Forget the future: Here’s the textbook I want now

The old paper form of a textbook is certain to die. I’m sure of it.

The new form of a "textbook" has a feature list that turns the textbook from something people read to something people experience. Note that this feature list isn’t fantasy, nearly all of these features already exist in some form.

Here are the features I think every textbook should have.

  • The textbook should be 100% searchable. No more wondering where eukaryotic appears in the text. You’ll just be able to quickly type in a search term and find all of the places it appears.
  • Key words in the text should be linked to explanations of these key terms. Click on the word, find out what it means in this context and what other resources exist to understand it.
  • The readability of the text should be individually customizable. Want to challenge yourself and improve your vocabulary? There’s a setting for that. Feel like taking it easy on the reading? There’s a setting for that too.
  • Everything in the textbook should allow annotations which should appear as a user generated summary of the textbook itself in another location.
  • Users should be able to add bookmarks and tag parts of the textbook with terms so they can self-classify the information. These tags should optionally appear for other users of the same textbook.
  • You should be able to comment on any part of the textbook. This could be used to flag out-of-date content or just to ask questions. Each user of a textbook should optionally be able to see everyone else’s comments on various sections of the text. These comments should happen in real time so that users can chat in real time about what they are examining.
  • Videos and other multimedia should be included in the textbook where appropriate. Want to talk about MLK’s I have a dream speech? You can include the entire video of his speech as part of the book.
  • The textbook should be customizable. Users should be able to edit the content of the textbook and share the updated version of the textbook with other users. When a customization occurs, the original author(s) of the textbook could optionally be notified so they can either accept or reject the changes to the original work.
  • The textbook needs to be open source and free. No longer bound by restrictive and antiquated licenses, institutions can create their textbooks and share them with the world.
  • Textbooks need to be translatable if they are really going to be free to use for everyone. No longer would the language learners in your class be forced to struggle in your subject just because of a lack of knowledge of the language of instruction. Optionally you could have the textbook display in the language of instruction and have real-time translation services available for any section on demand.
  • For any section of the text, real time search of other resources or references needs to be available. Instead of relying on just the opinion of the author(s) of the text, now you can look at other (optionally screened) resources that could help understand some perspective on the subject of the textbook.
  • The textbook should be device agnostic and mobile-ready. It shouldn’t matter if the person is reading it on an ereader, a netbook, an iPad, or a cell phone, the textbook should be available anytime, anywhere to anyone.
  • The textbook should be built with multiple models of pedagogy in mind. Instead of flatly stating the "facts" for the student reading the textbook, there should be opportunities for experiments, simulations, 3rd virtual worlds, or whatever other alternate forms of representation are available. Inquiry should be built into these textbooks.
  • Students should be able to click anywhere in the book and ask the question, "where is this used in the real world?" No more students asking why they are learning this stuff, because the entire learning process would be transparent.
  • You should be able to ask an expert on the topic from your textbook. Need more help with the topic than the textbook is providing, or have some more questions? You can call someone for help and ask for advice right through your textbook.
  • Your textbook could be a centre of a community of people who are all learning the same material. Not all of you need to be in exactly the same class, but as you work through the textbook and make comments, the textbook learns from you about your learning habits, strengths, and weaknesses, and connects you to the people and resources that you need to understand.
  • Any practice or other tasks that need to be done through the textbook should be included, if appropriate, and immediately assessed. No more waiting for feedback.
  • The textbook should be modular. This would allow for construction of textbooks from many different sources, potentially choosing the most effectively created resources for each section. Students could create their own textbooks for their personal study, selecting resources that they find to be the most effective for them. In fact, students could contribute modules to a textbook as part of a capstone project for their course.
  • The textbook content should include metatags, which should be searchable, so that over time related content can be found, and some of the connections between different content areas are made more clear.
  • Update: Thomas Baekdal reminded me of a couple of more important features: First that the textbook be non-linear so that the learner can access it in any order, and that the textbook should allow for embedding from sources anywhere on the web.
  • The most important feature I can think of in a textbook should be that it should be at most a place in the learning process, and help the learner develop further questions that they can explore for themselves. It should not be something that stops a learner from wondering.

What else would you like to see in a textbook?



  • I like your criteria for the textbook you want now. I think the greatest strength might be the tagging and commenting feature. I recall sharing the general anathema felt toward students who desecrated the required texts with scribbled answers… how could the next student learn independently I wondered? My attitude has changed. Today I think it wonderful if students can build on previous insight and challenge each other’s interpretations.

    E-books would be very nice. I often thought it would be best if our local newspaper publishers printed textbooks. They seem to have no problem producing well-bound TV guides and endless fliers for local business. I thought much could be made of essentially throw-away texts that could be updated frequently. We commit so much of our resources to bound textbooks and cling to them far past their usefulness. Newsprint publications would make contemporary materials accessible to districts unable to implement the 1-1 computing e-books will require. Just a thought.

  • David Wees wrote:

    Yeah the commenting feature is pretty key in my opinion too. It has so many ways you can use it. I think the annotations in my mind look like comments as well on the text, and should be shareable. I saw an option to share the annotations in an app on the iPhone and unfortunately it sends them off by email. Seriously. Who wants to keep track of and share annotations via email? Yuch. Notifications of new shares vs email? Fine.


  • Ray Myrtle wrote:

    Open source..

  • Hi David,

    I loved your post. The closest I’ve seen to your vision is at

    I think we’re headed in the right direction but it seems most publishers are dragging their heels and open source seems to be a distant future..I hope your post moves us all along at a faster clip.

    Sean Heuchert
    Manager of IT
    Peterborough Catholic School Board

  • And it would be fun to approach the problem from the other end, and set forth criteria for what makes a web site a good book. A clear demarcation of what’s in the book versus not? Carefully curated and/or expert-written content? Student exercises accompanying learning topics?

  • David Wees wrote:

    I agree. The web definitely has the features I’m describing, although I don’t think all of them are in any one place. 

    In many ways, the web is not designed for kids to use, and of course, it was designed by adults, so hence the difficulties. It’s important for younger students that this material should be age appropriate, and that access to it should be fairly easy. Like you say, it would be interesting to rate websites as learning resources (I’m not clear that book is the right name for this object).

  • This is what we’re trying to do at You should check out our site. We don’t don’t have searchable content yet, and we’re stuck with English for the moment, but most of the other things you discuss we’ve got. As revolutionary as the ideas sound, they’re not that hard to implement, especially in an incremental way. It’s tedious, but nothing the average person doesn’t do when they’re studying hard – making flashcards out of important pieces of info, communicating with classmates, asking questions, appealing to experts (instructors).

    The real trick is to automate the process. I speak from experience when I say that this isn’t easy, and it may be one of the reasons publishers are reluctant to move in this direction.

    Obviously, we’re not free or open-source, but profit motive does a lot to accelerate the pace of these sorts of changes, and we’re as committed to education as anyone out there.


  • E-textbook would be fun and research would be very accessible online. That only problem here based on my experience (my kids)is that tight supervision would be required. Kids could easily get distracted and side-tracked. But this is a very good idea!

  • Hi David,

    Great post. Thanks.

    I am trying to imagine how much the ‘textbook of the near future’ might be if tacit knowledge was privileged. What does that look/sound like? Instead of a text where explicit knowledge is ‘contained’ what types of prompting and experiential learning might a ‘text’ to develop tacit ways of knowing include?

  • David Wees wrote:

    I don’t know that you can contain tacit knowledge in a textbook. It seems to me that knowledge which transmittable through some form of container is, by definition, not tacit. Tacit knowledge is one of the reasons things like the Khan Academy won’t work as a replacement for education.

  • Thanks for sharing David! I would completely appreciate this type of textbook. I’m sure the development of such a resource will be available in only a matter of time, but think much like early printed textbooks, it may only be available to the elite. The textbook is very linear in fashion and speaks to one particular audience. I really like the textbook you describe opens up the world of learning to many intelligences and learning styles.

  • For an recent assessment, my grade 10 had to write textbook pages from two different perspectives. They didn’t really know what a textbook was. So as they started to work, they started to ask to integrate some of the characteristics you named above. They KNOW what digital books can do. And they EXPECT it. It’ll be interesting to see how soon they get it.

    Side note–I shared your blog post with them when they started to want something more as a static textbooks. They really ran with it. Thanks!

  • David Wees wrote:

    No problem Rebekah. I love it when something I write impacts students directly. Thank you for sharing.

  • Hi David,

    Great post. I love all you r ideas here. The possibilities really are endless.

    I would like to see the new “textbook” have the capability to speak the words – and not just with the techno-voice, but with a voice more “real”. It would alsobe great if the text could be written at a few of different levels. For instance, maybe written at 2-3 grade levels below to help our ELL learners, but especially for our students designated with Learning Disabilities. This would make the text much more accessible to all our learners.

    It’s exciting to see the changes happening in education. The possibilities are exciting.

    Thanks for all you do to push the thinking.


  • David Wees wrote:

    Thanks Tia.

    The ability of the textbook to be more usable for non-text people (for whatever reason) is a high priority for me. I strongly suspect that the textbook of the future will be much more separated from text than our current textbooks. I’ve heard the phrase techbook used instead of textbook, which may be more appropriate.


  • Textbooks should be more accessible, I think, is important. Thanks for the post 🙂 The truth is that with digital books Pocco’m a confused about all these things …

  • Wafa Hozien wrote:

    This is such an important topic as our students come equipped with a variety of learning styles. Textbook authors accommodate maybe for two of those learning styles. I do not think that E books are the solution. We as educators need to think outside of the box. There has got to be a way to make text engaging for all learners.

  • Thank you for writing this. I think it’s an important thing to discuss. Not everyone learns the same way and there needs to be a way for everyone to learn to the best of their abilities.

  • […] the ebook for the quality of the interaction one has with a traditional book. Further, there are a lot of features which are not included in most ebooks at all. Given that websites allow for videos, simulations, […]

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