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.

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Plastic Logic unveils E-reader that’s everything Kindle isn’t

At the Demofall08 conference that was held this week in San Diego, (“72 companies. Each with six minutes to show their product to the world. It doesn’t get any more straightforward and fast paced than that.”) a company named Plastic Logic introduced a new type of e-reader that looked like it featured nearly everything the Kindle doesn’t, at least in its current incarnation. Take a look at this video:

Demo08 Plastic Logic

Some of the oustanding features of this yet to be named product are:

  • Touch screen
  • 81/2 by 11 inch display
  • as thin as a pad of paper
  • durable, unbreakable plastic (not glass) display screen
  • virtual keyboard
  • Bluetooth and Wi-fi capable
  • allows notes and annotation on a document
  • handles PDFs and other open format content

Some reviewers have commented that it lacks content, when compared to the Kindle’s library of 170,000 or so titles. But the device was presented to the crowd as a “Business reader”, in contrast to the Kindle, which they referred to as a device for “recreational reading”. Elsewhere they  mentioned that their device allows them to work with publishers to create “new business models”. Perhaps they could find an intrepid textbook publisher that would be willing to offer textbooks on the device. Its form factor and durability would appear to make it far more suitable for the high school and college market than the Kindle. Whoever gains the first mover advantage in this market will be able to write their own ticket when Jeff Bezos comes calling.

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.

NY Times asks: “R U Really Reading Online?”

Yesterday The Times ran an article on Page One that was the first of a series that will investigate how the internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. The article features several families with children who prefer to read on the Web rather than with books, in contrast to their parents, who are characterized as old fogies who still read books and newspapers, and reminisce about Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan on TV. There’s the 15 year old Cleveland girl named Nadia who spends six hours a day online, at sites like fanfiction.net and quizilla.com, which are sites that offer users the chance to create their own stories.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors.“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.” Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

Right. And brain surgeons don’t really need to go to medical school.

There’s also the high school senior from Greenwich CT who surfs over 100 technology and political blogs and websites daily. His name is Zachary, and although he loves to be online, he also reads books (he just finished The Fountainhead). Zachary is entering Columbia University this fall. Maybe Nadia should, like send a text message to Zachary, and ask him, “Like Zach, what book did you read before you went to college? And if it’s more than fifty pages(omg!), could you, like put a summary of it on fanfiction or something?”

After a healthy dose of apocalyptic anecdotes heralding the decline of literary standards among the youth of today, the article goes on to cite two notable findings:

  • A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books.
  • One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

While the article makes no mention of e-readers, (like the Kindle) the above reference leads me to believe that if e-books and e-readers were to become standard issue for low income teens, the achievement gap between whites and low income minorities would begin to diminish. Kindles and their ilk are cheaper than (most) computers, and provide unrestricted access to the one component that is the most highly correlated with academic success: books. The ability to read newspapers, magazines and blogs, is an added bonus that provides access to current developments and diverse viewpoints. All this without the cost of broadband access nor the distractions of YouTube. Texting’s not so good on it either. FWIW.

Sony’s E-reader opens up, sort of

The buzz in the e-book world is all about Sony’s announcement this week of its forthcoming support for a more open standard of e-books, called “e-pub”:

From Gizmodo:

A firmware update scheduled to drop later this week will allow Sony Readers to use the .epub format, an open standard (with DRM support) that has the backing of several major book publishers. This means you’ll be able to get books from sources other than Sony’s own Connect store, which currently only has one third the titles of Amazon’s Kindle store. The Kindle, however, currently uses the Mobipocket format for its Kindle Store books, and does not yet support .epub.

More from PCWorld:

…EPUB. It is known more technically as “the International Digital Publishing Forum’s XML-based standard format for reflowable digital books and publications.” Many book publishers apparently are already publishing upcoming ebooks in this format and this is something Sony wants to capitalize on by making the Reader the first device of its type to support this. The Reader model PRS-505, starting next month, will be able to let users access ebooks in the EPUB format. It will also support, said Sony, Adobe ebooks with DRM protection as well as “the capability to reflow standard text-based Portable Document Format (PDF) eBooks for improved flexibility and readability.” These Adobe updates will be possible with the use of Adobe Digital Editions 1.5 software.

[For an earlier discussion of this standard, see my May 19 Post]

To paraphrase another, admittedly more significant milestone, that took place nearly forty years ago this week, “That’s one small step for a reader, one giant leap for e-books.”

Adopting an open format can only help accelerate the range of choices for readers, which in turn will help drive demand for more titles, and other documents that could be stored on an e-reader. Note that the E-pub standard allows for DRM to be applied after the conversion process, which makes it up to the publisher whether the content is protected or not.

It remains to be seen whether Amazon’s rumored Kindle 2.0 will support this standard. One piece of information was notably absent from all the hoopla around the Sony announcement this week. Sony recently made a major announcement about their corporate strategy and it contained the following quote:

Ensure that 90% of our electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011 (“FY2010”)

No mention this week about when the Sony Reader will have this capability. To my mind, this is the feature that most differentiates Sony’s reader from the Kindle. Despite Kindle’s less than elegant form factor and interface, the ability to download content wirelessly, at no extra cost, puts it miles ahead of anything else in the category. When does Sony plan to incorporate the wireless feature into their reader? (The PSP already has it, and so do a couple of their TVs.) Until they do, they will remain a distant second in the e-reader world, despite their adoption of a more open format of e-books.