Books, Technology, and Learning: Looking at the Past to See Our Future

By Paul Signorelli
It was like being shoved through an open door I hadn’t seen when I first heard that massive open online courses (MOOCs) would be serving as a new form of textbook for many of us. The idea was mentioned only for a moment by John Shank, one of my American Library Association (ALA) colleagues who is an instructional design librarian at Pennsylvania State University’s Thun Library. This moment happened during a tech-trends panel discussion at ALA’s annual midwinter conference earlier this year, and even though it was brief, the novelty of the idea struck a deep chord. Since then, I have been rethinking my concept of what a book is.

Currently, we see instructors who can relatively easily create and use custom-made online anthologies comprised of articles, videos, and other resources they collect for their learners from a variety of copyrighted and open resources.

Like many other instructional designers who serve as onsite and online learning facilitators, I have been producing hybrid printed-virtual materials that, while text-based, incorporate links to image-laden PowerPoint slide decks; existing videos, photographs, and graphics online; and free online book excerpts to provide learners with the most dynamic, engaging, and low-cost options my clients and I can create. We also extend the reach of those hybrid “anthologies” by adding opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous online interactions through a variety of course tools, such as Moodle, and through interactions in social media platforms including Facebook, Google Groups/Communities and Hangouts, LinkedIn discussion groups, and live chats on Twitter that become learning objects for course participants.

As I continued to debate my colleagues on whether MOOCs could serve as effective avenues for learning, I joined two dynamic, well-facilitated connectivist MOOCs that not only offered stimulating content and plenty of opportunities for interactions with learning facilitators and other online learners, but made me aware—through hands-on experience—that I could be actively involved in producing content that not only contributed to my learning process but became educational content for other formal and informal learners.

By the time the facilitated versions of those two MOOCs—one on educational technology and one on personal learning networks—had concluded last year, we had created archives of our live sessions via Blackboard Collaborate and Google Hangouts. We had also written blog posts and, in some cases, created our own videos that remain accessible to other learners. We had even created transcripts (using Storify) to capture the content of live chats and other exchanges on Twitter. (Cutting and pasting Facebook chat transcripts into PDFs and posting them for learners also continues to serve me well in online courses I facilitate.)

But it wasn’t until John Shank made his comment at the midwinter gathering that I saw those hybrid online course “lectures” and basic MOOC content as well as the interconnected content spreading across multiple platforms for what they are: potential variations on our current idea of what books are or could be. It’s as easy to envision this online content as books as it is to recall the expansion of the word “magazines” from a term for print-based objects to a term that also refers to the televised “magazines” with the combination of on-the-air news and feature stories that became so popular in the United States in the 1990s.

Calling television programs “magazines” didn’t doom print magazines; the challenges to print magazines come from many other directions. In the same way, seeing the hybrid online lectures and content created through MOOCs as a potential variation of our concept of printed textbooks and ebooks could create wonderfully engaging new opportunities that create “and-and” rather than “either-or” options.

Deciding to explore the theme further with colleagues, I introduced it into one of the conversations facilitated through the NMC’s first Wiki-Thon, in February 2014, to help identify key edtech trends, challenges, and technology we might have overlooked up to that point. The responses from Wiki-Thon participants were encouraging—you’ll find them as item #9 in the “Key Trends” section of the wiki—and I don’t for a moment believe we’ve heard the last of this one.

I clearly do not fear for the future of books or reading. A comment from a mentor/colleague/friend a few years ago about how we mistakenly focus on information containers (e.g., books that are physical, printed objects) rather than on information itself (whether that information is contained and accessible in print, online in various formats, audio, video, or filmed versions) had primed me for the moment when I heard John Shank suggest the possibility that MOOCs could serve as textbooks.

Just as I see the print vs. ebook conversation as an unnecessary either-or choice, there are times when I’m quite happy reading books in print, and there are times when I prefer the convenience of reading books (and plenty of other material) online via the tablet I carry. With the same lens, I view instructor-designed online anthologies, hybrid text-graphic lectures, and MOOCs-as-textbooks as appealing options to be pursued rather than as life-threatening competitors to the books I continue to read in print and online.

I enjoy hybrid lectures and MOOCs as textbooks. I learn from them. I am engaged by them. And as someone completely fascinated by Maker culture and the idea that students are learners as well as creators — as when Norwegian high school students produce and sell Connected Learners: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Global Classroom and high school students here in the San Francisco Bay Area create and sell Windows to the Teenage Soul, an anthology of poetry and artwork — I relish the opportunity to be part of the process without thinking that my participation in that culture means I’ll never attempt to write another book (printed or online), magazine article, or instructional-video script that would be useful to a target audience.

It’s all about the act of communicating, with the possibility of collaboration in new and evolving ways that take advantage of tech developments.

Paul Signorelli is a writer-trainer-instructional designer-social media strategist who has served on Horizon Project expert panels since 2010; he can be reached at


Thumbnail and 4th image from the top CC BY 2.0 by Maria Elena via Flickr; magazines image CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Martin Kenny via Flickr

Sparking innovation, learning and creativity.
More >

Identifying the impact of emerging technologies.
More >

The Edward and Betty Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the Arts (MIDEA) provides timely, succinct and practical knowledge about emerging technologies that museums can use to advance their missions.
More >

The largest educational presence in any virtual world, involving more than 150 colleges and universities and a very active community of educators that numbers nearly 12,000.
More >