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August 31, 2005

Who Built America? The Expanded Textbook

wba voyager2.jpg

The early and mid-1990s saw a brief but brilliant flowering of CD-ROM publishing that, to some degree, has never been surpassed, even as the world wide web has evolved from a simple hypertext system into a vibrant, interactive medium. In spite of unprecedented accessibility to knowledge resources, and a sprawling social dimension, the web has so far produced very little in the way of educational resources that could legitimately be said to challenge the hegemony of the printed textbook.

For this reason, it is worth looking back at the CD-ROM heyday, when an exciting array of "expanded books" and other genre-busting, interactive works were produced that made prodigious use of multimedia and tested the possibilities of the personal computer as a reading and learning device. At that time, a number of quality educational titles emerged on CD-ROM that suggested a new direction for the textbook. Who Built America?, a publication of the American Social History Project at the City University of New York, is undoubtedly one of the finest.

Based on a comprehensive, two-volume print history, the Who Built America? (WBA) CD-ROMs constitute both a revision and an expansion of the original titles. The first disc covers a period beginning with Reconstruction and running up to the beginning of World War I, while the second picks up at the outbreak of the first great war and follows to the conclusion of the second. Disc 1 (view demo) was released in 1993 by the Voyager Company to great acclaim. But it was not until 2000 that the second disc was published, this time by Worth, in a slightly altered format. Most important, the second disc was built in TK3, a commercially available ebook authoring program developed by Night Kitchen, an outgrowth of the Voyager company, and progenitor of The Institute for the Future of the Book.

The choice of TK3 highlights another key challenge for redefining the textbook in the digital age: an electronic textbook cannot be read-only. It must allow the reader to personalize the text, making annotations, highlighting passages, inserting memory aids. TK3 enables this, preserving many of the most crucial affordances of print books with tools such as highlighting, sticky notes, notepads, and even a way to dog-ear pages.

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These familiar features are then augmented by the unique affordances of digital machines: rich multimedia, connectivity to the global network, and powerful search capability. This is the textbook enhanced. (more about TK3)

Retaining the basic printed textbook format, each WBA disc contains approximately 3,000 source documents - text, audio, film and links to the world wide web. In effect, the textbook expands into a nearly bottomless resource, while preserving the rigor of a bounded print text.

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Even more significant, by placing source materials alongside the authors' exposition, a student is better able to make sense of the book as a work of scholarship, and even to challenge the authors' assumptions by drawing their own conclusions based on unvarnished, documentary evidence. The implications of this are profound, since the textbook has long been a top-down instrument of unquestionable authority.

Posted by ben vershbow at August 31, 2005 12:17 PM