People have been predicting the end of the traditional, paper-based textbook for years. A McKinsey & Company study from 2014 suggested that textbook rentals would cannibalize new-textbook sales by 2017, resulting in a reduction in new-book sales of 5 to 10 percent by 2020. eSchool News recently spoke with Matthew Glotzbach, chief executive officer of Quizlet—the extremely popular site that offers tools for students to make study sets that can be used for flashcards, learning activities, and games—about the future of textbooks.

Q: What’s your take on Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2019 annual letter regarding the point “textbooks are becoming obsolete?”

A: The traditional textbook has been in a state of transformation for some time now, and 2019 marks an important year of acceptance from the education industry and outside influencers who recognize where its path is leading. Those of us in the industry have all heard about the impending “death of the textbook.” We live in an increasingly digital world and students spend a lot of time using technology to connect to people, to be entertained, and to learn. It’s this third piece that we are finally embracing.

About 10 years ago, in 2010, when Common Core was launched in the U.S., the standards became a forcing function to revisit traditional learning materials teachers had been using. The required change came at a time when, as teachers began to explore and embrace alternative resources, many began to adopt technologies for the classroom too.

Related: 10 findings about K-12 digital learning

Fast-forward to today. This shift has resulted in the phenomenon of unbundling content, the idea that education is customizable. We now see teachers leveraging everything from Youtube videos and games to engage students, to edtech platforms that offer online quizzes and activities that can track student progress. Textbook content is still important, but its form factor doesn’t fit the media-rich world around us. That content needs to be flexible and in a format that can work well with the other tools teachers and students are already using.

Q: How does the death of the textbook affect costs for education materials, or does it?

A: No doubt the transition we are experiencing, as education adopts more digital materials over printed ones, is not simple. On one hand, digitizing content from textbooks takes out the heavy cost and logistics of printing, distributing, and housing millions of physical books. On the other hand, the quality of the content comes from a lot of back-end work to research, curate, and produce accurate, attractive, and engaging materials regardless of the medium in which it’s distributed. Legacy contracts and approaches to selecting and adopting education materials are still finishing out their cycles in the system.

Clearly, there is more to figure out as the industry navigates these crossroads, but we’re already seeing the digital marketplace open up opportunity for non-traditional content creators to compete alongside traditional publishers, without barriers to region or prior distribution relationships and pricing models.

This means more choice for students and teachers to find new resources that fit their needs. The growing inventory of materials by a broader array of creators is the chance for education to become more cost-effective and more personalized overall—and that is an exciting opportunity for all stakeholders.

Is it time to say goodbye to textbooks?

Q: What are some of the types of innovative technologies replacing the traditional textbook? How are they shaping the future of education?

A: When we look at what’s happening today, we can see some really effective technology in place providing more efficiency and access to education. Things like video-based lessons, which allow students to re-watch pieces they don’t understand, are a significant step in helping learners access and grasp new information. We are also witnessing adaptive practice in which technology recognizes what students are getting wrong on tests and homework. This is just a taste of what’s possible.

Related: New report reveals 10 ways students are outpacing their schools

Every day, people are having conversations with their Alexa or Google Assistant, requesting knowledge from endless databases of information. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are changing how we approach learning and measure success. We have started to see AI capabilities that help teachers grade tests and review papers, giving them time back to be with students and focus in on their individual needs. As technology continues to evolve, we will likely see it playing a facilitating role in assessing the student’s level of understanding.

Imagine AI-powered software that could understand what a student is saying when answering a question, identify what the student is missing in their answer, then guide them through a progressive set of questions until the full connection is made. This is now well within the realm of possibility.

Q: How is edtech preparing Generation Z students to survive the future of work?

A: Beyond democratizing access to education, edtech is providing students with important life skills to be better prepared for adulthood and the workforce. Learning how to analyze data and code will be the foundation for innovation that helps us solve some of the world’s biggest problems. But soft skills are more difficult to teach, and equally as valuable as the hard skills. Well-designed edtech tools that engage students and progress them forward are great at promoting critical thinking and problem solving. Especially in the era of fake news, it’s vital to provide students with the opportunity to practice analyzing information instead of just regurgitating it.

Edtech focused on gamifying learning can help boost confidence through teamwork and friendly competition. Games give students a safe space to fail, while encouraging them to actively consider and retain information. And there are tools that recognize the incredible value of collaboration, providing communities of students the opportunity to learn together and support one another’s journeys. If we are doing our jobs right, we’ll continue to create and evolve education-focused technologies that give everyone opportunities for a bright future.

About the Author:

Ellen Ullman is editorial director, content services, for eSchool Media.


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