Water on Mars

The amazing new world of interactive learning

GUEST COLUMN | by David Straus

Kno imageWhy Interactive

Imagine you grew up in the 70’s, aka “the television generation”. Television as an interactive medium was your daily experience. Then one day, someone took away your television and replaced it with a radio. Wow, what would that feel like?

Today, as a student I experience Google searches, YouTube videos, and interactive games—sometimes all at once. Then I go to school and I am handed a printed textbook. Nothing interactive. If I want to find something – I’m told to turn the page. Where is my search bar? If I want to have something explained to me, where is my video, or even an interactive educational game? Again, nothing.

Our challenge as a content industry is to provide an interactive and engaging experience for our students. This means an experience that is relevant—an experience that takes the incredibly important interactive world students live in, and marries that with incredibly important education content. We need to create an environment where educational content is so engaging that students begin to drive their own learning experience.

That may sound far-fetched, but look at the research. When classrooms and students are engaged, the learning experience truly is transformed.

Textbooks of the Future?

In fact, I will argue that this isn’t an important question. The important question is, will we deliver an interactive content experience? We can already take a flat textbook and make it interactive; make words on the page into instant glossaries, even automatically creating flashcards from the glossary. We can cross-reference to websites and bring in video, interactive simulations, calculators and games. And, we can turn the words on the page into a docent, providing the base information, but then acting as a curator of our expansive digital world.

The transformation from the form of the textbook to some new structure won’t happen overnight. It will be evolutionary. What matters is that content is available that students can interact with and explore. That content (e.g. the textbook today) becomes the portal to this world of possibilities for students.

The Great Format Debate

One of the great debates today is PDF versus ePub. Actually, it is not much of a debate, any longer, it is more of a transition. PDF is a fixed page format that allows for an almost infinite number of designs. But there are limitations. Try to cram an 8×10 inch page onto a 4” Smartphone. ePub, on the other hand, is more like a webpage. For example, it is easier to put a video right on the page and play it there. But ePub is not a fix all and there are limitations.

We believe that the world will move in the direction of ePub and today that means ePub3. ePub3 will give us enough tools to allow us as an industry to effectively move away from PDF. One of the biggest advantages of ePub is its ability to scale to different sized devices.

While you can more effectively embed interactive media into an ePub format, this is only a tiny step forward in creating truly dynamic, interactive environment.  Let me explain.

Living in a “Loosely Coupled” World

In computing, the term “loosely coupled” system is one in which each of its components has little or no knowledge of the definitions of other. I will use the analogy of ingredients and recipes to help further define. A recipe is made up of ingredients. In the case of a recipe served in a restaurant, this is a tightly coupled relationship. You get specific ingredients that the restaurant has picked. Think of this as hard coded. But if you choose to make the recipe at home, you would go to a store. There are lots of choices for each ingredient, such as which brand of tomato sauce you pick, what kind of mushrooms, etc. This is a loosely coupled relationship. If you make this recipe four times a year, each time you can pick different ingredients.  And in fact, those same ingredients can be used in other recipes.

So embedding media (e.g. a movie) in an ePub3 document is tightly coupled. Let’s say it’s a video about how there is no water on Mars, then you have a problem when they discover water on Mars (oops!). Or, say, in an interview talking about not knowing where King Richard III is buried, you later have a problem when they find his bones under a parking lot (oops!). You get the gist.

But also consider that for a topic like water on Mars, or King Richard III, there could be many videos, or websites, or an interactive. In fact, over time these change. New ones are created or found. So what if the concept about “water on Mars” wasn’t hard-coded to a movie, but more loosely linked to highly rated content about “water on Mars”? Then, the student would have more content to choose from. That choice could even be a version that was translated into the student’s native language.

Cool new technologies for education drive this loose coupling between one form of content (e.g. a reading in a PDF or ePub book) and others (e.g. media on a topic). So now when you touch on the phrase “water on Mars” you are shown a menu of top rated websites, videos, etc. that pertain to that topic. And, if tomorrow a new discovery is made, that content is immediately available to the student without having to republish the book.

Bringing it Back to “Why Interactive”

In some regards, we are trying to make our students into explorers. The goal is not to have students just listen to lectures and learn facts. The goal is for them to explore topics and understand how things relate. The goal is for them to interact with the topic from different perspectives. To be far more engaged for better learning.

We will absolutely go beyond the fantasy of those animated photos in Harry Potter. The true magic is that “a book” will become the launch point for a student’s exploration. We are moving into a world where our ‘textbooks’ won’t be outdated the day they are printed. They will curate a world of incredible media that is very relevant, up-to-date, and inspiring. Innovation in technology is laying the groundwork for these advances.

David Straus, VP of Product, Kno Inc., can be contacted through twitter @dmstraus

  • Harry Keller


    It’s not about textbooks or “new” online textbooks. It’s about imagining learning anew. Oddly, we have known how to learn without textbooks (or any books) for millenia. It’s just that so many have been so inured to textbooks that we’ve forgotten about the many other ways to learn. It’s also that these other ways have cost so much more than the “rut of learning” that we’re in now, that they’ve been rejected out of hand.

    Welcome to the new world of learning! We’re just beginning to explore it. In science education, what do you see for science labs and remote education? On the one hand, you see lab kits, a throw-back to the nineteenth century and to those chemistry sets introduced in the early twentieth century. Nothing new there. On the other hand, you see online simulations. These existed before online as computer simulations. But, wait! Isaac Newton was doing simulations in the seventeenth century. Nothing new here.

    In both of these cases, the presentation has been gussied up a bit, but it’s still the same old same old.

    Yet, we’ve known how best to learn science science around 1860, around the time that science education began to stand on its own. The way to learn science has been adjusted around the edges but remains what we now call “guided instruction.” It’s also known as inquiry learning, discovery learning, and many other things. Until recently, this approach was way too expensive to use for the masses.

    No longer.

    Online hands-on science labs have arrived. These use the tried-and-true learning theories but package them with Internet and software resources so that this method, once discarded as too expensive, can now be available to all. smartscience.net.

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