I just found out about the so called “intelligent textbook”. It is in fact a software system called Inquire, writes Michael Reilly in the New Scientist article The Intelligent Textbook that Helps Students Learn.

“The aim of Inquire is to provide students with the world’s first intelligent textbook, says its creator David Gunning of Seattle-based Vulcan. At first glance, the system just looks like an electronic version of Campbell Biology, the tome that forms the bedrock of biology classes for first-year university and advanced high school students in the US. But behind the scenes is a machine-readable concept map of the 5000 or so ideas covered in the book, along with information on how they are all related.”

The system is able to answer questions about concepts not well understood. If you highlight some text then the system asks questions about the highlighted text. There were experiments done that showed that students who used the full Inquire system scored better on quizzes than their peers who used the paper textbook.

“While such results are promising, perhaps it’s a little soon to crown Inquire the future of textbooks. For starters, after two years of work the system is still only half-finished. The team plans to encode the rest of the 1400-page Campbell Biology by the end of 2013, but they expect a team of 18 biologists will be needed to do so. This raises concerns about whether the project could be expanded to cover other areas of science, let alone other subjects.”

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I thought I would really like to learn using such an intelligent textbook. Certainly, college needs good textbooks for the students to learn.

After all, what do I expect from a good textbook, whether it is written on paper or not?

A good textbook should be clearly written, without mistakes (unfortunately this almost never happens). It should have both a table of contents and an index, such that one could easily find the concepts they are looking for. There should be self-test exercises and interesting assignments that help you understand the new concepts and the methods. Some of the assignments should be easy, but some should be difficult and challenging. Chapters summaries are useful to have too. Also, it helps to have the same concepts explained more than once, using different words and examples.

If you want to master a certain subject it is good to read several books on that particular subject. Even if you have one good textbook, it is always useful to read the same “story” told by different authors.

Moreover, as the musician Stan Getz used to say:

You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you.

One should discuss the subject with people that are more knowledgeable in order to learn more and better.

Filed under: College needstextbooks

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