Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences with an Interactive Customizable Textbook

Books scattered throughout the table with laptop and books on emerging into one

One of the most fulfilling things I’ve done as an educator is to write my own textbook. Not just any textbook—an interactive digital textbook that encourages students to immerse themselves in learning rather than just memorizing the content.

I’ve taught economics for more than 30 years. In my experience, students have an easier time grasping complex concepts when we get them actively engaged in the learning process. This means giving students opportunities to apply knowledge, receive feedback, and then following up with higher level questions that challenge them to push their thinking further. There is ample evidence that this method works very well in the classroom. So why shouldn’t our approach to textbooks be any different?

Like most faculty, printed textbooks have been a mainstay throughout my career. I could adopt them off the shelf and nobody questioned my decision. After all, this is how I and so many of my peers have been taught, and it seems to have worked out well enough for us.

The issue, though, is traditional textbooks, and many so-called digital textbooks (large numbers of which, to be frank, are just electrified PDFs) don’t often invite interaction or challenge students to think for themselves. Most importantly, they offer few opportunities for students to receive the feedback they need to assess and build upon their own progress. Instead, like their printed cousins, they serve as a one-way delivery system that turns learners into passive recipients of information.

If creating meaningful learning experiences is our goal, we need to fix this.

Students aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from a change in medium. Print textbooks create a lot of busy work for educators, especially those who want to make learning immediate and relevant. A good portion of the material often goes unused because the examples aren’t current or certain chapters don’t quite jibe with our teaching objectives, which is equally frustrating for students who pay for these books regardless. Many faculty have spent more time than they’d care to count printing out supplemental resources because the books they use aren’t up to date or hitting the mark in terms of what they want to cover.

Embracing an ‘active learning’ approach to authoring

My desire to make the learning experience truly active led me to create a series of introductory economics textbooks through Top Hat. What attracted me was the ability to use a variety of tools to come at the material in different ways and to challenge students to think about and apply what they were learning, and then get immediate feedback.

In some cases, I incorporate video or interactive models in addition to text. In others, I provide recent news articles, case studies, or podcasts to expand on theory. I wanted to create a resource more in-step with what’s happening in the world today and one that also makes learning active. This includes interspersing discussion or problem-solving questions students can use to assess their learning as they  go, which, incidentally, also provides me and educators who use these texts with insights into how well students are grasping the material.

Feedback is a gift

Weaving in frequent assessment questions so students can read a little and then do a little has worked wonders for improving learning, not just outside the classroom, either.

Based on student responses to assigned readings, I can see which concepts are proving challenging and then use this to stimulate discussions in class. I can go over the material again or have them work through it with a partner. Repeating, thinking, and explaining their way through a question is a powerful way to clarify and internalize even the most difficult concepts.

It’s definitely work but it also gives students the very thing they crave: feedback. They don’t need to wait until the midterm to understand how they’re doing. Interactive questions give them these insights in the moment. The digital book can also give me a view of how each student is performing, which is enormously valuable in prioritizing the time I spend in class. There’s another benefit: this feedback allows me to make revisions to the content if I find something isn’t working. Other instructors can also do this, iterating and improving the learning experience as they go.

Making mine your own

I would love nothing more than for my peers to adopt these books for their courses. But I am also a realist. Instructors need the flexibility to adapt the material to suit their own purposes. And therein lies one of the powers of digital authoring platforms. If engaging students means adding in new resources, examples, or practice questions to my textbook, then I’m all for it, and educators can do this easily.

I did this myself when the GameStop stock saga began making headlines. Adding a case study like this and exploring the effects of COVID-19 on employment, incomes, and prices was captivating for my students because we were literally watching these stories unfold in real-time. And it was about as easy to do as editing a Word document. In a few years, or perhaps a few months, I’ll swap out these examples for something new my students will want to learn about. More importantly, educators now have the power to do this themselves, rather than wait for me.

Each spring, 15 of my peers, contributors, and I review the material and discuss changes in time for the fall. I am not an expert in every facet of economics, and I count on their domain expertise to ensure the material is both comprehensive and authoritative. It takes about six to eight weeks to revise and publish a new edition of a book. That’s a fraction of the two to three years in the typical lifecycle of a printed text. Because of this, we’re able to update data, insert new examples, and add explanations where they are needed much more quickly than we have ever been able to in the past.

As some have written, good textbooks make for good courses. In my opinion, by meeting students where they are, and making learning active and engaging, interactive digital textbooks make good courses better.

Stephen Buckles is a principal senior lecturer and former professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, where he also received his PhD. Buckles has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (Vanderbilt, 2008), the Kenneth G. Elzinga Distinguished Teaching Award (Southern Economic Association, 2006), and the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching (Vanderbilt, 2007). He is the lead author of three textbooks: Principles of Economics, Principles of Macroeconomics and Principles of Microeconomics.