If you haven't done so already, please click one of the links in the text above. That is the kind of interactivity I'm talking about here, only taken several steps further. We see toddlers who have played with an iPad trying the same interactions on regular paper, only to find out it doesn't work. But they are right, why shouldn't it?
There are many possibilities to enhance existing digital textbooks for secondary education, such as note sharing with classmates and responding to them, creating a helpful conversation. Or interactive exercises that are right in the textbook, and not on some site by the publisher which no student actually uses. The teacher could get an overview of how well the exercises are made in general and individually, or a heat map of which parts of the textbook are most discussed by the students.
But I believe that is just the beginning. By providing meaningful interactions right within the textbook, students can better understand what they are doing. Instead of simply filling in formulas, students can try things out, touch things, and explore: something most people are better at than abstract manipulation of symbols. Of course, the latter is still important, and should in fact be easier after actual understanding of the topic.
Something else to think about is the role of the teacher. If lectures could be watched by students at home, this gives more time for teachers to address individual problems, do experiments, focus on difficult material and other things. This idea is already being explored by the Khan Academy, a non-profit organisation offering lectures for different secondary school subjects online.
There are many more things possible with such an approach to textbooks, but the main point is to create an awesome experience that is not only engaging, but adds a lot of educational value by using all these techniques that are simply not possible with conventional teaching, even when digital material is used to some degree. Indeed, there have been many, many attempts to improve education by employing software, with varying degrees of success. But it is only now that we have affordable mobile devices with enough processing power, computers in virtually every home, and a widely used distribution platform that allows all this content to be delivered in a uniform way, as this proposal itself demonstrates!
The idea is to implement a basic platform on which such textbooks can be built, write some sample content, and evaluate this concept with that chapter. When implementing such a system, it is important to think about how both students and teachers would use it. Therefore, it would be useful to talk to them and figure out use cases and user stories.
To be more precise, the goal of the project would be to build and evaluate an interactive textbook platform. The "build" part is primarily software engineering: developing the platform in a structured, object-oriented way. But prior to this it should be known how users (students and teachers) would use it: what the user stories in the classroom are (that is, in the old-fashioned way without digital books). For this I would propose to do a small study, for example by interviewing or observing users. Finally, to evaluate the system, I propose to do a small usability study with actual students and teachers. This is not the same as an actual pilot in the classroom, as that would take too much time and is outside the scope of this project.
Both the software development (actual programming) and requirements engineering (user stories, usability study) parts of this project should have about equal weight. The project builds in particular on the material taught in the Requirements course, but also on programming practices taught in general. As I want to make this textbook platform device- and OS-independent, the implementation would be in the form of a web application.
As a rough guideline, I propose a timeline of milestones within this project. These are chosen such that there is minimal interference with courses and exams. The timeline describes what events should take place each month.
- April 2012: initial field-test completed; draft of user stories completed; primary and secondary goals of the implementation identified; started with implementation.
- May 2012: field-test writeup complete; many primary goals accomplished; started writing plan for evaluation study; started documenting the implementation.
- June 2012: all primary goals accomplished, some secondary goals accomplished; first draft of documentation; ready to do evaluation study.
- July 2012: evaluation study completed; first draft of evaluation study done; documentation done; perhaps some more secondary goals completed.
- August 2012: final writeup of dissertation done and handed in on time (deadline is August 31st).
As writing actual content to test this platform with is somewhat outside the scope of the project, I found my friend Nathan Mol prepared to write some physics examples. This is not critical to the success of the project, but might be helpful in the final evaluation study, and in general when presenting the final results. Please note, however, that writing some interactive examples (such as seen in this proposal) is a part of the project.
Perhaps it would be useful to somehow collaborate with the Learning and New Technologies research group at the Department of Education. They have more expertise in doing field tests at schools, and probably also useful contacts at schools.
In conclusion, I really hope that it will be possible to do this as an MSc project. I truly believe that education can be improved by this in a fundamental way.