The Non-Linear or Layered eBook

As a life long and life wide software entrepreneur, I love building software systems. Well, to be truthful, I love doing the user research and design of the system. Once the system is designed, then it is just that small matter of programming with all the glorious messiness.

For the past several months, I’ve been thinking about, researching, observing and designing what I’ve been calling the “content in context” software application. At the same time, I’ve been working with colleagues to envision what an idealized design of a university might look like to provide 21st Century Learning. A key part of higher learning is the production of knowledge which can then be learned in an expeditious fashion by the student.

Through pointers from Cathy Davidson and others in the HASTAC research group, I investigated Learning, Freedom and the Web along with the Be You book draft. I wrote about Learning, Freedom and the Web in a previous blog post about Badges. The Learning authors begin their “book” (in PDF, web, and hard copy form) with the following comments:


The natural, unstoppable process of acquiring knowledge and mastery.

The vast majority of the learning in your life doesn’t happen when you’re a kid in school. We do it everywhere, all day long, by reading, writing, conversing, tinkering with the world around us, playing around, solving problems, asking questions, and messing up. A teacher can’t make you learn, any more than a coach can run a race for you. It’s something the learner drives and seeks. We’re all teachers and learners.

The Web:

A set of building blocks that anyone can use to invent, build, connect, and bend things in the digital world.

Rules, protocols, and languages like TCP/IP, HTML, JavaScript, and more. Like any language, or like the rules of mathematics, they are owned by no one, and available to anyone who wants to create online. Like a set of Legos, they are fixed pieces that can be reassembled into anything you imagine. This system has helped us create wealth, beauty, and human connection of a nature and scale that was barely imaginable 25 years ago. And we’ve all done it. Everyone. Together.


The right to access, remix, copy, and share, generating new ideas from the old.

These are the founding freedoms of the digital world—”free” as in “free software.” The web doesn’t function without the ability to look under the hood, get your hands dirty, and fix what doesn’t work. But these kinds of freedoms weren’t born in the 20th century. They are central elements for the flourishing of all intellectual life. And learners, especially, could use a little more freedom.

The authors do a nice job of highlighting each topic with a profile of someone who is doing the work, a description of a phenomena (like open content, webcraft, open video, badges …), and then How To exercises. An example of a How To Exercise is:

 The exercise leads you step by step through the process of creating and awarding a badge.

While this is an interesting way of teaching and to some extent learning, it is still one directional. It is not like a Wikipedia where the content becomes a starting point for the community to add to and even transform the content.

In addition, it is not clear what the tool is that produced the Learning document.  So it is hard for others to follow in the footsteps of using the form of this book to discuss other topics.

At the other end of the spectrum is an ebook which is a Powerpoint Presentation on A Quiet Revolution: Be YouI recommend starting the journey into this book by viewing the Be You Trailer on YouTube. While it took me quite a while to get to it, even while quickly trying to scan through the slides, I loved the Universal Flag of Be You.

The Be You authors using tools that exist all around us (Powerpoint, Google Docs, YouTube) provide a very compelling story of the journey to Being You. Much like trying to skim through Chris Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building, I kept getting stopped by wonderful FORM and CONTENT. Each time I scan through Timeless, I have to stop and read the section about the simple Japanese fish pond:

An example of getting sidetracked with Be You, is the Table of Contents which doesn’t show up until Slide 18 and then invites you in by providing a link to the Live Doc table of contents:

As I bounce around the non-linear forms of Learning, Freedom, and the Web and Be You and Wikipedia, I start to see dimly what a non-linear or layered book might look like. The cool thing is that the Be You folks demonstrated that I don’t have to wait for a be all, end all tool.  I can get started now generating the kinds of content I want to share with my students. What blinders I’ve had on thinking that Powerpoint was just a presentation tool.

Go ye forth and create the layered book!

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Curation, Design, ebook, Human Centered Design, Knowledge Management, Learning, Transactive Content, User Experience, WUKID. Bookmark the permalink.

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