So, for the last three months eBooks have outsold hardcovers on Amazon, thanks to the Kindle. This according to the New York Times.
People are asking me what this means for textbooks. One of those people is my wife, who just paid $200 for a required high school science book. She had been saving the elder sibling's book from that class for three years, in the hopes that it would still be required. But no, this year a new edition is mandatory. The old version, for which we paid about the same price, is now worth $8.50 on eBay. Not even the Ford Pinto depreciated that fast.
"Textbooks are the biggest legal ripoff in the world," was the unprompted comment from the elder sibling, now in college. (I didn't ask what the biggest illegal ripoff might be. Some rocks are better left unturned.)
I have blogged about this in the past, and I'm sticking to my guns. I continue to believe that Kindle and similar book readers are here to stay, and will ultimately overtake the physical book industry--but not for textbooks. For linear reading. Newspapers, novels, magazines, book-length nonfiction... The reading experience for these on a Kindle is good enough that the convenience factor becomes overwhelming. Every book I care to read in the same book-size device? A new book almost instantly, and cheaper than I could get a physical copy? Sign me up.
Textbooks are a whole different matter. Let's set aside literature textbooks for a moment--at least those that are pretty much collections of linear reading. Almost every other form of textbook is a marriage of content and activities. Homework, discussion questions, problem sets, quizzes, and in the last ten years, interactive animations, computer models, mini-documentaries and interviews, historical footage--you name it. This is not Kindle territory. It's iPad territory. But if it's iPad territory, it's also laptop territory, which brings us right back to the usual problem: textbooks are too varied in purpose to be just books. They are only books at all by accident of history.
What we consider a textbook needs to be a learning environment. It needs to be a technical space in which all the varied purposes of a textbook play out in the technology that is appropriate for the unique purpose being addressed. Quizzes are interactive, graded, with feedback. Discussions questions are actually discussed. Media is interwoven with the associated content, not added through a link or a DVD. Problem sets can be solved, and self-corrected, and remediated.
As far as I can tell, Pearson's MyMathLab continues to lead the way. And in some ways that's unfortunate, because it means there has been little movement over the past several years.