If my thesis is accurate, and the textbook is a creature with an interactive multimedia soul that has been doomed for over a century to live in bondage to paper and ink, then the question arises... what technologies are most likely to free it from its prison? From reader Allan Jacobs:
"[I hope] we’ll soon be blessed with technology that will totally revolutionize content delivery and learning. How far off do we really think something like the much-rumored, much-anticipated Apple Tablet really is? Could we, in perhaps the next 3 – 6 months, be looking at a multifunctional (3G network phone, MP3 player, laptop computer with ubiquitous connectivity, digital camera/webcam), 8 – 12 inch touch-screen tablet with 5-6 times the resolution of an iPod Touch or iPhone screen and a new 'e-book' section of iTunes?"
I think Allan is onto something, particularly with that last phrase. I've been thinking about the iTunes of textbook publishing for quite some time, as have at least one or two others. Brian Chen at Wired has considered the possibility. "Apple," he says, "can give iTunes users the ability to download individual chapters, priced between a few cents to a few bucks each...It might even have the same earthshaking potential to transform an entire industry by refocusing it on the content people actually want instead of the bundles that publishers want them to buy." Obviously, he's comparing the publishing industry to the music industry. I think that's valid. (Here's his whole article.)
But are there other, less obvious ways to transform the textbook industry? I think so. I think there is a stealth operation already underway. Ever heard of MyMathLab from Pearson? MyEconLab? MyStatLab? The Pearson "MyLab" series has already torn open a frayed seam of the textbook industry's collective pocket, and through that tear I believe many a coin will fall. In 2008 there were over 3.8 million students using one of these MyLab products, a 47% jump over the previous year. And don't miss this fact: Pearson boasts of independent proof of improved learning outcomes.*
What is a MyLab product? I posted on this earlier [check it out], but it is functionally a textbook, disguised as a homework product. There are 5 things a textbook must do to be a textbook, and it does them all. It... 1) provides content; 2) organizes lessons; 3) offers homework, 4) provides assessment, both practice and graded, and 5) sets content standards. But it doesn't look or feel like a textbook. It doesn't talk or walk like one, either (at least not if you consider the voice of a textbook to be an instructor saying, "Turn to page two hundred thirty-eight," and the gait of a textbook to be the bumping of a bulging backpack, bruising some poor student's backside).
Pearson is not alone. Jones & Bartlett, one of the giant's smaller competitors, has a thing called CDX. It doesn't work like MyLab, but it performs all the same functions, it's all online, and none of it is ever promoted or presented as a textbook. But Pearson and J&B are textbook publishing companies. And these are hot products that they sell without paper and cardboard.
So, in my estimation that wretched, trapped thing that has looked and felt like a book for so long is already shedding its fetters, smoothing its feathers, and stretching its wings in pursuit of its rightful place in the great digital and interactive world.