08/03/2011 10:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

Are Textbooks Transitory?

"The standards are the spine not the instructional materials." I recall Vicki Phillips, who was superintendent in Lancaster Pennsylvania at the time, saying something to that effect when I visited her almost ten years ago. She was explaining the important difference between a standards-based curriculum and textbooks as the curriculum. What was most impressive was the teacher engagement in assembling standards-based lessons. I got the impression that teachers owned the expectations and weren't just covering content.

With the shift from print to digital and from information scarcity to abundance, there's no reason to be limited to a single instructional resource. That's why I'm a skeptic about digital textbooks -- they seem like a transitory technology that will be replaced by learning object libraries and smart recommendation engines.

However, today I met with an experienced mobile computing team interested in serving the education market and they were hanging digital ornaments off a flat and sequential textbook. It sparked an interesting discussion about the value of curation, organization, and the value of a narrative. They believe that good textbook authors provide an invaluable service and that it will be a long time before personalization strategies are strong enough to create coherent and effective replacements.

What's your take? Will digital textbooks be around for a generation or two or will big content libraries soon hang from a standards-based spine?

One thing that is clear is that cool apps are being introduced every day. I also visited with Eli Luberoff from Desmos (a Learn Capital portfolio company) and reviewed his graphic calculator -- I wish that had been around when I was learning algebra. The ability to manipulate variables and visually see the result is such a powerful learning tool. Eli is creating a standardize way to share interactive touchscreen content.

It's interesting to note that Eli took several alternative routes from grade 6 to 16. He was bored by a traditional approach (and textbooks) and learned a lot through exploration. Textbooks will probably be around for longer than I expect, but it's clear that they will increasingly be supplemented by personalized and engaging digital content.