Transforming the textbook industry with design thinking

In 2009 John Batelle wrote, “Agencies will increasingly see their role as that of publishers. Publishers will increasingly see their role as that of agencies”. I came across his prediction a few years ago, and it struck a chord with me because I had just published my first book. As both CEO and author, I had already made the jump, but I had no idea that before long I’d find myself trying to help publishers become agencies.

I got excited about the future of the textbook industry when Apple launched iBooks Author in January. This free, intuitive application seems like the natural first step for publishers to get their textbooks on devices quickly and easily.

Focusing on publishers felt like a natural extension of my personal passions and my professional practice—my daughter Rachel Iufer is a spectacular high school science teacher, and I’ve devoted my career to storytelling and design.

It took my Duarte team just six weeks to launch my second book “Resonate” as an iBook. We made the most of the format and incorporated video, sound, and interactive widgets. “Resonate” became the first interactive business book in the iBookstore.

Armed with firsthand experience, I was ready to rally behind President Obama’s goal to get e-textbooks to all students by 2017. I started pounding on publishers’ doors to see how I could help, but unfortunately no one was ready to answer.

The textbook industry is at a turning point. Textbook prices rose 186% between 1986 and 2004. Schools spend their money on books that will be out-of-date before they even reach the students. This system doesn’t make sense anymore. Tablet prices are falling, and adoption is rising. Last quarter, Apple sold twice as many iPads as computers to schools and colleges. It’s time for a fundamental shift.

If textbook publishers acted like agencies, they’d value the designer as much as the editor and give both an equal voice in the final product.

Visualizing information is hard, and few do it well. It’s important for the editor and designer to work together throughout the process to create diagrams and illustrations that bring concepts to life.

If a concept can be visualized, it can be understood. At Madison Elementary School in Santa Ana, California, an app helped students learn math skills through visuals, without any language at all. Over the course of six years, the number of students with proficient or better scores on state tests rose from 25.5 to 82.7 percent.

There isn’t a lot of research to support tablet-based learning yet, but I believe we’ll soon have the data to support what innovators already know: America’s kids will benefit from innovative instruction enhanced by new technology.

If textbook publishers acted like agencies, they’d use design thinking to challenge the status quo. Just as iTunes revolutionized the music industry by breaking up the album and offering digital downloads of single songs, the iBookstore has the potential to shake up education. Textbooks could be chunked into smaller bites at the lesson plan level, and schools could select only what they need. In this approach, each lesson could include:

1. Ancillaries with both story structure and strong explanatory visuals

2. Three to five lesson plans developed by the best teachers in the country

3. A video of an energetic lecture delivered by an expert in the field.

With modular assets to choose from, a teacher could pick the best approach for her students. If she wanted to follow the flipped classroom approach, she could ask her students to watch the video as homework and use class time to make sure they understand the material. My daughter has had a lot of success with this approach and her class gets the highest science scores in the district.

I’ve had meetings with major publishers, but none of them are ready to move forward. So in the meantime, I’ve jumped into supporting Rachel to help visualize her clever lesson plans. She designed a system and a lesson plan for her biology class to learn cells and organelles. She looped in Jill Tarter, the outgoing director of SETI Research, who graciously agreed to participate in a video setting up an assignment to identify the fictitious cell structures of alien life forms. My team is having fun illustrating alien plants and animals, and my medical illustrator is having a ball making alien mitochondria. Rachel’s class will learn the basic elements of biological structures in a clever, challenging way!

I’m in this to inspire and educate our students. Supporting our system from the teacher up may yield more fruit than trying to change the monolithic top-down publishing system. I’m starting with the 68 kids in my daughter’s class, but I intend to do more. I hope to play some part in the shift to digital textbooks because incorporating design thinking in the next evolution of education is essential.