Welcome to the Age of the Wikitext!

An interesting item in May/June issue of Multimedia & Internet @ Schools on the future of the textbook, in a world of Web 2.0 education:

Now let’s get some perspective. Let’s say you were in college in 1978. When you received an assignment, you would use reference books and journals in the library to do your research. You would then handwrite your notes and use a typewriter for your final draft. You used a slide rule to work on your discrete math homework. Sometimes you called your parents from a telephone booth to beg them to mail you pizza (aka beer) money. Not to mention that your biology textbook was a 6-pound, 700-page tome that took 3 years to get published and was already out-of-date.

Now, 30 years later, your son is entering his second year in college. He takes class notes on a laptop and does his research with online databases and (of course) Google while using a free Wi-Fi hotspot at Starbucks. He gets help with his math homework by contacting classmates through Facebook, and he forgets to call you from his cell phone because he doesn’t need money for pizza—he just uses his credit card.

But you don’t worry about him too much. His phone is practically a part of his body, so you subscribe to an online service that uses the GPS locator to sync it up with Google Earth, so at least you can see exactly where he is at all times.

Only one thing hasn’t radically changed—his biology text, which has now grown into a 12-pound, 1,000-page mammoth of a book that still takes 2 years to get published and is already out-of-date. What’s wrong with this picture?

“Textbooks have yet to respond to changes in technology, teaching philosophy, and student life,” says Paul Bierman, a professor at the University of Vermont. He made this statement at a workshop he initiated of 54 leading scientists, educators, and technology experts at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. They met under the theme “Reconsidering the Textbook.”


Here’s another thought-provoking excerpt:

Textbooks have been another casualty of budget cuts. Many schools are being told, “Don’t even consider ordering new textbooks for next year—the funds just aren’t there.” If only there was a cost-effective supplement. Hmm …


If a small fraction of the amount spent on producing, printing and distributing textbooks each year was invested in digital technology (such as Kindles or other e-reading devices), the long term savings would be sufficient to bring teachers’ salaries up to a level commensurate with their value to society.

Observation: A scan of the speaker roster at the “Reconsidering the Textbook” workshop reveals a collection of academics and technology leaders, but not a single representative of the publishing industry. I guess this would be a little like inviting the suits from the record companies to a confab hosted by Napster back in 1999 called the “Future of the CD”.

Textbook Publishers: Prepare for a Flat World- This is huge…

Today, I learned about an organization that promises to do for (or to) the textbook publishing industry what MP3s and iTunes have done to the traditional music business: create disruption and disintermediation. The organization is called CK-12, a non-profit organization launched in 2006, and it aims to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the US and worldwide. Using an open-source, collaborative, and web-based compilation model that can be manifested as an adaptive textbook – termed the “FlexBook”, CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality educational web texts. Given the pedigree of the founder – Vinod Khosla (co-founder of Sun, partner in Kleiner Perkins, founder of Khosla Ventures, net worth $1.5B) along with his wife, Neeru, there is a high likelihood that his prediction that the publishing business will become obsolete will come true. The exerpt from the website below explains the rationale for his mission:

Why do we need FlexBooks?

Today, textbooks that are used in K-12 system are limiting, expensive and are difficult to update. Because of this, K-12 teachers find it hard to introduce new concepts and cater to different needs. What we need is a more flexible and less expensive system to create and distribute books and online content. FlexBooks, by their very nature, satisfies this need. They contain high quality online content, and are easy to create, update and print. They provide a new system that will follow an open source philosophy to place content on-line that can be “mixed, modified and printed“.


I would add to that last line, “or downloaded to the Kindle, or other e-book reader”. Why be limited to a PC, or continue to rely on dead trees, when printing is not even necessary? When you think about the marriage of these two developments,  the possibilities for ubiquitous, customized learning resources become staggering. Truly, “Any Book, Any Kid, Any Time.” For a video of a presentation by the founders watch this: