How Teachers Are Hacking Their Own Digital Textbooks

ipad-in-bookMarch’s issue of Wired Magazine included a fascinating interview* with Clayton Christensen, Business professor at Harvard University and author of several books, including The Innovator’s Dilemma and Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovations Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Since these books were published, the world of education has seen an influx of technology with tablets leading the way. While it’s difficult to know exactly how many schools have deployed 1 to 1 initiatives, one thing remains certain: there were will be more schools with 1 to 1 technology disrupting the classroom tomorrow than there are today.

The disruptive device of choice these days seems to be the iPad. Perhaps you’ve seen one of the gazillion articles written about how iPads are disrupting the learning environment. The gist of the conversation usually highlights both positive and negative benefits to learning and inevitably reaches the question “when will iPads replace textbooks?”

The way I see it, there are three camps you can subscribe to when it comes to answering this question.

Which Camp Are You?

The first camp is of the mindset that textbooks are a thing of the past. With access to the internet, there is no need to package and deliver prescribed content to your students. To a certain degree, this is true. However, teachers need efficient ways for students to access knowledge and be certain of what they can hold them accountable for knowing.

The second camp is of the mindset that digital textbooks from the publishing companies are our only option. While these eBooks have come a long way since their first version of static PDFs of the books’ pages, most of these eBooks are not viable and sustainable solutions. They are too costly, too large in size, not personalized, and would most likely still require teachers to tailor content to their classroom needs.

The third camp is one I like to call the ‘hackcamp.’ This is a group of innovative educators that are taking textbook creation into their own hands and hacking together quality, interactive content personalized for their students.

You The Disruptor

In the interview, Christensen states, “[E]ducation is vulnerable to the ‘disruptive innovations’ emerging in the murky, low-margin bottom of the market. And this is where true revolutions occur.”

It’s not a stretch to see how these passionate and creative teachers authoring their own interactive books can be a classroom disruptor. Content that is personalized and packaged in a creative and beautiful fashion opens up infinite possibilities for the teacher, the learner, and the learning environment.

Middle school math teacher Tara Maynard (@tmaynard5) has been using iBooks Author to create media-rich, interactive books for her algebra and geometry students for the better part of this year. Her books contain guiding questions for students to focus on as they explore the pages filled with short video tutorials, student-friendly text, formative assessments that give immediate feedback, and interactive widgets for determining patterns and relationships. She will tell you this has been an incredible tool for student learning and is increasing student achievement.

But that’s not the best part.

Maynard points to the fact that her face-to-face time with students is much more meaningful, and it’s not just focused on content. Class time is freed up for collaborative work time, one-on-one support, and small group projects—all of which now occur more regularly, thanks to delivering content this way.

iBooks Author Hackathon

ibooks-author-previewDream with me for a moment and imagine your students’ eBook supporting multiple modes of learning, from student friendly text and high quality images, to interactive widgets built for the kinesthetic learner to explore concepts. Imagine your students’ eBooks containing their own teacher-featured videos that are viewable offline to support anytime/anywhere learning. Imagine it containing a live RSS feed to your class blog or class Twitter hashtag. Imagine it containing images of students themselves, video story problems from the business down the road, links to web resources, and online assessments that give teachers immediate feedback on student comprehension.

Now imagine if you could work together with a team of passionate educators creating and curating quality, interactive modules to remix, update, compile, and distribute to your students. This is exactly the goal of this summer’s project, affectionately named “iBooks Author Hackathon.”

What started off as an idea by myself and Steve Dickie, Divine Child High School science teacher, has now turned into multiple 2-day events taking place over the summer. The objective of this initiative is to collaborate in content area teams to create small modules of interactive content for others to download, further personalize, and share with their students.

‘Hacking’ eBooks is not as geeky as it sounds. With the advent of iBooks Author, creating a smashing, interactive book is almost as easy as creating a Keynote presentation. Hackathon events are meant for anyone who desires to join a passionate group of educators eager to innovate the teaching and learning experience. In addition, we are encouraging practicing teachers to participate in hopes that they will see the changing roles of their future occupation. While colleges of education teach the necessary theory, this project will expose them to collaboration, creation, and curation of quality content.

Whether you are participating in a state-wide initiative such as this, or just authoring interactive content for your own students, my guess is that you, too, will find the disruptive nature of delivering content in this manner.

*Howe, Jeff. “The Disruptor.” Wired Mar. 2013: 74+. Print.


  1. Nikolaos Chatzopoulos

    March 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Oh, WOW! Where can I get more information about the iBooks Author Hackathon?

    • Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura)

      April 8, 2013 at 11:19 am

      Hello Nikolaos, you can check out the iBooks Author Hackathon at

  2. Millygarcia

    March 29, 2013 at 9:17 am

    This is an intriguing idea. Is iBooks Author an app? How does one learn to do this? Does it violate any copyright or fair use laws to create this for your class?

    • Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura)

      April 8, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Hello Milly, Thanks for your note. iBooks Author is a free tool in the Mac App store. There are many tutorials out there on Youtube and iTunesU on how to create these interactive books. Copyright can be an issue unless you are careful about how you curate your resources.

  3. Peter Pappas

    March 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    I checked out your hackathon page. Great idea. We need to bring to Portland Ore! I’ll add to the dialogue with a few posts – the first my rant “Textbooks Are Dead: Here’s 3 Reasons to Write Your Own”

    Next a free model iBook made with iBooks Author – “Progress and Poverty in Industrial America,” is now available for your iPad – FREE at iTunes.
    Critical thinking questions based on Common Core skills help students “think and write like a historian.” It’s a great resource for use in the classroom, and serves as a model for teacher or student curation of historic content into interactive digital DBQ’s.

    Here’s my Podcast: “How to Use iBooks Author in the Classroom” Want to publish? Listen – here’s how to get started.

    Lastly, here’s my collection of technical guides for using iBooks Author

    • Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura)

      April 8, 2013 at 11:26 am

      Hello Peter, thank you for sharing your work with iBA and thoughts on the digital textbook. I will bookmark these as excellent resources for our hackers as we move forward in this project. There is a possibility of a hackathon event taking place in CA this summer, perhaps OR could get in on that or spin up one of their own. I’d love to help. Obviously with a project like this the more authors, the greater the content, the more inspiration, the greater the impact. Thanks again for connecting.

  4. Lulu

    March 29, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Fun ideas – sure, but how much should be put on individual teachers to now, not only come up with curriculum and content, but author textbooks for individual students? When is the time for this? Is this expected to come out of teachers current under funded salaries and supposed “free time”? When are the teachers going to get instruction on how to do this? Again, the expectation currently is that it should be done for free on their own time, and it doesn’t really look like that is going to change any time soon.

    • Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura)

      April 8, 2013 at 11:57 am

      Hello Lulu, I hear your concern about overworked and underpaid teachers…I am one :) This project isn’t meant to be an order coming down from the administration to do more. Rather, this is a grassroots movement that will most likely be carried forward by motivated and creative teachers willing to take a risk curating, creating, and sharing high-quality interactive content. It is quite a time consuming task that is why we are calling on risk takers, creative artists, and innovative thinkers to join the effort.
      What we are finding out is that there are many schools districts willing to invest in their teachers work by offering them stipends for creating content and covering the cost of the event. So, this could be an alternative way for teachers to make money while doing something that will impact their learning environment and many others.

  5. shalini

    March 30, 2013 at 2:37 am

    Good Blog!

  6. JC Morgan

    April 1, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Very exciting. This work is what makes me excited about the possibilities of technology in education. I’m a veteran of the textbook publishing field and this direction is where we need to be moving.

  7. Brian

    April 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    I am part of the first camp… I believe that textbooks are becoming a thing of the past. I do, however, think that textbooks can still be used as an important tool.

  8. Monique

    April 1, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    Now this is exactly what I would like for my online study. It would take away the ‘lost books’ in the post syndrome.

  9. Ted Curran

    April 2, 2013 at 10:34 am

    just be careful… one drawback of iBooks Author is that the content you create can only be accessed by iPads. that’s great if you know that all of your students have reliable access to one, and will continue to for years. what happens when newer cheaper and more powerful android tablets overtake the iPad on a few years? all this content will not be transferable.

    • Tim

      April 3, 2013 at 9:59 am

      I was looking for this comment. In the flurry of excitement it seems the author of the article and most other commenters have missed the point that while iBooks author is an amazing creation tool, the results can only be accessed from iPads, and only in iBooks 2 reader. For the moment there may be an ubiquity argument, but for my part I’ll use tools that don’t limit the access so severely.

      • Domi Enders

        April 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm

        This is precisely why Open Assembly has developed a cloud-based, device agnostic platform for teachers to curate and assemble content easily without having to deal with layout issues. We also provide DRM management tools. Students can experience the assembly in an interactive environment (CoursePilot) or as a navigable outline.
        Still in private Beta, all are welcome. Go to open assembly to sign up. Free of course.

      • April

        April 8, 2013 at 4:50 pm

        Do you have suggestions for tools that cross-platforms more flexibly than iBooks?

    • Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura)

      April 8, 2013 at 11:33 am

      Great insight Ted, appreciate your thoughts. This is sort of what is driving us to initiate this project–no one is hacking and sharing in this platform because it is limited to iPads. However, for many of us this is the reality of our learning environments. Our plans are to use iBooks Author as the authoring tool, content will be managed in a space that it could be re-used on other platforms. But again, this is already being done by many others.