Going Beyond the Physics Textbook

I have the honor of being invited by Discovery Education to attend their second “Beyond the Textbook” forum to be held this Wednesday and Thursday at their headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The event is spearheaded by Steve Dembo and, in exchange for travel expenses, he gets to pick my brain about digital textbooks, resources, and curriculum. There will be 18 other outstanding educators as well, including my edu-heroes  Christopher DanielsonMichael DoyleKarl Fisch, and Tom Woodward.

In preparation for the event, I’m updating/remixing an old blog post I wrote called “My Vision for a Physics iBook” ….


I keep thinking about what a physics iBook would look like. Not a book for consumption, as with a traditional text, but rather a book to enable exploration. So what would a student see when they first opened such a book?

It’s blank.

No content. No classical references like Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. No integration with Khan Academy’s video library.  Nothing.


Students should be learning to do science, not simply learning about science. They should be making observations, posing questions, conducting experiments, finding patterns, analyzing data, and sharing their conclusions.

In this sense, the iBook would function more like an electronic lab notebook. As with curricula like Modeling Instruction and ISLE, students would create the physics content from their own investigations and evidence, rather than deferring to authority.

Actually, the iBook wouldn’t be completely blank. While it would initially be empty of content, it would be chock-full of tools to help students collect and analyze experimental data. Software like Tracker for video analysis, VPython and GlowScript for computation and visualization, LoggerPro for graphing and electronic data collection, along with PhET simulations and Direct Measurement Physics Videos for conducting virtual experiments.

In the realm of traditional physics textbooks, only a few make it a priority to incorporate experiments into their storylines. Three that come to mind are:

The Manga Guide to Physics


Understanding Physics

FIGURE P-2  Electronic temperature sensors reveal that if equal amounts of hot and cold water mix the final temperature is the average of the initial temperatures.

and PSSC Physics.

Eugenia Etkina‘s upcoming College Physics text gets a step closer to my iBook vision. The text incorporates her work with video experiments in her ISLE and Physics Union Mathematics curriculula. In the text, there are QR codes which link to videos of the experiments to be analyzed.

For example, here’s a video of a momentum experiment, followed by the corresponding section of the text.


But, as you can see, the text does the analysis for the student. In my opinion, this would make a good reference only after the student has completed a similar activity on their own. Fortunately, her text also comes with a workbook that asks students to do this sort of scientific reasoning on their own:


Also taking the “experiments first” approach is Live Photo Physics Interactive Video Vignettes, a collaborative project by well-known physics education researchers Robert Teese, Priscilla Laws, and David Jackson. During a vignette, students are asked to make predictions and do video analysis on-the-fly. Here’s a preview:

Science is never done in isolation, however, so the iBook would come equipped with tools for sharing data, content, photos, videos, and resources among students and between teacher-student.

For me, going beyond the textbook means giving students a toolbox rather than an instruction manual.

What’s your vision for the future of textbooks?

You can follow along with us at the Beyond the Textbook forum this week by searching for the Twitter hashtag #BeyondTextbooks.

Bonus: 5 reasons why iPads won’t replace textbooks in science class.


20 responses to “Going Beyond the Physics Textbook

  1. How about section/topic headings?

  2. That would be Silver Spring, Maryland 😉

  3. What’s your vision for the future of textbooks?

    I’m trying to think of something that would help students collaborate without discouraging them from doing the experiment themselves. The best I can come up with is a system that automatically compiles data to show class averages but that is Google Docs.

    How do you teach students to keep a lab notebook and write reports without just telling them the standards? I’m trying to think of how to encourage writing and note-taking skills but I can’t think of anything besides a paperclip that pops up in the corner of the screen that gives tips.

    • Hi John,
      I don’t see a problem with telling kids how they should write their notebooks/reports (at least in general terms). One option might be to give kids several professional reports (or photos of real scientists lab notebooks) and ask for key features. Another might be to give them a poorly written report and ask them to describe what the experiment was about. I think seeing a model of high quality work is something kids need to see more often (and something I need to do more often, too).

    • Hi again,

      Take a look at this lesson plan about introducing scientific notebooks to students. Includes pictures of real scientists’ notebooks.

      Click to access Notebooks%20lesson%20plan.pdf

      • The images of the notebooks are fascinating! I have a “min-lesson” project coming up for my education class. It is tempting to switch my current lesson to one where I provide 3 or 4 half-decent lab journals on a simple topic and have students (my fellow classmates) compare the conclusions that one can draw from the different journals.

        Thanks for sharing the link.

  4. To replace the textbook we need to look at four concepts

    1. Explore don’t tell
    The devices that students will be using are powerful. Allow them to integrate video tracking and analysis with the integrated camera! Or embed digital experiments like phet. The ‘book’ can provide more scaffold than substance.
    2. Connectivity
    Textbooks are usually a replacement for when a teacher cannot be there. The new textbook can serve as a class hub. Connections can be both synchronous and asynchronous. It could allow study groups or allow teachers to give better feed back throu video or screen recording. Imagine if a student can record how he or she solves a problem and submits that as opposed to the answer for 30 problems. Think of a vastly expanded and less restricted verso of tech smiths ask3 app.
    3. Non linear relationships
    There is a lot of discussions of spiraling in curriculum planning. Why can we do this more explicitly in our resources? The table of contents and index are really things of the past now that a linear limitations of the book have been lifted. We can now show relationships between concepts with new interfaces like that provided in the Wikiweb app. If a student is struggling on a subject, the book can show them what previous skills they may need to brush up on to do well. This will be especially easy with the implementation of standards based grading in eTexts.
    4. Awareness
    Finally the book can take advantage of API support to link to the class LMS or CMS. This linkage could help students get encouragement to gain better study skills. As opposed to promoting the low end of Blooms, it could prompt students to attempt problems like those that Dan Meyer has been working on with a programmer. For instance, he shows a map of three ice cream stands in a field and asks the student to color the areas of the field closest to each stand. This then can be a jumping of point for discussion of geometry.

    Ultimately, there is so much that can be done with current technology. Unfortunately, companies are mostly thinking about reproducing the artifact of the textbook in a digital way. Research says that many college students do not prefer digital textbooks, which are usually PDFs. This is because they are an approximation of the print artifact. Inkling and Kno respond by trying to reproduce the ability to write notes, highlight and make flash cards. This only continues to propagate the artifact in the digital realm. Instead they should look at the fact most students start to learn using Google not a table of contents.

    This conference is a great idea, wish I could be there. Anywho, I am starting a blog about design in education. Etextbooks will be a important part. Look for more at http://www.contentbydesign.org

    • Hi Corey,

      These are great concepts. It’s more about making connections than distilling content, right? I’ll be sure to share your thoughts with the folks at Discovery Ed. Unfortunately, I wonder if it will be a hard sell because that’s not how a lot of people view science education. (Not a hard sell to Discovery , but their customers who expect lots of content or who are forced to teach lots of content.)

  5. i will be very interested to see what you guys come up with this week. I have started looking at an app/web based service called NetTexts (http://www.net-texts.com/) ……

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  7. I think a great deal about what we need as a course resource. Would a blank slate be good for all ages, all topics? Are there some topics we want students to know that they cannot do hands on (viruses, core of the Earth, DNA, dinosaurs….) so they have to learn ABOUT them. Students DOING science is great and we DO a bunch, but not everyone in my class is that interested, they will not grow up to be scientists. Should we act like everyone in our class is going to be one? We have a large, prescribed curriculum that is supposed to be taught…that is hanging over our heads….cant ignore that.

    • Hi Paul,

      Great questions.

      Many folks have lots of material to cover and we absolutely can’t ignore that. Some teachers lab periods and others don’t have much lab equipment. Learning about science isn’t evil, but students need to be ready. Google “A time for telling” and check out research from Dan Schwartz.

      It’s also relatively easy to take a traditional cookbook verification lab that’s done after a lecture and turn it into an inquiry lab done before the lecture.

      Hope this helps!

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  9. Hi Frank!
    What´s your opinion about this classroom?

    • While the technology is pretty slick, why aren’t they doing any hands-on work? Building prototypes? Learning about stress and strain? They don’t touch a single piece of real equipment until the end when they test their bridges. Sad.

      And the “percentage assignment complete” thing makes me barf.

      • I agree that for teaching physics, the electronic classroom was not so great, but for modeling how modern designers actually use 3-D software and collaboration in their daily work, perhaps it’s a more realistic example? It all depends on the learning outcomes you are after.

        Just as an example, some of us might level the same criticisms about you recommending LoggerPro, when it only takes fifteen minutes to jumper a data logger together from scratch yourself:


        at 1/10 the cost. This makes it a much more hands-on process for the students.

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  11. Too perfect IMO

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