A Holiday Wish: Smart Books

We've only scratched the potential of e-books when it comes to reader engagement. Here's a wish list for developers and publishers on how to expand the capabilities of e-books to improve learning.

David Hill

December 19, 2012

4 Min Read
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The Gutenberg-inspired printing revolution has been justly celebrated. Today we're in the infancy of another revolution: electronic book publishing. The difference is that physical books and periodicals are static, while electronic publications can be dynamic. The end game of dynamic books may lead to better use of our time, as well as the possibility of gaining more knowledge more easily.

The industry has made some progress towards the dynamism of electronic books, but even though the technological bits and pieces have probably already been invented (or could be modified for the purpose) as far as I know, few of the technologies have been fully integrated into the virtual reading experience.

Why does this matter? Consider the physical book. I love this format and find it entirely satisfactory for one-time, sequential reading that can be quickly forgotten (such as reading a novel for entertainment). But what about non-fiction books, including those for laymen (such as a book on the history of science) or textbooks and other materials that serve an educational purpose? Using these publications often involves review of material (all or selected portions), note taking, and some means of testing whether the key information and concepts have really been added to one's store of personal knowledge.

The extent to which learning takes place depends upon one's purpose, from being able to talk articulately about a book at a cocktail party, to being able to pass a test, to being able to put the knowledge gained to some good use (such as programming in a new computer language).

All these processes can be enhanced with physical books, and many professionals still find printed books useful. But can a dynamic electronic book increase productivity (learning and retaining more in a shorter period of time), knowledge (including making sure that all key concepts are properly understood and internalized), and retention rate (not only immediately, but being able to go back and review things later very quickly)?

The answer should be yes, and should serve as the justification for dynamic books. Three functions will fulfill the vision of a dynamic book. It should be action-enabled, interactive, and engaging.


These are the capabilities that let a user to take actions to make reading easier and more productive. Some of these capabilities are available today. For instance, display options make reading easier. Other examples include a keyword search engine and the ability to highlight selected passages or annotate pages. Dynamic books should also take advantage of hypertext capabilities, such as URL links to additional material, animation of slides, and selected use of video and audio.


This means to support immediate (real-time, anyone?), two-way communication between a source of information and the reader. This can be enabled through the use of an open domain question-and-answer system that, as a superset of both speech recognition and natural language, can address questions without domain-specific knowledge. These are now available in various forms. On the industrial-strength side we have IBM's Watson, and on the consumer use side we have offerings like Apple's Siri. The actual system, particularly in consumer products, may be somewhere in the middle, and Internet access would have to be a given.

So how does that help with a dynamic book? Although you could do it another way, probably, simple dictation (such as Siri offers with e-mail and notes) is one example. More importantly, it opens up a dialogue between a reader and the book, such as for understanding concepts. Not only is that helpful for finding something in a book based on concepts rather than keywords, but it allows the reader to ask questions, such as seeking clarity on a concept (I don't get what the author is trying to get across. Is there another way that it can be explained?). Obviously, there are limits, but the reading and learning experience can be made more powerful.


To engage means to garner the attention of or involve the reader. After a reader finishes a chapter, can the dynamic book test his or her understanding? Gamification is one technology that can enable this process through directed engagement. With gamification, what the reader has clearly learned can be quickly found out. That means that no more time needs to be devoted to it. Instead, examination of material that has not yet been successfully mastered is the target of attention. This maximizes the amount of learning for the time spent. The end result is better mastery of the learning process and the acquisition of critical knowledge.

A dynamic book (as represented by the reading interface and the book itself) should successfully blend all the technologies into an integrated whole where the reader cannot tell or does not care which technology was being employed.

Mesabi Musings

A tremendous amount of work is going on in the education field at multiple levels to incorporate information technologies, such as online learning. Taken together, these efforts offer both promises and challenges. This commentary takes a more prosaic approach that may be used across the board from informal learning to some level of formal learning. Not all want or need to take formal courses, but many of us like to gain more from reading, and the concept of dynamic books offers that possibility. Don't you wonder if certain companies (and I don't even have to name them) are working to do just that? If not, they should get started!

Happy Holidays!

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