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.

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.

Free the Textbook: The Revolution Marches on…

Now that Textbook Torrents seems to be offline, just as a new academic year is getting underway, what’s a poor struggling student to do when faced with exorbitant textbook prices? Well there’s a plethora of sites and services currently under development that have made it their mission to combat high textbook prices. One that’s been around for a couple of years, but that seems to be undergoing a rebirth, is Textbook Revolution. It appears to be a student-led organization that is close to launching a wiki.:

TBR’s mission is to drive the adoption of free textbooks by teachers and professors. We want to get these books into classrooms. Our approach is to bring all of the free textbooks we can find together in one place, review them, and let the best rise to the top and find their way into the hands of students in classrooms around the world. At Textbook Revolution, you’ll find links to textbooks and select educational resources of all kinds. Some of the books are PDF files, others are viewable only online as e-books. Most books are aimed at undergraduates, but there are at least a few resources at every level, from kindergarten to post-doc. All of the books are offered for free by their respective copyright holders for online viewing. Beyond that, each book is as individual as the author behind it.

This volunteer run strategy may or may not be sustainable in the long term. College students are among the most passionate soldiers in the movement against the mighty publishing cartel that puts profit before pupils, but they also tend to have a limited horizon – usually four years. No one every thought that Wikipedia would evolve to its current status, but it has taken more than four years to get there.

Textbook Revolution  summarizes it mission as follows on the site’s FAQ page:

The textbook industry today is run by a small group of very large corporations who care very little about education and very much about maximizing profits. The industry charges outrageous prices for new textbooks while simultaneously doing everything it can to make older versions unusable or obsolete. There is simply no reason that a new calculus textbook should cost $157. The study of calculus, at least the type of calculus that most of us need to study in high school or undergraduate programs, has not changed significantly in decades. For an in-depth review of all that is wrong with the textbook industry, please read RipOff 101, a study by CalPirg

At the other end of the ethical scale is Pirate Bay, which flagrantly violates global copyright laws, as described in this recent article in the NY Times:

The Pirate Bay, which is based in Sweden, presents a devilishly fearless challenge to American textbook publishers. It describes itself as an “anticopyright organization” and offers music, movies, television shows and software, as well as e-books like textbooks — not a single item of which, it boasts, has ever been removed at the request of a copyright owner.

As Randall Stross says in the article:

All forms of print publishing must contend with the digital transition, but college textbook publishing has a particularly nasty problem on its hands. College students may be the angriest group of captive customers to be found anywhere.

Ars Technica asks: “What about the kids?”

In an opinion piece posted July 20 on Ars Technica, Don Reisinger continues to feed the rumor mill about new versions of the Kindle coming this fall and next year (first reported by Crunchgear on July 15). It’s interesting how a story based on an unnamed source (a search on the string ” Kindle 2.0 Coming Around October 2008″ returns over 68000 hits) can instantly become fact as its frequency of cites climbs).

After addressing a few of the current version’s shortcomings, Reisinger goes on to discuss the college textbook market:

So far, Amazon has yet to capitalize on the $5.5 billion textbook market, even though its Kindle seems tailor-made for such a move. Considering the fact that most students are forced to pay at least $100 for a textbook that they need to lug around campus, the future revenue possibilities of offering textbooks at a deeply discounted price to be run on the Kindle are simply huge. Amazon must be aware of that fact, because just a few weeks ago the company announced that it has inked a deal with Princeton to start selling all of its textbooks on the Kindle store for use on the device. The University joined Yale, Berkeley, and Oxford in its support for the Kindle. But Amazon can’t just stop there. In the next iteration of the device, Amazon needs to actively seek out textbook manufacturers and entice them to offer their books in the Kindle store. Upon doing so, Amazon will immediately put its reader in the hands of millions of college students whose parents don’t mind spending $359 on a device that’s specifically designed to stop them from text messaging and keep them studying.

In the immortal words of Smokey Robinson, I Second that Emotion. But as the folks from Amazon go about researching the consumer side of the market, they might want to check out some of the comments posted to the following item on Gizmodo:

…allowing students to bypass the used book store and directly download their textbooks onto their Kindles. You’ll save a few bucks for the digital version, plus shipping costs and shipping time. And if you figure out a way to hack it, that’s like, free textbooks dude. Whoa. We see this extended to concerned parents of elementary school kids who’ve been complaining about how many textbooks they have to lug from home to school and back.

Some (edited for language) comments follow:

This is great. Several years ago, I had the idea of buying my textbooks, scanning them onto my 12″ Powerbook and then returning them for a full refund. The scanning ended up being too tedious and I gave up. ******* expensive textbooks.

The thing that pissed me off in highschool about the books was that we didnt use them every day, and were expected to have them, and the year would go by and we’d ignore 80% of each book. books are just crappy, heavy, portable chunks of outdated wikipedia

Or here’s another novel idea. Publishers, sell books by the chapter as well as the entire book a la iTunes with music. That way, not only would we save money, we’ll only see the chapters that we’ll actually use.

This is the only reason I would ever get a Kindle, and if I could get the ebooks for less than $140 a pop. it sure would beat lugging a bunch of books around.

Yeah, all the textbook makers are really happy about it – the pricing’s gonna be $20 cheaper (off a $200 textbook), but it also means everyone who buys one, buys it. No abilty to sell it back or buy a used copy.Used bookstores are a godsend for students, as is selling back your old textbooks. Naturally, all publishers are irked by this. Countermeasure one is the new edition every term, thus making resale of old texts less than worthwhile (except if you have an enlightened prof who supports old editions).But digital books? Perfect! No resale value, no used bookstore to compete with…

Freeing the Book from the Ties that Bind It…

Recent posts on this space and others devoted to e-books underscore the simple facts that knowledge wants to be free, and that there are forces at work that will inevitably result in a greater distribution of information at a lower cost to a larger number of consumers. We’ve already seen what took place in the music business once the creative sources (artists) realized they no longer needed the middleman to reach the listeners.

New models of distribution are rapidly emerging and causing major upheaval in the traditional publishing business. One, mentioned previously, is Flatworld Knowledge, has recently launched a “mini website”  (http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/minisite/)  which provides a clever, animated peek into their offering: free, open source, online custom textbooks. Flatworld turns the old textbook model on its head: it offers free textbooks online, and makes money by charging for on-demand printing, and alternative media (i.e., podcast versions) of the content.

Another site I discovered recently is Wowio (www.wowio.com), a site that lets users choose from thousands of current  and older e-books for free. They use a commecial sponsorship model to compensate authors and publishers. Readers get the content for free, but those with legitimate claims on the IP still get rewarded for their creativity and effort. What about DRM, you ask? The Wowio site has perhaps the best justification of why DRM is well, “so 20th century”:

Since anyone can defeat the most “sophisticated” DRM with the print screen button, we believe that technology-based DRM is essentially a fraud. Our approach takes the market incentive out of misbehaving, rewards people for doing the right thing, and tries to stay out of the way of honest users. To help keep everyone honest, however, readers must authenticate their identity and agree to a licensing agreement when they set up their account.

How will the availability of free ebooks impact sales of print books?

There is good reason to believe that the availability of WOWIO ebooks will improve sales of print books. A few reasons are: (1) many of the people who download WOWIO ebooks would not otherwise buy the print versions — readers will give them a chance because they are free and because the ebooks are available on-demand, (2) this increased exposure will grow the readership and, correspondingly, the potential market for the print book, and (3) most people who really like a particular ebook will buy the print version because ebook readers and computers continue to lack the resolution and portability of print books.

Newsweek columnist Steven Levy underscored this hypothesis in his November 26, 2007 article introducing the Kindle:

For argument’s sake, let’s say cutting the price in half will double a book’s sales – given that the royalty check would be the same, wouldn’t an author prefer twice the number of readers? When I posed the question to best-selling novelist James Patterson, he said that if the royalty fee were the same, he’ d take the readers. He also remarked “The baby boomers have a love affair with paper. But the next gen people, in their 20s and below, do everything on a screen.”

Start-ups like Flatworld Knowledge and Wowio are examples of enterprises that are bringing the forces of “creative destruction” to the publishing industry. As they have no monolithic legacy or infrastructure to maintain, they can focus on creating a sustainable business model that delivers value to both ends of the knowledge supply chain: the producers (creative community) and the consumers (readers, students). The Creative Commons License makes this new paradigm possible. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons)