United States researcher develops adjustable school textbooks

US researcher hopes adjustable electronic books can better suit those who learn at different rates

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 4:41am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 4:41am

For years, high school students have received identical textbooks. Even as students have different learning styles and abilities, they are force-fed the same materials. A non-profit organisation based at Rice University in the United States believes we can do better.

"Imagine a digital textbook where because I'm a different person and learn differently, my book is different from your book," said Richard Baraniuk, founder of OpenStax, which received a US$9 million grant to develop a prototype textbook for biology and physics. "Because I understand things in a different way from you, the book itself should change. It's exploding this whole idea of this paper, canonical textbook and creating something that's much more like a pathway a student explores."

OpenStax will spend two years developing the personalised, interactive books and then test them on students in and around Houston, Texas. The idea is to make learning easier, so students can go on to more successful careers and lives.

Baraniuk isn't just reproducing physical textbooks on digital devices, a mistake electronic book publishers have made. He's fundamentally rethinking what the educational experience should be in a world of digital tools. To do this means involving individuals with skills traditionally left out of the textbook business. Baraniuk is currently hiring cognitive scientists and machine-learning experts.

"Education in the future is going to be this type of team enterprise. Certainly there are going to be subject-matter experts and teachers. There are also going to be an increasing number of cognitive science experts and machine-learning teachers and practitioners," Baraniuk predicts.

Baraniuk wants to use the tactics of Google, Netflix and Amazon to deliver a personalised experience. These web services all rely on complex algorithms to automatically tailor their offerings for customers.

Just as Netflix recommends different movies based on your preferences and viewing history, a textbook might present materials at a different pace. The textbook - which will be housed in the cloud and viewable on a range of digital devices - will automatically adjust itself thanks to machine learning. As a student learns about a topic, she could be interrupted by brief quizzes that gauge her mastery of the area. Depending on how the student does, the subject could be reinforced with more material. Or a teacher could be automatically emailed that the student is struggling with a certain concept and could use some one-on-one attention.

This personalised learning experience is possible thanks to the wealth of data a digital textbook can track.

"You know which page a student is on. You also know as they're scrolling around where they might be within the page," Baraniuk said. "You know when they've clicked on different simulations, practice problems, videos, etc. You have a sense of whether they're playing those videos through to the end, going back to review material."

Baraniuk also envisages using this data to better track students' progress throughout a course. Parents and teachers can monitor a student's development and chime in with more fitting assistance.

His research on his own students at Rice has convinced him of the power of information presentation on how well a student learns. Baraniuk found that when he began spacing out homework on given lessons throughout a semester, his students' grades improved by between one half and a full grade point. Rather than cramming - where what is learned is quickly forgotten - the extended approach to learning created superior recall.

The books would go through a peer-reviewed vetting process, Baraniuk said.