Wouldn’t it be great if textbooks were published online with dynamic comment fields so that students like Matthew LaClair could raise these sorts of issues directly in the margin of the book. imagine what a terrific conversation might unfold and how much deep engaged learning might be encouraged as a result.
Chatting with someone from Random House’s digital division on the day of the Kindle release, I suggested that dramatic price cuts on e-editions -? in other words, finally acknowledging that digital copies aren’t worth as much (especially when they come corseted in DRM) as physical hard copies -? might be the crucial adjustment needed to at last blow open the digital book market. It seemed like a no-brainer to me that Amazon was charging way too much for its e-books (not to mention the Kindle itself). But upon closer inspection, it clearly doesn’t add up that way. Tim O’Reilly explains why:
…the idea that there’s sufficient unmet demand to justify radical price cuts is totally wrongheaded. Unlike music, which is quickly consumed (a song takes 3 to 4 minutes to listen to, and price elasticity does have an impact on whether you try a new song or listen to an old one again), many types of books require a substantial time commitment, and having more books available more cheaply doesn’t mean any more books read. Regular readers already often have huge piles of unread books, as we end up buying more than we have time for. Time, not price, is the limiting factor.
Even assuming the rosiest of scenarios, Kindle readers are going to be a subset of an already limited audience for books. Unless some hitherto untapped reader demographic comes out of the woodwork, gets excited about e-books, buys Kindles, and then significantly surpasses the average human capacity for book consumption, I fail to see how enough books could be sold to recoup costs and still keep prices low. And without lower prices, I don’t see a huge number of people going the Kindle route in the first place. And there’s the rub.
Even if you were to go as far as selling books like songs on iTunes at 99 cents a pop, it seems highly unlikely that people would be induced to buy a significantly greater number of books than they already are. There’s only so much a person can read. The iPod solved a problem for music listeners: carrying around all that music to play on your Disc or Walkman was a major pain. So a hard drive with earphones made a great deal of sense. It shouldn’t be assumed that readers have the same problem (spine-crushing textbook-stuffed backpacks notwithstanding). Do we really need an iPod for books?
UPDATE: Through subsequent discussion both here and off the blog, I’ve since come around 360 back to my original hunch. See comment.
We might, maybe (putting aside for the moment objections to the ultra-proprietary nature of the Kindle), if Amazon were to abandon the per copy idea altogether and go for a subscription model. (I’m just thinking out loud here -? tell me how you’d adjust this.) Let’s say 40 bucks a month for full online access to the entire Amazon digital library, along with every major newspaper, magazine and blog. You’d have the basic cable option: all books accessible and searchable in full, as well as popular feedback functions like reviews and Listmania. If you want to mark a book up, share notes with other readers, clip quotes, save an offline copy, you could go “premium” for a buck or two per title (not unlike the current Upgrade option, although cheaper). Certain blockbuster titles or fancy multimedia pieces (once the Kindle’s screen improves) might be premium access only -? like HBO or Showtime. Amazon could market other services such as book groups, networked classroom editions, book disaggregation for custom assembled print-on-demand editions or course packs.
This approach reconceives books as services, or channels, rather than as objects. The Kindle would be a gateway into a vast library that you can roam about freely, with access not only to books but to all the useful contextual material contributed by readers. Piracy isn’t a problem since the system is totally locked down and you can only access it on a Kindle through Amazon’s Whispernet. Revenues could be shared with publishers proportionately to traffic on individual titles. DRM and all the other insults that go hand in hand with trying to manage digital media like physical objects simply melt away.
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On a related note, Nick Carr talks about how the Kindle, despite its many flaws, suggests a post-Web2.0 paradigm for hardware:
If the Kindle is flawed as a window onto literature, it offers a pretty clear view onto the future of appliances. It shows that we’re rapidly approaching the time when centrally stored and managed software and data are seamlessly integrated into consumer appliances – all sorts of appliances.
The problem with “Web 2.0,” as a concept, is that it constrains innovation by perpetuating the assumption that the web is accessed through computing devices, whether PCs or smartphones or game consoles. As broadband, storage, and computing get ever cheaper, that assumption will be rendered obsolete. The internet won’t be so much a destination as a feature, incorporated into all sorts of different goods in all sorts of different ways. The next great wave in internet innovation, in other words, won’t be about creating sites on the World Wide Web; it will be about figuring out creative ways to deploy the capabilities of the World Wide Computer through both traditional and new physical products, with, from the user’s point of view, “no computer or special software required.”
That the Kindle even suggests these ideas signals a major advance over its competitors -? the doomed Sony Reader and the parade of failed devices that came before. What Amazon ought to be shooting for, however, (and almost is) is not an iPod for reading -? a digital knapsack stuffed with individual e-books -? but rather an interface to a networked library.
Peter Brantley pointed me to an interesting experiment from Pearson Custom Publishing, who is working with faculty at Rio Solado community college in Arizona to print custom textbooks assembled from multiple sources. Inside Higher Ed has details:
The result, in what could be the first institution-wide initiative of its kind, will be a savings to students of up to 50 percent, the college estimates, as well as a savings of time to faculty, who often find themselves revising course materials to keep pace with continuously updated editions.
…Professors can pick from among the books in Pearson’s library as well as outside sources in preparing their custom textbooks. For works not published by Pearson, there’s a limit of 10 percent of the contents, but the company will then handle copyright clearance.
Facing a far from certain future, the New York Times continues to innovate impressively, announcing yesterday a new venture in distance learning with six initial partner universities: the New York Times Knowledge Network. Among other things, this could help pave the way to a long overdue rethinking of textbooks.
Selected passages from Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed:
Some of the online courses will also make use of Times content that is a centerpiece of the services being offered to colleges, on enrollment-based subscription plans. These packages will provide access to special packages of content -? summaries of articles, interactive maps, video, audio, graphs -? on a wide range of topics (the European Union, nanotechnology and so forth). Professors at institutions that subscribe would be able to make customized course Web pages, with their own content alongside these content packages. For the many topics covered on which there are updates, professors can elect to have material updated automatically or at the end of the semester.
Robert L. Caret, president of Towson [one of the universities participating in the Times network], said he sees the materials providing “a broader, richer educational experience to students.” He said he saw this as something Towson could do at minimal cost. The university plans to charge students the equivalent of a laboratory fee, maybe $100 to $150, for access to the Times materials. But he said student costs should not go up because he sees the online resources replacing some textbooks, and replacing them with material that is more current and more interactive.
Nudelman [NYT director of education] said that the Times did not view its new offerings as course-management systems in competition with Blackboard or others, but as complements to those systems. Nudelman said that the target audience for the Times for these services would be every higher education institution. “This is an absolute fit. We’ve been doing work in education for over 70 years, and this fits in with our ability to partner with the universities, colleges, and K-12, to work on distribution of information, news and entertainment, and to convene communities around credible content,” she said.
And in a comment on the IHE piece, Michael P. Lambert, Executive Director at Distance Education and Training Council, points out that the Times‘ new effort falls in a long line of continuing education programs through newspapers:
The Times entry to the distance learning field is a continuation of a tradition of “courses by newspaper” first launched in the U.S. by the Editor of the Mining Herald in Scranton, PA, in 1890. Thomas J. Foster started investigating coal mine accidents in his newspaper, and this led to a series of “instructional articles” in mine safety. His “course by newspaper” hit a nerve with the public. Soon, Foster was getting mail from around the world on the topic of mine safety, and from this editorial platform, he launched the International Correspondence Schools (ICS). By 1895, ICS had enrolled over 10,000 people in his correspondence programs, and by 1910, over 1.3 million, by 1945, over 5 million, and by 2007, over 13 million have enrolled. Today, ICS’ pioneering work in “continuing education for everyone” is carried on faithfully by Penn Foster College of Scranton, a DETC accredited distance learning institution. So there is a long and noble tradition of newspapers in bringing learning opportunities to the world, and the New York Times is a welcome entry to this tradition.
Jimmy Wales believes that the Wikibooks project will do for the textbook what Wikipedia did for the encyclopedia; replacing costly printed books with free online content developed by a community of contributors. But will it? Or, more accurately, should it? The open source volunteer format works for encyclopedia entries, which don’t require deep knowledge of a particular subject. But the sustained examination and comprehensive vision required to understand and contextualize a particular subject area is out of reach for most wiki contributors. The communal voice of the open source textbook is also problematic, especially for humanities texts, as it lacks the power of an inspired authoritative narrator. This is not to say that I think open source textbooks are doomed to failure. In fact, I agree with Jimmy Wales that open source textbooks represent an exciting, liberating and inevitable change. But there are some real concerns that we need to address in order to help this format reach its full potential. Including: how to create a coherent narrative out of a chorus of anonymous voices, how to prevent plagiarism, and how to ensure superior scholarship.
To illustrate these points, I’m going to pick on a Wikibook called: Art History. This book won the distinction of “collaboration of the month” for October, which suggests that, within the purview of wikibooks, it represents a superior effort. Because space is limited, I’m only going to examine two passages from Chapter One, comparing the wikibook to similar sections in a traditional art history textbook. Below is the opening paragraph, framing the section on Paleolithic Art and cave paintings, which begins the larger story of art history.
Art has been part of human culture for millenia. Our ancient ancestors left behind paintings and sculptures of delicate beauty and expressive strength. The earliest finds date from the Middle Paleolithic period (between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago), although the origins of Art might be older still, lost to the impermanence of materials.
Compare that to the introduction given by Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (seventh edition):
What Genesis is to the biblical account of the fall and redemption of man, early cave art is to the history of his intelligence, imagination, and creative power. In the caves of southern France and of northern Spain, discovered only about a century ago and still being explored, we may witness the birth of that characteristically human capability that has made man master of his environment–the making of images and symbols. By this original and tremendous feat of abstraction upper Paleolithic men were able to fix the world of their experience, rendering the continuous processes of life in discrete and unmoving shapes that had identity and meaning as the living animals that were their prey.
In that remote time during the last advance and retreat of the great glaciers man made the critical breakthrough and became wholly human. Our intellectual and imaginative processes function through the recognition and construction of images and symbols; we see and understand the world pretty much as we were taught to by the representations of it familiar to our time and place. The immense achievement of Stone Age man, the invention of representation, cannot be exaggerated.
As you can see the wiki book introduction seems rather anemic and uninspired when compared to Gardner’s. The Gardner’s introduction also sets up a narrative arc placing art of this era in the context of an overarching story of human civilization.
I chose Gardner’s Art Through the Ages because it is the classic “Intro to Art History” textbook (75 years old, in its eleventh edition). I bought my copy in high school and still have it. That book, along with my brilliant art history teacher Gretchen Whitman, gave me a lifelong passion for visual art and a deep understanding of its significance in the larger story of western civilization. My tattered but beloved Gardner’s volume still serves me well, some 20 odd years later. Perhaps it is the beauty of the writing, or the solidity of the authorial voice, or the engaging manner in which the “story” of art is told.
Let’s compare another passage; this one describes pictorial techniques employed by stone age painters. First the wikibook:
Another feature of the Lascaux paintings deserves attention. The bulls there show a convention of representing horns that has been called twisted perspective, because the viewer sees the heads in profile but the horns from the front. Thus, the painter’s approach is not strictly or consistently optical. Rather, the approach is descriptive of the fact that cattle have two horns. Two horns are part of the concept “bull.” In strict optical-perspective profile, only one horn would be visible, but to paint the animal in that way would, as it were, amount to an incomplete definition of it.
And now Gardner’s:
The pictures of cattle at Lascaux and elsewhere show a convention of representation of horns that has been called twisted perspective, since we see the heads in profile but the horns from a different angle. Thus, the approach of the artist is not strictly or consistently optical–that is, organized from a fixed-viewpoint perspective. Rather, the approach is descriptive of the fact that cattle have two horns. Two horns would be part of the concepts “cow” or “bull.” In a strict optical-perspective profile only one horn would be visible, but to paint the animal in such a way would, as it were, amount to an incomplete definition of it.
This brings up another very serious problem with open-source textbooks–plagiarism. If the first page of the wikibook-of-the month blatantly rips-off one of the most popular art history books in print and nobody notices, how will Wikibooks be able to police the other 11,000 plus textbooks it intends to sponsor? What will the consequences be if poorly written, plagairized, open-source textbooks become the runaway hit that Wikibooks predicts?
The dawn of personal computing and the web has changed the way we learn, yet the tools of instruction have been sluggish to evolve. Nowhere is this more clear than with the printed textbook.
So the institute has launched nexttext, a project that seeks to accelerate the textbook’s evolution, onward from its current incarnation, the authoritative brick, toward something more fluid, more complete, and more alive – more fitting with this networked age.
Our aim is to encourage – through identifying existing experiments and facilitating new ones – the development of born-digital learning materials that will enhance, expand, and ultimately replace the printed textbook. To begin, we’ve set up a curated site showcasing the most significant digital learning experiments currently in the field. Our hunch is that by bringing these projects (and eventually, their creators) together in a single place, along with publishers and funders willing to take a risk, a concrete vision of the digital textbook for the near future might emerge. And actually happen.
So check out the site, comment, and by all means recommend other projects you think belong there. What’s up now is a seed group – things that have gotten our wheels turning so far – to be grown and expanded by the collective intelligence of the community.
They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And so I’m pointing to this upsetting story about educational publishing giant Reed Elsevier’s complicity in international violence through a subsidiary (Spearhead Exhibitions) that runs one of the world’s largest arms fairs. There are the beginnings of a movement for academics and others to demand that R.E. drop this sordid business.
(via Crooked Timber)