by Nicholas Johnston
Soon in Leuven Editor
KU Leuven has been exploring new ways of integrating technology into the classroom and Nextbook may be next. The university has partnered with a young company located in Brussels to explore the possibilities of using digital textbooks in the classroom. ‘Nextbook’ is developing ‘interactive textbooks’ which exist digitally rather than in print, and KU Leuven has taken an interest. Fitting for an institution which has been known for its innovation, the university has considered introducing and/or expanding the use of Massive Open Online Courses, Small Private Online Courses, as well as ‘blended learning.’ These new measures signal a trend towards experimentation and exploration, and Nextbook stands as a prime example.
Though Nextbook, as an idea, was hatched in Australia by Bart Lens, it has since traveled to Belgium and is now headquartered in Brussels. We met with the co-founder of Nextbook, Bart Lens to discuss the product, its origins, relationship with KU Leuven, and their vision for the future of education. A chemical engineer by education, Lens is young, having graduated in 2012. He said that the work he did for Monsanto in the past “did little for the imagination.” Being uninspired, he returned to study economics and broaden his horizons beyond chemical engineering. It was upon being assigned an economics textbook with numerous errors that Lens had his idea for Nextbook.
Rather than issue a new textbook every year, as a field progresses or its text is found to be riddled with mistakes, Lens envisioned the platform of Nextbook as digitized, personalized, interactive, and customizable. With Nextbook, students can download textbooks, highlight the text, take notes, copy and paste content, and so on. Yet, it claims to be more than a pdf, or the programs that work with pdf, with which many may already be familiar.
Above all, Nextbook as a platform connects users and allows interaction and revision. A classroom can become connected through the annotations and comments of other students, which are made visible, revisions by the professors are made accessible, and the new editions by the publisher are available immediately. Live chat is also possible. Moreover, Nextbook would automatically synthesize chapters of textbooks into summaries for students using AI.
Lens shared a clear vision for the possibilities and benefits of Nextbook, for both individuals and societal. He wants to empower students to customize font, colour scheme, and other aspects of formatting to fit their own needs - something which, for example, could benefit dyslexic readers. Students would be able to study more cooperatively without the obstacle of distance, by leaving notes and questions or messaging one another. On the same note, instructors could have foresight regarding which subjects and what content poses the greatest problem for students by viewing and participating in these interactions.
In Lens’s view, Nextbook responds to a social need, namely, the high drop out rate of Flemish university students. He hopes that Nextbook can provide instructors and institutions with greater foresight. With increased interaction and transparency, Lens argues that his product could lower the rate of academic failure. Rather than discover the troubles of students during Blok, the hope is that misunderstandings can be addressed proactively throughout the semester, and that students and professors will be better resources for each other.
Additionally, Nextbook is attractive to institutions for research purposes. The nature of the digital platform is optimal for gathering and analyzing data. In the near future, Nextbook hopes to offer data analytics to institutions which purchase premium accounts for Nextbook. Research could be conducted on variables like rates of student and faculty interaction, time spent reading, engagement with questions, and student grades. In fact, they already have statisticians working on developing the relationship between Nextbook and the KU Leuven, with the ambition of producing statistically significant data based on user feedback.
What the future holds precisely is unclear, but the increasing relevance of technology and the digital platform seems certain. “The field is busy with competitors,” Lens says, developing applications such as those for the “enrichment” of pdf. Which programs or gadgets might transform education is decided by the ambitions of our university, the generational focus on technology, and the incentive to collect data from users for a variety of purposes. The digital medium’s increasing relevance to lessons and study appears imminent.
For those who seek to learn more about Nextbook in particular, the website Nextbook.io is accessible - and possibly offers a glimpse of what is to come. For those who want to understand the directions that the university is exploring, they can engage with their student representative to learn about the feedback process surrounding related phenomena of the intersection between technology and the classroom, like online courses and blended learning.
At the beginning of our interview Lens said he was convinced that “technology orchestrates our lives”, but that the “relationship was reciprocal.” Though Lens spent time in education, he has no background professionally in the platform that he and the others at Nextbook have created. Lens illustrates well the input that individuals from beyond the disciplines of coding and programming can make to products from the field. It is incumbent that potential users, that is, students, deliberate about introducing such platforms to our education system. What does education with such tools look like? What sort of students will it make us? These questions and more should be asked as the KU Leuven implements new pedagogical strategies and technologies in a classroom near you.