Blog Post - Technology and Policy

Are Digital Textbooks the New “Horseless Carriage”?

| Feb. 06, 2012

The history of technology is filled with people examining a genuinely new innovation and seeing it simply as an extension of something familiar.  For example, the automobile was originally termed a “horseless carriage.”  When a camera was invented capable of providing the illusion of motion, the product was termed “motion pictures”; many people used the device to film plays on stage.  The desktop computer was originally seen as a kind of digital typewriter, and new staff roles were created in organizations for “word processing” specialists who were expert typists.  The maxim “old wine in new bottles” describes a common human failure of imagination – and perhaps a fear of the new as well.

And now we have “digital textbooks” as our official label for what modern interactive media can accomplish in education, touted by federal and industry advocates.  My concern with this label is more than academic quibbling about how to name a suite of profound innovations.  In part because of mislabeling, people tend to underestimate the potential impact of technological breakthroughs.  The automobile did much more – for better and for worse – than make horse-based travel faster.  Not only are typewriters now obsolete, but so are typewriting specialists, and easy correction of text is one of the least important impacts of desktop computing.  That anyone today can create, edit, and remix multimedia without specialized training goes well beyond what the early movie cameras could do.  Framing the new in terms of the old blinds us to both the opportunities and the challenges that an innovation poses.

The term “textbook” comes with a lot of industrial era baggage.  Textbooks are officially vetted sources of knowledge to be assimilated.  They are used in classroom settings where learning is bounded by place and time.  The very name connotes the primacy of text, with interactive media as a type of frosting on the cake of the written word.  And a major benefit of the “digital textbook” is cited as reducing the weight of kids’ backpacks.  This is like advertising the major advantage of the intercontinental airplane as reducing seasickness from ocean liners.

The 2010 National Educational Technology Plan, released by the federal government and widely seen as a guide for what the vendors should develop beyond modernized textbooks, articulates a forward-looking vision of a 21st century educational system.  Based on the new capabilities of learning technologies, students can actively construct their knowledge, with expert guidance, across all the parts of their lives.  Theory, research, and experience all document this is a much more powerful means of motivation, learning, assessment and transfer than was possible even a decade ago.  Social media, immersive interfaces, and mobile devices have transformed how we accomplish our goals, so why frame education as “digital textbooks?!”

Perhaps you are familiar with the classic image - a perceptual illusion - of a young girl or an old woman. Depending on how we interpret what is important in the image, one can see both an old person, and a young person with her face turned away.  The digital textbook is the old person – we have much experience with this model of learning and know the many ways in which it falls short of preparing students for a global, knowledge-based, innovation-centered civilization.  The young person represents the vision in the 2010 National Educational Technology Plan; we do not fully understand its strengths and limits, but at least this is a better way to navigate into the future than the rear-view mirror of repurposing an industrial era medium.

Much more could be said, but I promised my family a night out. Time to use my digital typewriter to buy tickets, then drive the horseless carriage to the motion picture show...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Dede, Chris.Are Digital Textbooks the New “Horseless Carriage”?.” Technology and Policy, February 6, 2012,

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