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The Future of the Textbook

Smart History

If you have an even passing interest in art, you should check out smARThistory, a recently redesigned website that’s quickly racking up awards. An ongoing experiment founded by Beth Harris, MoMA’s director of digital learning, and Steven Zucker, graduate-studies dean at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the site fills what has been a massive gap on the Web: Credible, concise art reference.

The design is incredibly simple. Click on any bar in the timeline, and that bar expands to a list of images, which in turn are linked to video about that artist. That’s key, because, like a great documentary, it makes learning about what can be a fairly narrow subject into something painless.

But more generally, to see a site like smARThistory is to wonder: Why the hell are we still teaching kids from textbooks? Granted, the system works. But you’d at least expect more experiments in the genre, along the lines of smARThistory. For one, textbooks for each student routinely cost hundreds, even thousands per year—and a massive chunk of those costs aren’t in the production of the material, but rather its printing and distribution. Better to give kids laptops, and dynamic textbooks with high production values (like smARThistory). You could arrange them with assigned lessons that require modules to be checked off. A system of clicks or periodic questions could ensure that the kids are engaged. And what about flash animations that illustrate physics or math concepts? The list goes on. If done right, a virtual textbook would far outshine any print textbook we’ve ever cracked. But perhaps someone is already working on this? If you know of anything juicy, drop a line in the comments.

[Tip via NotCot]CK