Can Digital Textbooks Truly Replace the Print Kind?

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But a new app called Inkling might change all that. The company just released an updated version last week, and it’ll be utilized in over 50 undergrad and graduate classrooms this coming school year.

“Digital textbooks are not going to catch on,” says Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis as he’s giving me a demo over coffee. “What I mean by that is the current perspective of the digital textbook is it’s a replica of the print book. And people have been trying to do this for 10 years already. There’s Course Smart, etc., these guys who take an image of the page and put it on a screen. If that’s how we’re defining digital textbooks, there’s no hope of that becoming a mainstream product.”

He calls Inkling a platform for publishers that allows them to build rich multimedia content from the ground up, with a heavy emphasis on real-world functionality. The traditional textbook, at least in this case, merely serves as a skeleton.

(MORE: Should Cell Phones Be Allowed in Classrooms? Most Parents Say Yes)

At first glance Inkling is an impressive experience. After swiping into the iPad app, which you can get for free here, he opens up a few different types of textbooks.

Up first is a chemistry book. The boot time is pretty fast, and he navigates through a few chapters before swiping into a fully rendered 3D molecule that can be spun around to view its various building blocks. “Publishers give us all of the source media, artwork, videos (stuff that’d normally be in a CD attachment or online),” he says. “We help them think through how to actually build something for this platform.”

Next he pulls up a music composition textbook, complete with playable demos. He clicks into a diagram of staff notation, which he then clicks on to play a listenable piano sonata. It’s a learning experience that attacks you from multiple sensory directions, taking out a lot of the heady guess work. It’s clear why this would be something a music major would love.

But the most exciting part about Inkling, to me, is its innovative notation system. Here’s how it works:

When you purchase a used print book, it comes with its previous owner’s highlights and notes in the margins. It leverages the experience of someone who already went through the class to help hone your reading (how much you trust each notation or not is obviously up to you).

But with Inkling, you can highlight a piece of content and annotate it with notes. Here’s where things get interesting, though: If a particularly important passage is highlighted by multiple Inkling users, that information is stored on the cloud and is available for anyone reading the same textbook to come across. That means users have access to notes from not only their classmates and Facebook friends, but anyone who purchased the book across the country. The best comments are then sorted democratically by a voting system (sort of like a Reddit upvote), meaning that your social learning experience is shared with the best and brightest thinkers.

As a bonus, professors can even chime in on discussions as designated “experts.” They’ll be able to answer the questions of students who are in their class directly via the interactive book.

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