In the past few days there has been a flurry of news about e-books and e-textbooks in particular. The NYTimes ran a story on Saturday about the looming demise of the physical textbook. It does say that the physical paper textbook we know and love is not going to disappear overnight, but that now, more than ever, e-textbooks are poised to make a permanent push into the classroom. The article notes that higher education will be leading the way into this area but that K-12 schools won’t be far behind. There are issues of the digital divide with the costs of e-reader devices, but if digital textbook prices fall significantly, the price issue may not be an insurmountable obstacle in my opinion. There is the cost of the device up front, but once in hand, these devices could potentially be used for years reducing the cost of ownership. And as the market matures, the devices can potentially become low cost appliances. Since they are less complex than a full computer, they can also potentially be re-sold fairly easily or even rented to those who truly cannot afford the up-front price.
In addition, the NYTimes article quotes CTO Sheryl Abshire from the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, LA who points out just how different students of today are from the “read the textbook” linear students that education has traditionally embraced.
Kids are wired differently these days. They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite. They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote… Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.
This fact coupled with a technology that is now maturing enough that it can be used in a widespread fashion in the classroom might just be enough to usher in a new digital age of learning. Who would have imagined that the venerable paper textbook might one day be just be a memory, but in a few more short generations of higher ed students and the legions of K-12 students behind them, this may just be the case.
To add some more fuel to the fire, today, CourseSmart has just released an iPhone/iPod Touch app that allows access to its large textbook library. The iPhone app is free but it only works if you are a paying customer using CourseSmart’s desktop application. CourseSmart is one of the largest e-textbook publishers out there right now so adding an iPhone app to the mix will only help get their content more mobile. It should be noted that CourseSmart knows that trying to learn and write on an iPhone or Touch is tricky so they tell you the iPhone app is really meant to compliment the desktop software as CourseWare EVP Frank Lyman notes…
Instead, it’ll provide a quick, searchable reference for use on the go when using your computer is impossible or awkward. CourseSmart EVP Frank Lyman suggested one possible scenario for how students might go about using the new program to enhance and extend their learning. “If you’re in a study group and you have a question, you can immediately access your text. (quoted from this entry at The Apple Blog)
I think this is a good point and perhaps the sweet spot for truly mobile devices like smartphones and e-readers. No one really wants to try and read a full text book on a smartphone. Your vision will get blurry long before you graduate. But as noted by Mr. Lyman, they are great tools for looking up information, sharing information and enabling in situ research and collaborative, contextual learning. Used in conjunction with a larger e-reader device or a full blown laptop or desktop system, students can use both together to enhance their learning in new ways.
Another story on the jkOnTheRun blog about the heating up of the e-book space also aired today. I like their point about its not the device, but the content. Indeed, we need to make sure that educational content remains as open as is reasonable. Publishers should be able to make money, but not hold students hostage with excessively high rates for books. As this whole market matures, I can imagine scenarios where students rent e-textbooks or have subscriptions with publishers while also using more freely available content from blogs, websites, etc. which the NYTimes article points out. Learning truly becomes a fluid exercise in a digital world where nothing is set in stone so to speak.
As Amazon preps release of their large format Kindle DX into the higher education space this Fall and Apple prepares a new tablet like device along with Barnes and Noble teaming up with Plastic Logic to offer another compelling device to the market, the e-book wars look like they are just beginning. Like the digital rights management issues that the music and movie industries have long wrestled with, content for educational textbooks and e-books in general is about to get thrown into this in a big way. It may be a bumpy ride, but like it or not, e-books and e-textbooks are coming to a school and student near you perhaps sooner than you think.