The Textbook Skeuomorph- Thinking Outside the Book: Part 1

A skeuomorph is defined as: an ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques.

Designers often use skeuomorphism to make people feel more comfortable and familiar with something entirely new. Skeuomorphic design can be found everywhere. Take for example the calendar on your phone – chances are it closely resembles a printed calendar. Or perhaps the digital “sticky note” feature found in so many applications which replicates the real life item down to the addition of the sticky tape at the top.

eBooks are another example of this. Not only have we been able to marvel at fake leather covers and bindings for our e-readers, but we have also been able to turn ‘pages’, hear page turns, and add bookmarks.

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Skeuomorphs can definitely be beneficial – they can help inexperienced users navigate around an application by instinct alone. The problems start however, when innovation in design becomes constrained by skeuomorphs and design is influenced by a desire to stick with “how it was” rather than how the technology can best be leveraged.

Sadly this fate has befallen the e-textbook: by recreating the medium of the textbook for devices such as tablets and laptops, we have unfortunately limited the inherent value of what we can offer our students. The skeuomorphic textbook is not only a creation of the designers of the respective technology companies, however, but rather also a product of a long history in the publishing industry. And too many organizations are missing the single truth that seems to be keeping us from seeing the real innovation that is needed:

Digital materials are not books.

The Textbook Skeuomorph

Historically, all the cogs within the publishing ecosystem have worked around the base unit of ‘the book’ – sales commissions, warehouses and shipment productivity, marketing etc are all based on this single unit. The sheer size of some of these publishing houses inhibits their speed to agilely adopt radical changes, and some of the smaller publishing houses that potentially could be more agile are not large enough to lead the change needed at a user level.

The state-mandated educational focus on digital literacy has forced, and at the same time enabled, education publishers to offer web-based platforms as well as print materials. Initially these were add-on sales but have increasingly become entire solutions and alternative options to purchasing print materials – indeed, Pearson Education now officially have a “digital first” strategy.

The buzzwords ‘blended learning‘ stem from the idea of mixing these media types – oftentimes a necessity at school level due to lack of infrastructure or plans to roll out device strategies. This mix of media types itself can also cause problems with publishers trying to emulate the layout and structure of print materials exactly on digital devices – a near impossible task given the number of different screen sizes, operating systems and devices available to students today. As well as this, access to these web-based platforms and databases can frequently be clumsy, with educators being forced to manage codes and access levels for hundreds of students via a series of unique and proprietary systems or via email codes and messages that make it anything but truly seamless and user friendly. This results in the unfortunate but sadly all too real scenario where despite the benefits offered by digital materials the management of  print materials, especially when dealing with more than one provider, can still, at times, be easier.

Many educational companies are exploring personalized learning options and tools which add interactive features and enhancements not achievable with printed materials to digital textbooks and going by current trends it is likely that skeuomorphic design will be less prevalent in the e-textbook market in the coming years. There are also several new entrants to the educational space who are working to make the management of multiple platforms and multiple data resources a seamless experience for both students and teachers alike.

free-the-textbookIn Part 2 of The Textbook Skeuomorph we will be taking a look at new platforms which aim to
improve the experiences of educators using digital products. Is the textbook skeuomorph holding back the technological opportunities of education industry? Do we need to start thinking “outside the book” ? And how do we do this?

Join us for Part 2 of the discussion next week.

Certain parts of this article were previously published and can be found on
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