Thursday, October 29, 2009

The End of Book Learning.

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.


  1. Bryan - thanks for this.
    I spoke at a conference last weekend on a similar topic. Allow me to add a few, incomplete thoughts to your list.
    Re: 3. eBook readers may be based on the logic and conventions of earlier forms of reading and learning, but I think they have a role to play - for the next five years or so. They can reduce costs (which you note is an issue). They can reduce the volume of paper used (which I like). And they may increase the ease with which students and academic can access less popular materials (AKA the long tail). eBook readers may be "Web 1.5", but that's significant progress in higher education - an industry barely in "Web 1.0".
    Re: 4. Yes, publishers are out of touch with their market (for the structural reasons you cite, not apathy). But they know it. Few industries have had to endure this criticism more than textbook publishing. Student advocacy groups in the US and Canada have organized to challenge the industry, and generated awful PR for publishers. And, finally, I don't think faculty - as the buyers - should be without blame. Many of them have been choosing books with little regard for the costs to students.
    Re: 5. I agree that the future of textbooks is no textbooks at all. Nevertheless, we will need content providers - companies that generate consistently high-quality instructional media. And, yes, this content won't take the form of chapters; it will likely be far more granular and varied in its form (multiple formats).

  2. Keith, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I take issue with none of it, and appreciate the insights. --Bryan

  3. Bryan--Good luck with your presentation! Here are some initial reactions/thoughts/ramblings about your topic.

    As a PhD learner in an online program in Management and Organization, I found the way to get the most current information for any project was not from my text books, but rather from searching the university's online library resource which resulted in a plethora of journal articles, dissertations, and yes, even electronic versions of books. Always happy to find the electronic version of a book because it saved me the expense of buying yet another source, I generally ended up printing off pertinent pages for exactly the reasons you state. What is it about the word in print on a piece of paper that feeds into our brain in a different way? There must be some research that would help us understand that phenomenon.

    The texts for each course were, as you noted, expensive, and limited in the currency of their content. On the other hand, the electronic option was--well, I don't know what it was, but it didn't work for me unless I had it printed out!

    So, when we talk about the end of book learning, we are not really talking about no more books--rather no more hardcopy books. There was a time when people did not write notes, highlight, or dialog in the margins of their that we do, it will be difficult to value the non-interactive format of electronic books. So, what is the alternative, pdf files that students can open and review (a la Microsoft Word review features) could be an alternative...hmmmm...are we ready for anything but traditional texts? What will libraries become? Who doesn't have a box of college textbooks from--oh, my gosh--in an attic somewhere?

    Wish I could help you with your project...hope the ramblings here gave you some kind of insight into what reactions might be stirred by your comments.

  4. Love the ramblings! Very helpful. Thanks, Marylin. --Bryan

  5. I was surprised by my initial reaction to your comments – something along the lines of “not another attack on books as a method and medium of learning”. But as I read on I started to think about the textbooks I have had the misfortune to pay for recently (part time PhD in organizational learning – forced to study statistics) and I found I actually agreed with a lot. Here are some of my reactions (and rants) to some of your points.

    1. Why are textbooks organized as lessons? From my own experience, people don’t read textbooks, they use them to look for solutions, answers to questions and to clarify doubts. There simply isn’t time to read textbooks and the sad fact is that some, especially technical ones, are not written in accessible language that supports learning.
    2. E-books may be unwieldy, but there are about a million and one advantages over paper books. Being able to copy sections is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. By having everything in digital format I am able to use programmes like Zotero to save a copy, metatag it, write notes and attach them to the file, metatag those as well and link and categorise everything for easy reference at a later date. This is an incredible step forward from notes in a margin.
    5. The future sounds amazing when you put it like that – textbooks as information sources that actually do what you need them to be able to do. Perhaps if that were to happen books could go back to being books – sources of stories and inspiration, prompts for reflection etc rather than simply tools of learning.

    I wonder whether there is also an argument for the greater use of ‘wrapper programmes’ which allow educators to draw together diverse electronic sources as a reading list, review them and use them to encourage learners to find and network their own learning sources, rather than relying on a single, or limited number of sources.

    Thank you for making me think!

  6. Interesting thoughts, Helen, and I'm pleased to have helped prompt them! Regarding your last thought, "wrapper programmes," I believe that this is exactly what textbook publishers should be doing now. Rather than publishing a book, they should be creating this sort of collection of digital media, carefully organized in much the same way a textbook is, but without the paper and cardboard. Then they could provide a "print button," which would obviously have to be a little more sophisticated than that, allowing whichever portions to be printed as needed.

  7. Bryan, All the best for your presentation! That is indeed thought-provoking. With people becoming more environmentally conscious, the fewer eucalyptus trees cut, the better! :)

    When pedagogy catches up with technology (or the other way around), that's when we'll see exponential growth in "non-paper" based content delivery.

  8. From my personal experience, I learn from videos more than books and articles. Books are sort of a monologue and don't make you feel a part of it. Like someone talking to you. Also books lack a critical learning component: discussion.

    Textbooks, like news papers are gonna go away with increased adoption of the internet. The Internet will be the secondary[and in significant cases, primary] classroom for many learners. Textbooks already have lost a lot of significance since they can cover only that much of a subject.

    Also, the internet has made a subject matter expert, your neighbor; just a step away.The content creaters are online and they stream their thoughts and ideas over the wire day in and day out. Now you dont wait for an expert to write a book. Just follow his blog or his tweets. You have an idea of what he is into.

    ex. If you follow Seth Godin's blog, it almost completely covers what he writes in his books.

    People are learning more from peers and peer recommended online assets than books. This is only going to get better in the future.

    Technologists goal should be to bring the quality of content in the textbooks accessible to students all over the world at affordable costs.

    A thought on the blog's design: The content is great. It would only get better if the background color is white. Right now, I feel that readability is reduced in this background/foreground combination. Its hard on the eyes.

    Anyways, All the best for your presentation. Share with us your presentation if you can. good luck.