I'm getting ready to lead a session at Elliott Masie's "Learning2009" event in Orlando. My topic is the future of the textbook, and my session is provocatively titled, "The End of Book Learning: Why the Next Textbook... Isn't One." Here are a few of my more heartfelt points, laid out for your consideration and comment. (I put that word in bold because this is where you can really help me out by giving me a foretaste of the reaction I might get in a closed room of real people who care about this stuff... so I can be prepared for either fight or flight!)
Here we go:
1. The fact that textbooks are even books at all is a pure historical artifact, left over from an era when there wasn't any other choice. A ream of glued papers sandwiched with cardboard is a terrible medium to achieve the purposes for which a textbook is designed, namely: Delivering the latest, best content; organizing a lesson; distributing homework; generating discussions; and offering assessments (practice and otherwise). Which of those can actually be done best with a linear, line-by-line book? Even one with pictures? On the other hand, how much better can each of them be done online?
2. eBooks as a whole (think .PDF, with or without a lot markup and collaborative capabilities) are a giant step in the wrong direction. Flat digital-image pages are hard to read online, impossible to mark up, and difficult to bookmark, dog-ear, lay out on your desk or floor or bed. Plus they're easy to copy and hard to protect. They are, when used for textbooks anyway, the most inconvenient and unruly stepchild of the entire digital era. Let's not go there anymore.
3. The Kindle and other "ebook readers" are the best-designed Web 1.0 platforms ever. And yes, that compliment is back-handed. Think about it... what these devices do is to take what works in the physical world and make it work almost just as well digitally. Is that not the definition of Web 1.0? Yes, it is. Web 2.0 is looking for ways that digital products can take advantage of the interconnectedness of humans and computers, where 1,000 people bring more value than 10, and 1,000,000 more value than 1,000. I'm sorry, but making a handheld computer that's almost as good as a real book does not promise a rosy future. (But they're so good, I may unilaterally grant them the first Web 1.5 categorization.)
4. The textbook publishers, with few exceptions, are out of touch with their markets. I can give you personal experiences from both sides of this. As a parent who provides textbooks for a high-schooler and a college man (actually, my wife does the hard work of actual provisioning), I can tell you these books are way over-priced. $200 for a book? Not if you can get a used one on eBay. But the prices keep going up, and I actually had a publisher look at me with astonishment (big name company, you've heard of it), and tell me he couldn't lower the price of textbooks because then they'd make less money. You see, they sell to faculty. Faculty don't buy, they just require students to buy. The publishers are literally one step removed from their own users (students), and two steps removed from their actual buyers (parents). Parents are crazy angry at these prices. And there you have the textbook definition of "out of touch with your market."
5. Solution! The next generation of textbooks won't be books at all. They won't look or act like books. They will be online, or on a device, and they will do the things that textbooks do. Some will deliver content. Others will do homework (well, not do it--sorry kids--but rather create the context and content for doing it). Others will provide discussion. Others assessment. The best ones will do all the above. But they won't remind you of a printed page unless you hit a print button. These are already sneaking into the market. Your kids may be using them now. You may be using them, if you're in school. They come with names like "MyMathLab" and "CDX." Watch this segment grow. Or better yet, help it grow.
There are five points worthy, I hope, of some reaction. Please let me have yours, and your ideas, rants, agreements, disagreements, likes, dislikes, products you've seen, whatever you've got. Anything and everything will help prepare me for the real world. Which in this case, oddly enough, is Disney World.