Why Medium is the perfect textbook 2.0

Shuya Gong
Aug 1, 2015 · 6 min read

Welcome to class. Hopefully you went to lecture today, but if you didn’t I assume you’ve looked over the syllabus.

Protip: figure out textbook alternative.

This statement may or may not be endorsed by your professor, but seriously for any class that offers this alternative. This works as an experiment and should evolve more as an educational movement to change the way we think about textbooks.

The inherent problem with textbooks is that they were designed for a world before internet, before information was easily shared, before the advent of the rapid evolution of technology and ideas, and most importantly, before the introduction of the personal computer.

Yes, e-books and pdf versions have been an improvement, but still not really a good solution. Do this thought walk through with me. Let’s work with the following assumptions:

  1. You are a student and you don’t want to spend money you don’t have to.
  2. You have a device that connects to the internet and allows for you to access information whenever you want it.
  3. You have questions with what you are learning in your classes.
  4. Students before you have taken this class.
  5. You are studying something that is not static and has the potential of new resources being generated about it.

Under these five simple assumptions, which I believe applies to almost every college class, there is no reason the textbook should still exist in its traditional form. Let’s break down the assumptions.

You are a student and you don’t want to spend money you don’t have. Textbooks are ridiculously expensive, and for this class we’ve tried to curate a version for you that pulls from about five different ones to save you the hassle of having to buy multiple books and spend a lot of money. But a custom textbook is hella expensive, and to be honest, tuition eats away at a bank account plenty. $100+ for class materials is actually a prohibitive amount, and I don’t want anything to be in the way of you having this awesome experience.

You have a device that connects to the internet and allows for you to access information whenever you want it. You have questions with what you are learning in your classes. Addressing two of these at the same time. Even if you did have a textbook, you would probably just Google some stuff anyway. And please don’t forget the importance of lecture slides. Most disciplines have enough of a web presence that all of the information found in a textbook can be pulled from different sources across the internet, probably presented in a better fashion. You’ll also have questions about what you’re reading, so you’ll probably end up going into your web browser to search or email me about it anyway.

Students before you have taken this class. And there’s always that one kid who took copious amounts of notes. Think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That kid probably took a lot of useful notes that could be helpful to the whole class. That kid in this case is me, who happens to be your TF and also kind of sometimes grades your work, and has a lot of helpful things to say that are not necessarily in a textbook and had to explain it to my dumb self once already, so I can probably do it again for you.

You are studying something that is not static and has the potential of new resources being generated about it. You know that thing where you can buy older editions of the textbook for way cheaper? It’s pretty stupid. Bless it because that’s the only way I’ve been able to afford my textbooks, but editions are idiotic because there’s always going to be more errata, there will always be more new discoveries made that require updating. The process of writing, proofreading, printing, publishing, distributing, etc. of a textbook is time intensive and so costly, even if it is a pdf version. It’s kind of useless trying to do cutting edge work if you’re still using outdated references.

Why is Medium the perfect medium for the textbook 2.0?

Excuse the pun. The reason is because Medium is a blogging platform design for the sharing of text, multimedia, and ideas in a quick and easy format to both reach multitudes of people, and directly message groups of people all at once. Let me walk you through it.

I’m going to tell you all to follow this publication, and you can decide to get a Medium account (super easy sign on, all you need is your email, don’t even need a password, simply beautiful onboard process) or just bookmark it so you can come back whenever you want. I can also directly message you in your inbox by writing you a “letter”. Trust me, trust the folks at Medium to get something delivered to you a lot more reliably than UniversityIT. There’s also a beautiful user interface for you to use and look at.

Multimedia is possible. Unless you have some magical textbook, I’ve yet to see any textbook that can explain to you how a chain is made more beautifully than this gif. (Yeah, go ahead and just look at that for a bit. If you think that’s glorious, you’re in the right class.) I can also link you to other cool resources or actual helpful things relevant to class.

You can comment and ask questions directly. You’re studying. There should be no good reason you go to another browser tab and write an email to me asking about something because along the way you’re probably going to get stuck in Facebook and whelp there goes your productivity. Highlighting features in Medium allow you to click on something, write a note, I’ll see it immediately, answer if I can, and make it public to everyone if I think it’s helpful to the class.

It’s intuitive. And this class is (as all classes really should be) a collaborative learning experience, and if you have a question, someone else probably does, t0o. Learning should be interactive (without paying thousands for commenting software that has a sucky UI/UX anyway), and this allows for that.

It tells you how long something is going to take to read. For example, this takes about 6 minutes to read. Now you know how much of a timesuck something is going to be and can plan your evening accordingly. You’re welcome.

This is a free, editable and living document and is accessible anytime, anywhere. Well, anywhere you have internet but that’s not hard on campus. But it’s free, it’s accessible to you at any time of day or night, there can be changes, you can check back next year and see cool new stuff. Remember that kid that took copious amounts of notes? Imagine if you took all the best notes from all the years this class has been in existance combined and put it all together. Best. Hack. Ever. And furthermore, Medium keeps coming out with sick features all the time, and I can only hope to see what other useful applications there might be.

tl;dr, Medium is boss for being a textbook 2.0 platform because it enables sharing of multimedia content and information aggregated from years of notes and is a living document that allows for updates and helpful information, with cool sharing and feedback features that should render the archaic textbook a thing of the past that moves too slow, is too heavy, and costs too much.

So go follow this publication and come to office hours if you have any questions, or email it. Thanks!

Edit on 8/7/2015: Medium also tells you the read/view rate, giving you a good idea of where students tend to lose track of what they’re doing, or what specific lectures/materials are interesting and worth going through the entirety of. Thanks mom for the observation!

Shuya Gong

Written by

Designer @ IDEO CoLab. Harvard 2017. Percussionist, mechanical engineering, design. @ohmygong

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