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October 14, 2005

Analog to Digital: The Electronic Bedford Handbook


What happens when textbooks go digital? Diana Hacker's Electronic Bedford Handbook 6.0 offers a unique opportunity to explore that question. The digital version of her best-selling grammar handbook retains the content and design of the print edition, while introducing new ways of organizing, navigating, updating, presenting lessons, and customizing.

A Different Way of Organizing
Hacker's book makes an interesting case study of what happens when a textbook moves from analog to digital. The content is word-for-word the same as the print version, but digital architecture enables a new way of organizing the information. Examples appear as links, which activate pop-out pages (annotations). This allows the author to place the illustrations exactly where they are mentioned without interrupting the flow of the text. The printed page forces a kind of lateral organization, with illustrations expanding chapters like urban sprawl, disorienting the reader as the main text is continually interrupted. The digital version, with its pop-out annotation feature, creates a sense of deep space that allows the reader to think of an example as an idea stacked underneath the main idea.

A New Way of "Paging" Through the Book
The forward/backward arrow buttons at the bottom right corner mimic the page-turning action of a paper book, but that is where the similarities end. Navigation in the electronic version is practical, intuitive, and instantaneous. In addition to the requisite left-hand sidebar navigation, the Bedford Handbook provides hot links to all citations. These links take readers directly to the handbook page mentioned (getting back, however, is not as easy) or to the companion website. Section heads in the upper right corner, have a useful menu of links to all subsections and to chapter exercises.

Staying Up-to-Date
Direct connections to the more-frequently-updated companion website allows the electronic handbook to stay current longer than a stand-alone print version could. The companion site also includes relevant links to web-based reference information, which further expands the scope of the handbook.

Interactive Exercises
The electronic handbook reimagines the grammar lesson as an interactive experience. The tutorials provide clear and instantaneous feedback. Students find out why an answer is right or wrong. I tried a few of the exercises and, in addition to being more informative than their print predecessors, the tutorials had the feel of a game. I was actually having fun and I imagine students will also find these lessons more engaging than their print counterparts.

Preserving the Handbook "feel"
The electronic version is about the same size as the print book, which gives it a charming handbook feel. However, the book cannot be resized, and this raises legibility issues. Illustrations on page e-57, for example, show rough and final drafts of a student paper in five point type, barely readable on the screen.

This digital textbook allows students to do all the things they might normally do to a print textbook: dog-ear pages, highlight passages, attach post-it notes, annotate. Unlike the print version, however, these digital markings can be automatically compiled and searched. This lets students and teachers create customized versions of the textbook. Grammar reference books in particular seem to call for customizability. When you type "grammar module" into the Google search engine it returns over one and a half million instances. Every major publisher of textbooks has a grammar book and most colleges and universities publish their own web-accessible reference work on the subject. Innumerable self-published works by teachers and editors are also available.

I'd like to suggest that this profile represents a tip of the iceberg view of this particular subject area. I've selected the Bedford Handbook because it represents a standard of excellence and because its best-selling print ancestor allows us to compare/contrast print and digital versions. However, a cursory review of offerings available online (in many cases for free) indicates that there are other excellent examples and that the grammar unit is a good case-in-point for the diversity and customizability engendered by digital media.

I'm interested to hear from readers on this subject. Do you use customized digital assets to teach grammar? And if so, what have you found to be most useful? Are there resources you can point to that specifically address dyslexic students, ESL students, sight impaired students, or other special cases? Is a comprehensive resource like The Bedford Handbook more useful for you or do you assemble your own collection of reference material?

Posted by kim white at October 14, 2005 8:53 PM