other," he says, "and I can see in one glance if anybody's off task; I can check on them. And while the students work at their computers, I'm free, so I can go visit with them and help them."
"I don't think the classic situation where the teacher stands up at the chalkboard and lectures is where a lot of teachers want to be these days," says Bruce Jacobsen, CEO of Kinetic Books. Jacobsen first began developing the physics program as a volunteer at a public school where teachers lacked the resources to involve their students in interactive physics experiments. He began developing small animations to help students visualize the forces they were studying, and eventually developed those exercises into a complete curriculum. The goal, he says, is to make learning environments more dynamic.
"We want students working in teams," he continues. "They can try sample problems the night before and then present their solutions in the class. It's a classroom environment where they're leading the charge and the teacher is guiding that learning."
From Tong's perspective, perhaps the most welcome change takes place once class is over. The Kinetic Books program includes homework that students do online and submit electronically to their teacher. The assignments are graded instantly -- kids can see how they did, and take another try. Instead of poring over a stack of papers, Tong reviews a printout showing how each student did and how many times he or she tried.