A crack in the dam: Utah school buys 147 Kindles

Well it’s taken less than a year from the Kindle’s introduction for it to find its way into the schools. John McCain would be at home here, because these folks are true mavericks. The board voted last month to approve an expenditure of over $50,000 to purchase 147 Kindles for use in their schools, (albeit not by students):

http://www.sltrib.com/ci_10790737?IADID=Search-www.sltrib.com-www.sltrib.com

The school text market for Kindle is so far small to nonexistent, but Granite officials foresee the day when publishing companies embrace the medium because of simple market forces. Not only would use of the device in schools cut down on paper costs, but it would also cut down on space and energy needed to store books and move them from school to school. Rather than wait months for updated texts, they could instead be downloaded soon after revisions. The days when students strained their developing backs with a pack full of books would be over.


All that’s still to come. For now, Johnson said, the district’s Kindles will be put into the hands of librarians, assistant librarians and technology specialists at its elementary, middle and high schools. Once they’re versed in the ways of using Kindle to promote reading and literacy, what Johnson calls “the third wave” of placing the devices in classrooms can’t be far behind. The opportunity to save education dollars and engage students with technology they can relate to is too great to pass up, he believes.

It’s a small step, but (to borrow a phrase) a giant leap, since it demonstrates that the education market holds real potential as a consumer of this kind of technology, and the textbook publishers would be wise to embrace it. Amazon would be more than happy to help.


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Dostoevsky, meet Dungeons & Dragons: Can video games promote reading?

In another installment in its series about the future of reading, the New York Times ran a piece this week about the tie ins between video games and books that some publishers and authors are beginning to explore. One author of a science fiction book for teens remarks:

“You can’t just make a book anymore,” said Mr. Haarsma, a former advertising consultant. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, he added, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.”

And another writer/teacher has the following prediction:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 or 20 years, video games are creating fictional universes which are every bit as complex as the world of fiction of Dickens or Dostoevsky,” said Jay Parini, a writer who teaches English at Middlebury College.

Elsewhere in the article, a librarian ponders the following question:

“I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’ ” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library. “Reading is no longer just in the traditional sense of reading words in English or another language on a paper.”

If you ask me, playing a video game is no more likely to make my kid a better reader than becoming proficient at Guitar Hero is going to make him a better guitar player.

One of the most cogent arguments that was posted about the article puts it this way:

Without supporting research, all we have is a group of people trying to sell video games and claiming that those games will make kids want to read books, thus, presumably, making the parents who buy the games for their kids feel less guilty and enriching the people who develop the games. It’s a win-win proposition. But perhaps the “victories” have nothing to do with reading books.

But before we dismiss any digital gadget as anathema to the pursuit of all things literary, keep in mind that the road to media convergence goes two ways. A good example is the popularity of an application from a company called Lexcycle, Stanza, which can be downloaded for free to an iPhone (as well as to any PC or Mac). A recent article in Forbes describes it this way:

Stanza, like Kindle, lets users download new content directly to their device. It has a snappy interface that allows readers to flip through a book simply by tapping the edges of the page and responds far faster than Kindle’s poky E-ink screen, which takes about a second to turn pages. On the downside, the iPhone’s LCD screen can strain eyes after hours of reading and chews through battery power far faster than Kindle or the Sony Reader, both of which can go without recharging for days. Lexcycle currently offers only public domain books–most of which were published more than 50 years ago–and creative commons titles offered up without copyright by the books’ authors. The Kindle, by comparison, costs $360 and offers more than 180,000 titles, including new releases and best sellers at around $10 each.

I recently witnessed this somewhat ironic collision of classic lit and new technology when my own kids discovered they could download the Stanza app to their iTouches. So they took a break from playing Jewel Quest II and started reading “Animal Farm” and “Sherlock Holmes”. Apparently they’re not the only ones doing this. The Forbes article continues:

In the meantime, Stanza’s scarce supply of new content hasn’t stopped users from finding plenty to download. According to Paris-based Feedbooks, Stanza’s largest distributor of content, the application’s users have downloaded more than 2 million books. By comparison, Kindle users who access Feedbooks’ book catalog–directly via multiple methods, including through its preinstalled Web browser–have downloaded less than 40,000 of Feedbooks’ titles, although they also have wireless access to the company’s contents.

Think of what those numbers mean for those doomsayers predicting the demise of the written word. I’ll bet my Kindle that sales of books by Tolstoy, Orwell, and Austen haven’t approached 2 million total in the last fifty years. These statistics merely prove the theory that if you offer hassle-free access to compelling content, it will be consumed. OK, so maybe it’s too much to expect my thirteen year old to read War and Peace on a 3.5 inch screen, but I didn’t have to drag him to the library to get it in his hands either.

Kindles in the Classroom: The Forecast for Education is “Cloudy”

Cloud computing is currently the hot trend in geek- world, if my RSS feeds from Mashable, Ars Technica and Technorati are any indication. The concept of being able to access all your information from anywhere, anytime using any device has a certain appeal, if you can get over the privacy concerns. Much digital ink has been spilled speculating on the benefits and risks of cloud computing, and there’s no need to rehash all that here.  However, one domain where it has the potential to fulfill that trite prediction, “This changes everything!” is in  the field of education. Many critics of the public school system have argued that it is fraught with so many antiquated practices and restrictive union rules that any effort to reform our educational system is doomed to failure. But even in the scorched aftermath of a forest fire, the seeds of a new generation of flora are covertly taking root, and one simply needs to nurture them and be patient while a new ecosystem emerges.

An example of how the Kindle (or another ebook reader) will play an integral role in shaping the future of education appears in an interview with a high school world history teacher conducted by Joe Wikert on his Kindleville blog. The teacher, Chris Edwards, makes some bold and, in my opinion, insightful predictions about the future of learning, as well as the demise of the textbook as we know it:

Practically speaking, there is no way that any district 10 years from now is going to be able to resist buying a $200 Kindle for their students at the beginning of their 7th grade year and then simply buying textbook updates as the student progresses. The money saved and hassle avoided will be tremendous.

I look at the Kindle as a kind of transitional species. Certainly textbook downloading is going to be an important feature for the Kindle, but I actually don’t think that it will be necessary to buy textbooks with them. I really think that humanity is quickly moving toward compiling a kind of Comprehensive Human Memory (CHM) that will exist in binary code form and will, metaphorically, just kind of float above us. This is kind of the case now. We’re simply realizing how to access it. It is very likely that in 20 years we will all be carrying blue-tooth type devices that will access this CHM and bring us whatever facts we need on command.

If I had a class set of Kindles with Internet access I would not, strictly speaking, need a textbook. I could simply access sites that have the historical information I’m looking for and use my state standards as a road map. Textbook companies will, of course, evolve with this. If they are going to compete they are going to have to figure out how to make Kindle books accessible and cheap.

What Mr. Edwards is describing when he talks about “Comprehensive Human Memory” is cloud computing in education: all knowledge is floating out in the ether and it can be accessed on demand, by any device. The device may not be a Kindle, however, given Amazon’s “walled garden” model, which favors content from the Amazon bookstore. The Kindle was developed as a delivery mechanism for Amazon’s content, and for that it achieves its objective. It was not, however, designed to seamlessly access and display a whole array of material that might be considered an integral part of a student’s learning: textbooks (either open source or proprietary), PDFs, Poweprpoints, etc. Two years from now there will likely be a handful of such devices, and while they may not have the Kindle’s national wireless coverage, as more and more campuses and schools offer wi-fi, that may become less of an issue in the education space.

What will almost certainly be widely available will be open source textbooks as start-ups like CK12, Connexions, and Flatworld Knowledge begin to proliferate.  This new, disruptive technology, will at last tilt the economics of  education sharply in favor of the student. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars per year on books with a limited shelf life, they (or the school system) will be able to simply purchase an e-book reader (for less than $200) and put all their semester’s required reading material on it for the price of one college textbook today. Truly a cloudy, but bright, future for today’s students.

Perseus Books Announces “Constellation” to Level the Digital Playing Field

Yesterday, Perseus Books, one of the largest independent publishers of general interest books, announced a new service this week which will open the digital universe to smaller book publishers. As reported in yesterday’s New York Times:

The new service, called Constellation, will allow independent publishers to make use of electronic readers, digital book search, print-on-demand and other digital formats at rates negotiated by Perseus on their behalf. Unlike large publishers, small ones typically lack the resources to use digital technology and as a result often bypass it altogether.

The company’s website describes their new offering as follows:

  • Constellation is a set of digital services intended to enable Client publishers to participate widely in the emerging digital landscape at a cost balanced with the revenue potential of those digital opportunities.
  • It currently includes digital print services—both short print run (SPR) and print on demand (POD)—online content sampling services, e-Book sales and distribution, and a number of online marketing tools.

This development is good news for independent publishers, who often find it hard to get decent distribution deals with the large, national booksellers. This is becoming less of a problem as fewer book buyers even shop in stores, but it forces the smaller players to fight for space on virtual bookshelves.  At first glance it seems to fly in the face of the tenet, “Any party that comes between the author and the reader is simply an intermediary that adds unnecessary cost and will eventually be driven out of the value chain.” This argument becomes more compelling in the digital age, when there are seemingly fewer links in that chain. After all, if the author creates the work on a computer then it already exists in a digital format, right? Can’t one just click the send button and then reach millions of eager readers effortlessly? It’s not that simple, if you are to believe the information in the company’s FAQs about the new Constellation service offering:

Logistically, you will need to be able to supply digital files of your titles, order ISBNs for the digital edition(s), establish a Digital List Price for the digital edition, and have a means of disseminating the PDF to the digital marketplace (in this case, Constellation). Each digital partner with which we work has differing metadata requirements (i.e., requisite fields that must be supplied). These include everything from Title, Author, Publisher, etc., to territorial rights.

In addition to providing support for e-book conversion (including to Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s E-Reader), the new service also helps its customers take advantage of POD and SRP (Short-Run Print) technology, as well as conversions to Online Content Sampling programs (such as Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” option).

The emergence of a service like Constellation is an indication of the relative immaturity of the e-book business. Just as the availability of consumer-friendly desktop publishing software eventually drove many specialized graphics shops out of business, as digital publishing formats and standards become more widely adopted and accessible to non-professionals, the need for an intermediary offering such as Constellation will decline over time. This will most likely occur when the term “e-pub” is no longer only familiar to members of the IDPF. But in the meantime, it will most likely contribute to an increase in the selection of digital books.

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When Irish Eyes Are Smiling: Schoolkids Get Free E-Readers

The country that gave the world U2, Guiness beer, and the shamrock also seems to be on the cutting edge of educational technology, according to a story in Thursday’s Irish Times:

A GROUP of 18 secondary school pupils yesterday became the first students worldwide to replace their academic books with electronic devices. The first year students of Caritas College girls’ school in Ballyfermot, Dublin, each received an electronic book, pre-loaded with the required textbooks, as well as 50 classic novels including Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist . The use of the electronic devices will mean a dramatic reduction in the weight of the pupils schoolbags, replacing more than 6kg (13.2lbs) of textbooks, workbooks, an English dictionary and a novel with a 400g (0.9lbs) e-book.  In addition, the students will no longer need copybooks to take notes, as they can write and doodle on the electronic pages, similar to a regular copybook.

The pilot program has apparently been launched by Dublin based educational publishers Gill & Macmillan. Their director of sales is quoted as saying: “Although we believe that the widespread adoption of e-readers is some time off, this project allows us to determine how well they work in the classroom, how the pupils interact with them and to examine their potential.”

The device being used for the pilot program is the Iliad, by iRex Technologies. It list for $599 U.S. and is generally regarded as the Mercedes of e-book readers. In addition to handling e-books (including PDFs), this device incorporates Wacom’s pen writing technology, allowing the user to write directly on the screen with a stylus. The mind boggles when imagining the scenario in which a student can carry all her books and notes in a 15 oz package that fits in her purse.

No doubt some critics will say that at this price, why not buy them all laptops, but you’d be hard pressed to find a laptop with handwriting recognition and touch screen technology incoroporated for $600. Besides, the electronic paper display is unbeatable for reading long passages of text. The iliad comes with built in wi-fi for downloading content wirelessly, as well as an optional ethernet hook-up, in contrast to the built in “Whispernet” feature of Amazon’s Kindle, which is based on Sprint’s high-speed mobile phone network.

This is a bold step for a publisher to take, assuming they are underwriting the full cost of the program. If this assumption is correct, this begs the question, (or several questions): Does Gill & Macmillan plan to migrate all its textbooks to an electronic medium? How is their economic model different from that of North American textbook publishers, who so far have shown little interest in adapting their content to an electronic format? And finally, could they please open a U.S. branch?

We will be following the progress of this experiment in digital publishing closely over the coming months. Stay tuned.

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PIRG claims e-textbooks are due for “Course Correction”

In a stinging critique of its recent foray into the field of digital textbooks, the publishing industry was taken to task in a report released this week  by the Student Public Interest Research Group. The study, entitled, “Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks Are Off Track, and How to Set Them Straight”, outlines the findings of a survey conducted on two different college campuses last spring, and presents the following findings:

1. Digital textbooks must meet three criteria – affordable, printable and accessible:

In order to be a solution to high costs, digital textbooks must cost less than traditional books. That means digital textbooks must be priced lower than the net cost of buying a textbook – the purchase price minus the amount the student can expect to receive for selling it back to the bookstore.

2. Digital textbooks done wrong: e-textbooks fail to meet the criteria:

The first type of digital text we reviewed was e-textbooks, the digital book format offered by the major publishers through CourseSmart.  We found that they fall short on each of the three criteria we found digital textbooks must meet.

E-textbooks are too expensive
* The e-textbooks we surveyed cost on average exactly the same as a new hard copy of the same title bought and sold back to the bookstore.
* The e-textbooks we surveyed cost on average 39% more than a used hard copy of the same title bought and sold back online.

Printing is costly and difficult
* Printing was limited to 10 pages per session for each of the e-textbooks we surveyed.
* Buying and printing half of an e-textbook was three times the cost of buying a used hard copy and selling it back to the bookstore, for the books we surveyed.

E-textbooks are difficult to access
* Students have to choose between using the book online or using it offline – they cannot do both.
* Most (75%) of the e-textbooks we surveyed expired after 180 days, so students do not have the option to access their books in the future.

3. Digital textbooks done right: open textbooks meet all of the criteria

Open textbooks are textbooks distributed free digitally under an open license.  The key feature of an open license is that it permits users to make copies of the textbook and translate it into different formats.  So, open textbooks start as digital textbooks but can be printed in a variety of formats. We found that open textbooks accomplish what e-textbooks do not: low prices, printing options and accessibility.

Open textbooks are affordable. Open textbooks are free digitally, and students can purchase other formats at a low cost.

Open textbooks are easy and inexpensive to print. Students can print digital textbooks anytime, anywhere and in a variety of formats.  They can print individual pages at home, order a print-on-demand bound copy, or anything in between.

Open textbooks are accessible. Students can access open textbooks anytime, from any computer, without the book expiring.

The authors of the study urge faculty and institutions to do everything they can to encourage adoption of open textbooks:

For faculty, this means giving preference to open textbooks whenever pedagogically appropriate.  For institutions, this means providing incentives to faculty authors and pooling resources to develop a viable infrastructure to support open textbooks.

This report seems to be getting noticed, as it’s been quoted by most of the major tech and publishing blogs. If nothing else, it will most likely lead to a spike in hits on a couple of sites: Coursesmart (which PIRG ranks slightly below the IRS in its contribution to society), and on Flatworld Knowledge, which receives high praise for its approach to open textbooks. (Another site Connexions, offers open source educational content as well.) There will also quite possibly be a lot more traffic to file sharing sites like Textbook Torrents, which didn’t let pesky conventions such as copyright laws interfere with its users’ access to every textbook that has been scanned and uploaded by disgruntled students. (Although the site is currently not accepting any more registrations, which suggests that their legal bills may be exceeding their server costs.)

As the report indicates, the textbook publishing industry is overdue for change. But for some insight into some factors that might keep the business from changing as quickly as the technology is, it’s worth reading a column posted by a writer with impressive credentials, as an author, college professor, and a publishing executive. His post is called Why the Kindle Won’t Have a Dramatic Impact on College Course Materials for at least Five Years and although it focuses largely on the barriers to the adoption of the Kindle in the college market, it provides a cogent and laconic account of the economics of the textbook publishing industry. Among his observations:

  • Within this context, e-books are budgeted as a small percentage of the overall budget. From the textbook publisher’s perspective the development costs are identical whether the content is being flowed into a print textbook or an e-book. This is because textbook publishers make most of their revenue of print textbooks and, consequently, most of the content development strategy is formulated around those print textbooks. E-books are simply “add-ons” or extra products that can be viewed as a by product of the core print development process.
  • Within the current content development workflow for textbook publishers, the plant investment remains the same regardless of whether the product is a print textbook or an e-book. And, since publishers sell far more print textbooks than e-books, there is no incentive to change production workflows to favor the creation of minimized or lower-cost e-books from which print textbooks could be created. This means that publishing e-books, without significant changes to current design and production workflow, does not reduce the publishers’ costs significantly. This is important because it means all current e-book solutions for textbook publishers take into consideration the print book production process and derives cost efficiencies from that process. There are neither sales incentive or cost efficiencies in the current workflow that would cause publishers to get excited about the Kindle.

One could surmise that the same might be said for ebooks in general, not only Kindle versions. Until the design and workflow process undergoes a radical transformation, thus reducing the cost curve by an order of magnitude, traditional publishers will not be in a position to offer their content in an open (free or nearly so) model. This is a clear symptom of an industry about to undergo a stage of disintermediation, which is usually accompanied by major sell-offs of assets, restructuring and layoffs of thousands of managers and editors. It may take a decade or so, but eventually the textbook industry may consist of hundreds of small, specialized content producers, and a handful of POD providers. Instead of going to Barnes & Noble to buy their textbooks, the freshmen of 2015 may be stopping by Kinko’s.

The new social: reading a book

It has been noted by some observers that Amazon has not really taken advantage of the Social Web in building a community of Kindle lovers and ebook readers. This failing was described in a particularly succinct post, in which the blogger describes a scenario in which she has just finished reading a great book, and feels compelled to share it with her friend on the west coast. She could call or email her friend about it, but since it’s 2 a.m, she just wants to go to sleep. She may or may not remember to tell her friend about the book.

Now imagine it’s 2am and I’ve read this book on my second-generation networked digital reader, maybe the Kindle 2.0.  As soon as I’ve finished the book, the device prompts me to rate it (4 stars!).  It also knows about my social connections.  It asks me if I’d recommend it to my friend, who has enjoyed similar books, and I say yes.
The next morning my friend wakes up and picks up his e-reader.  There’s a recommendation from me — and a 20% discount to purchase this book immediately. This $5 digital book is now just four bucks, and it’s instantly on his device.

This eloquent writer has just described the evolution of the book from a solitary, isolated pastime to the foundation of a social framework. Many voracious readers enjoy the solitude and isolation while lost in a great novel. Many others take an equal amount of pleasure in sharing their thoughts and reactions to a book they’ve just read with other readers. This need to share is what gave rise to book clubs in the 1950s. Fast forward a half century and you have virtual social networks for everything from  Andean beekeepers to computer aided Origami creators. Why not for book lovers too? In fact, you don’t have to look beyond Facebook to find them. Two of the most popular are Visual Bookshelf and Shelfari. They allow members of the network to post recommendations, write reviews, and check out what others in their network are reading. What a perfect marriage of old and new technology!

So why hasn’t Amazon, the king of books on the Internet, embraced this aspect of Web 2.0? What better way to promote the viral nature of a great book than to let avid readers send it to their friends? Well, it probably has something to do with these three letters: AZW, which is Amazon’s proprietary DRM format for e-books. This format can only be read by the Kindle, and that’s what keeps us all shopping at the Kindle store. But it’s not a huge leap to envision the capability of sending a file from one Kindle owner to another, in AZW format, to leverage the instant gratification and impulse purchase trends common among digital consumers.

The blogger quoted above suggests that DRM’d books hinder this adoption process:

And let’s suppose that people did send around free digital books.  If I didn’t have an e-ink reader, what would I do with them?  After I got a few freebies from friends I’d probably go buy a Kindle, and then that seductive “share this book” button would take hold.  The existence of some free books is an incentive to move up to a specialized device.  They create the necessary ecosystem and will ultimately motivate, not destroy, publishing sales.

I think she has a point: Making it easier to share ultimately results in higher sales. This vision may be taking a step closer to reality with the announcement yesterday that Amazon is acquiring Shelfari:
Shelfari joins the Amazon.com family

It’s an exciting day here at Shelfari. The rain has stopped, the birds are chirping and the biggest news of all – we are being acquired by Amazon.com.

So maybe we’ll see Kindle 2.0 with recommendations and sharing capabilities…