The pedagogical features of a textbook

Ever since I’ve started working on the BC open textbook project, one of the bits of research that I’ve wanted to do was deconstruct “the textbook” to dig into what exactly are the pedagogical features that make a textbook a textbook. As we enter into the creation phase of open textbooks – and with a book sprint coming up in June where we will be creating a textbook from scratch in 4 days – I’ve started taking a closer look at what makes a textbook a textbook.

Specifically I am trying to identify a couple of things.

First, I want to identify a list of common pedagogical features that textbooks have that make them different from other types of books. By features I mean what are the specific elements or attributes of a textbook that help students understand the content in the book. This can range from chapter outlines and summaries to practice questions and glossaries.

Second, I want to find out to what degree do those pedagogical features actually help students understand the content. Here I am searching for some empirical research that shows that specific features of a textbook may be more useful than others when it comes to helping students learn.

Third, does the format of the textbook change or alter the usefulness of a pedagogical feature? By this I mean are there features that were created specifically for printed textbooks that may not be relevant to an electronic version of the book, and are there pedagogical elements that can be done in the electronic version that can’t be done (or are done differently) in the printed version? This third question is challenging, but is important in the context of our work since students have the choice of format types – physical copies or electronic copies and the work we are doing has to be sensitive to the formats (and I think I have a future post brewing that may touch upon my frustration at having to work with both formats, both from a technical perspective and from an educational culture perspective. I’ve easily spent a majority of my time dealing with issues around “the print” vs issues with “the electronic”).

So far I’ve identified 24 different pedagogical features (or aids as I have seen them referred to) that are commonly found in textbooks. These are:

Pedagogical Aid/Feature
Chapter Objectives Chapter Learning Outcomes Chapter Outline
Checklists Headings & Subheadings Bold & Italicized text
Table of Figures Index Focus Questions
Chapter Summary or Review  Case Studies and Vignettes  Glossary/Key Terms
Demonstrations  Examples of Best Practices Maps
Interviews  Illustrations (which include photos, diagrams, charts & figures) Simulations
Further Reading suggestions Timelines Practice Questions
Multimedia (audio/video) Pronunciation Guide Table of Contents

From here, I am creating a description of what the feature is, what pedagogical purpose it might have for learners, what research I can find about that feature to see if there is any evidence that these aids help students, and, finally, some thoughts around how the feature might be different in the print and electronic versions of a textbook.

There is one pedagogical feature that I have intentionally left off of this list is, arguably, the most important pedagogical feature and that is structure. A strong structure provides a logical, well thought out path for students to navigate the content. But given the importance of structure, I think I need to tackle that on its own, perhaps using these 5 rules of textbook structure as a starting point.

Extending PressBooks

The other reasons I am trying to take this deconstructionist approach to analyzing features of a textbook is that we want to see if there are ways we can extend PressBooks to accommodate what we identify as the most useful pedagogical features. For example, in the user interface of PressBooks, Brad Payne has built some textbook specific buttons that insert specific types of content blocks into PressBooks (I spoke a bit about this in an earlier blog post). What we want to do is not only build buttons in the editing interface that inserts visible elements (like say a green box around a case study), but also inserts metadata that identifies that specific pedagogical feature as a chapter summary. Brad has been looking at the emerging Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) to see how we can begin to tag bits and pieces of the content in our textbook.

This is pretty exciting stuff. Theoretically, if we create a button in the user interface to insert a case study into the textbook, it could also insert metadata that identifies that block of content as a case study. Once you have content identified, you could then build API’s that could extract the textbook specific content chunks. From a reuse and remixability perspective, this makes a textbook modular. Build an API that can, for example, extract just the practice questions in a book and you can create a separate practice question handbook with nothing but the practice questions from the book. In essence, we can make the book modular and with that modularity comes flexibility to potentially mix and match content in interesting and unique ways.

But before we get to the point where we could have modular & remixable content, we need to focus and determine what are the really useful pedagogical features of a textbook that improves student learning. Once we can answer that, then we have some footing to proceed to the next step & build the technology to enable that.