Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

The Ultimate Hack – Re-coding Textbooks

Rob Reynolds just started his next book: “The Ultimate Hack: Re-coding Textbooks and Other Learning Content“. He will be posting drafts of all the chapters on his site, both the drafts and final product will be open and free. What’s the hacker culture to do with re-engineering textbooks that will work for the future? The digital containers to carry the contents aren’t important, what matters is the paradigm shift behind the digital revolution. This article from him is absolutely worth your attention.

digital textbook, iPad, etextbook


The Ultimate Hack: Re-coding Textbooks and Other Learning Content (licensed under CC-BY)


This is a book about making things. More precisely, it is a book about making things better. In this case, the “things” I want to improve are textbooks and other types of learning content.

I want to re-envision these things because they have outlived their purpose and because their design is based on constructs that are no longer relevant to education or the learning process.

Over the course of this book, I will introduce an entirely new type of coding for learning content, one that can help us revolutionize the learning content industry and, at the same time, greatly reduce the cost of learning materials for students. And, because this is a book about doing as much as it is about thinking, I will actually create a complete example of this new kind of “textbook” over the course of our journey together.

Indeed, this is a book about hacking the code of learning content and re-engineering it into a form that will work for the future. It is about imagining learning content differently. About creating it faster and less completely. Constructing it fluidly and with constant room for change and improvement.

This approach, with an emphasis on granularity rapid iterations, and constant feedback, will strike many as counterintuitive, and is purposely aligned with the hacker culture that has become prevalent in many software companies and most technology startups. For further context, let’s take a look at that culture and begin thinking about how it might apply to learning content.

The Hacker Culture

Mark Zuckerberg is famous for promoting a hacker culture at Facebook.

This is a culture that “prioritizes code-based solutions over theoretical arguments, practicality over perfection, risk-taking, and iteration (creating things quickly, testing, then refining).”1 Within the Facebook offices and communications the hacker culture reveals itself in a number of common phrases.

  • “Done is better than perfect.”
  • “Code wins arguments.”
  • “Move fast and break things.”
  • “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.”

It is a culture, in fact, that has begun to permeate significant segments of the larger developer and startup universes. Nowhere was this more more evident than at the recent SXSW Interactive conference, an event at which 25,000 entrepreneurs, investors, and prognosticators gathered to network and push the evolutionary technology envelope.

The big buzzword at SXSWi continued to be SoLoMo, or “social, local, and mobile.” Presentation after presentation explored the need for development and release speed, designing the right mobile application or services using rapid iterations, and how to build social connections that can evolve dynamically.

Our technological future, judging from the attendees and speakers, is no longer about monolithic platforms but rather about small, agile applications. And the construction of these applications is all about pushing code to live environments frequently (every day) and testing ideas with real customers. It is about small groups of dedicated developers taking a single idea, working with absolute focus and little sleep, and delivering the first iteration of that idea within weeks as opposed to months or years.

More than anything, the hacker culture is one that values those who actually write code. It esteems action and quick decisions, and elevates people who can transform their visions into real products.

And make no mistake. This is not some cultural shift relegated to the confines of the broader technology markets. The hacker culture is alive and well in education too.

Once a market in which learning technology equated to e-mail applications, Web servers, learning management systems, education has witnessed an influx of of venture capital, educational technology startups, and young developers who think they can re-engineer the way students learn online.

According to the National Venture Capital Association, investments in education-technology companies have tripled in the last decade, growing from $146 million in 2002 to $429 million in 2011.2 This support, coupled with idealistic and mostly young entrepreneurs-developers have given us a new wave of learning management systems with products like InstructureLoudCloudCoursekit and GoodSemester. We also have innovative new online learning startups such as UdacityUdemy, and UniversityNow.

In fact, one need only peruse the list of educational technology products at EdSurge to get a sense of the magnitude of the education-technology startup world. And as this world continues to expand, the hacker culture will certainly expand with it.

Radical Change is Inevitable for the Modern Textbook3

Of all the components in education that are ripe for innovation, none is more susceptible to change than our textbook and learning content industries which are still in the earliest stages of infancy. The construct we know as a textbook may have been in existence in the United States since the 17th century, but modern textbooks as we know them today are part of an industry that is less than fifty years old!

Here is the basic timeline of that industry as it has developed in the United States:

  • Rapid growth and evolution in both the public and higher education systems by the middle of the 20th century led to significant curriculum changes. More specifically, educational curricula evolved to address the need for increased vocational learning in public education, and to provide foundational training for a growing diversity of professional fields in higher education.
  • A dramatic increase in the number of students, along with the diversification of traditional curriculum, led to a heightened demand for collections of course reading materials. This demand led to the creation of the first modern textbooks for general education courses in the 60’s and the rise of the education publishing industry.
  • The textbook market and the retail supply chain supporting it – including institutions and bookstores – evolved swiftly in the 70’s, which prompted the first market acquisitions and consolidations.
  • The next decade saw the evolution of the used book market from a local and regional business level to one with coordinated national enterprises.
  • In the 90‘s, we witnessed the proliferation of textbook “bundling” practices by publishers, who were producing an increasing number of ancillary materials – including CD-ROMs and other digital content options – with their most popular textbooks. Equally important in this decade was the development of the LMS (learning management system), which represents the true rise in the digital distribution of learning in the U.S.
  • During the last decade, the number of major publishers in the U.S. (K-12 and higher education combined) was reduced to five. Digital course packs and e-textbooks emerged as representing important revenue streams and a downturn in the national economy in 2008 prompted the sudden explosion of the textbook rental market. In addition, edition lifecycles for textbooks shrunk as a defense mechanism against used books, and the first low-cost textbook alternative companies emerged.
  • Today, in spite of the consolidation among major publishers, there are more content players than ever in the learning content industry. With the average retail price of a textbook in higher education reaching north of $104, and with the overall market for learning content in U.S. public and higher education topping $12 billion annually, there is a growing wave of new entries in the space. This is particularly true in the realm of digital textbooks, which have reached a market share of 3% in 2011.4

All in all, it should be clear that we’ve ventured quite a ways from the New England Primer and the McGuffy Readers of the 17th-19th centuries. Indeed, while there may exist some affinity between those tomes and our modern textbooks – they were both bound collections of educational content after all – the modern textbook industry actually represents a new market in the United States, one that has evolved so rapidly it lacks any sense of insulated stability. It is this increasing lack of stability and learning purpose which makes it the ideal candidate ground for extreme innovation.

Textbooks as the Ultimate Hack

Obviously, I am sympathetic with the principles of the hacker culture and believe it offers key insights into how we can and should go about re-coding our learning content.

After all, when it comes to learning content we are all potential hackers. We all have access to the ultimate coding language – the written word – and each of us knows the basics of this language well enough to create powerful learning products with it.

With nothing more than the written word we can construct compelling products. Interactive products. Participatory products. Adaptive products.

And we can accomplish this without any additional technology or application. All that is required is a new product model, a new set of purposes, and a shift in coding practices.

Much like Julio Cortázar did when he re-imagined the novel with his seminal work, Hopscotch (Rayuaela), we can envision a revolution in learning content with nothing more than the power of language, story, and structure.

With these tools alone we can design a new learning content models that are completely independent of specific learning platforms and delivery systems.

By simply hacking the basic code of our current textbooks we can generate interactive and participatory products that foster the development of learning communities.

We can re-code our learning content to make it personal, easily customizable, and adaptable.

We can design our content in ways that allow it to be simultaneously open and private, and so that anyone can modify it or add to it at any time without disrupting its integrity.

Sound impossible? You don’t think we can accomplish all of these goals without innovative learning applications and social networking platforms? You don’t believe something as outdated as the traditional textbook and as non-technological as the written word can deliver the future of learning content?

That’s precisely why I call it the ultimate hack.

It’s like a magic trick. Using nothing more than our code and our rich toolset of language, story, and structure, I am going to show how we can revolutionize textbooks and other learning content. Specifically, I will hack these traditional products, using only written text, and create a new design that is:

  • Disaggregated and granular
  • “Smart”
  • Platform and device independent and agnostic;
  • Independent of “intended use” and agnostic yet inclusive with regards to different types of users;
  • Personal
  • Adaptive
  • Interactive
  • Participatory and social
  • Reusable
  • Customizable
  • Flexible

Adding new innovative technology to an outdated and ineffective foundation results in nothing more than a meaningless cosmetic makeover.

If we want to change the ruling paradigm and effect a genuine impact on learning, we will need to hack aggressively and deep. We will need to make changes at the very core of the content nervous system.

Getting Started

To be sure, this may require some uncomfortable contortions in our product thinking. I’ll try to provide help by constructing an actual new content product – a new kind of open textbook – as an open source model for this ultimate hack. I will also share a number of existing learning content models that already serve as examples of how to change both our thinking and the educational content market.

Naturally, the real key to our ultimate hack is a shift in development philosophy. So, as you move into the first chapter with me, I encourage you to adopt the following mantras:

  • Done is better than perfect and it’s never over anyway.
  • Released products trump theory.
  • Rapid evolution is inevitable and the best thing for great learning content.
  • Product design is always product re-design.
  • Others will add the modifications and finishing touches.
  • Networking an symbiosis are your product’s best chance for success.

1 Tweney, Dylan. “How “The Hacker Way” helped propel Facebook to market dominance.” VentureBeat February 1., 2012. Web. 25 Mar 2012. <>.

2 DeSantis, Nick. “A Boom Time for Education Start-Ups.”The Chronicle of Higher Education March 13, 2012. Web. 25 Mar 2012. <>.

3This section is taken in its entirety from my previous book, The Future of Learning Content (

4The average price for a new retail textbooks is from Kelly Gallagher’s presentation, “Overview of College Textbook Market: Academic Year 2010,” from the Book Industry Study Group event, Making Information Pay for Higher Education, February 9, 2011. The estimated general size of the overall education market combines the roughly $8 billion Higher Education textbook market with the $4 billion plus K-12 market.


About the Author – Rob Reynolds is the author of  The Future of Learning Content and the Director of MBS Direct Digital. His circuitous professional path has taken him through the ranks of faculty member, university administrator, publishing executive, and co-founder of a successful educational technology startup.

More reading:
Five Trends in Learning Content That Could Transform the Education Market

photo credit: Johan Larsson via photopin cc


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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