Ask history students to pick up a traditional print textbook, and if they even end up buying it, most will still turn to Wikipedia instead.

It’s a bad habit that Andrew Wegmann, Assistant Professor of History at Delta State University, was able to break when he switched out the course’s print history textbook for an interactive one.

In our webinar series on how digital textbooks help active learning and student engagement, Wegmann said that electronic content “scratched the Wikipedia itch” — and, moreover, contained the important primary sources and context that print textbooks lack.

Students think, write, and socialize on their smartphones and laptops. A textbook in the same medium helps them make connections and engage with the subject—and one another.

We caught up with Professor Wegmann after the webinar to talk more about how and why he came to be a contributing author to Top Hat’s U.S. History interactive textbook—and the effect that the book has had on how his history students learn.

What drove you to create an interactive textbook?

Over about a decade of teaching, I had grown, perhaps unconsciously, increasingly frustrated with the finality of traditional texts. Indeed, it wasn’t until my colleague and friend [lead author Professor Sara Eskridge] approached me about contributing to Top Hat’s interactive U.S. history text that I even realized the issues I was having in my classes.

The ability to create a textbook with students, rather than potential “buyers,” in mind was exciting. And that got me thinking—how many times had I switched textbooks because students simply didn’t use them? How many times did a textbook price itself out of reality, making it impossible, if not immoral, for me to assign it in class?

The book we would produce would not really be a book at all. It would serve more as a companion piece, an interactive conduit through which students can feel the material and process by which the material was created. It was, simply put, an opportunity to make history and learning more real to the students. As a scholar who prizes both academic production and instruction, producing an interactive textbook allowed me to fill a number of important gaps I saw in both my own professional development and the constantly evolving landscape of public scholarship and pedagogical innovation.

What was the main difference between producing a digital textbook and working with a print publisher?

The primary difference is what I call the “living text” of a digital publication. The project is constantly moving. We—Sara, me, the other contributors, the project managers—discuss changes, updates, new features, even new chapters, with a frequency that a print publication simply cannot match. If a change occurs, or a section needs expansion or clarification, it happens instantly, without a new edition and a higher cost. As far as my experience has gone, we have streamlined the process of production to a level that justly fits a digital age.

What advice would you give authors entering this medium for the first time?

Engage it fully. Realize that you have the power of technology at your disposal. If you can imagine it, it can happen. Have fun and think about what you can do to make the process of learning easier and enduring for others. Education is not something time and technology should leave in its wake. Creativity and engagement go as far in producing educational materials as they do in education itself. You have the unique opportunity to provide both to the next generation of scholars, thinkers, and citizens.  

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