PLAYBACK: Digital Books Come of Age (Or) The Textbook is Dead; Long Live the Textbook

Photo by stevegarfield.

7.27.10 | The Age of the eBook: Amazon reported that in the past month it sold 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover copies, even though Amazon only has 630,000 books—a small fraction of print books—available for the Kindle. The impact of reaching this tipping point is being felt in multiple areas.

Educational publishers such as Scholastic Corporation are riding this “digital transformation” to strong profits and growth, investing more and more in digital media. In turn, distributors such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble are going to great lengths to make digital books attractive to the educational market.

In fact, Blackboard and Barnes and Noble, the leading operator of college bookstores, recently announced a partnership to enable students to purchase e-books, textbooks and other course-related materials directly through Blackboard Learn, a widely-used online teaching and learning platform. Barnes and Noble also will integrate its NOOKstudy application more seamlessly into Blackboard.

Inspired by Nook, Barnes and Noble’s own digital reader, NOOKstudy will enable students “to navigate e-textbooks as they would printed ones, to view multiple books and sources at once, and to access complementary content. Students can also highlight and take notes that are searchable and customizable.”

A Children’s Book They Won’t Put Down: The relationship between reader and text is arguably the most fascinating part of this revolutionary transition. Take Dr. Seuss, for example. Over at CNET, Josh Lowensohn walks us through how the next generation will experience “Green Eggs and Ham.”

OceanHouse Media was able to acquire the digital rights for Seuss’ work—chiefly because of the new, education-focused interface it created to bring Seuss’ colorful words to life on graphic-rich devices such as the iPad.

Oceanhouse’s development director Greg Uhler explained to CNET that Theodor Seuss Geisel’s stories and visuals fueled the development: “We looked at the physical product, and what interactive features might it need,” he explained. “We started not with a ‘What can we do from the technology perspective?’ but ‘What should be done?’ ‘How did Geisel write these books,’ and ‘How did he design them?’”

The answer was to create a reading interface that could be adapted not only by what device a reader was using, but also what his or her reading level was. When the company first started out, it only had two of these reading modes: the “read to me” mode, which was designed for children who are learning to read, both reads and highlights on-screen text whenever pages are turned; and the “read it myself” mode, which nixes both these features in favor of acting like a normal, page-turning eBook.

Because of the popularity of the Seuss series, the company later added auto-play, which Uhler affectionately called “toddler mode.” This goes through the book as if it were a video: reading the words out loud, turning pages, and activating embedded sound effects and animations. “You can’t exit the app unintentionally when this mode is running,” Uhler explained. “You just let it play.”

The images Lowensohn displays on the blog demonstrate how cool it will all be—but also how it will require artists and authors to “script out” the order and structure of how text and images appear, adding a layer of work (or creativity, depending how you look at it) to the process of writing, drawing and imagining.

What Tools Are On Your Child’s Bookshelf?: In an in-depth story at Publishers Weekly, Karen Springen describes how this digital experience is part of larger trends:

Certain trends are already emerging, chief among them being interactivity. “We’re entering into a new interactive art form,” says Rick Richter, formerly the president of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing and now a digital media consultant. Freed from rules about page count and paper weight, digital creators enjoy great flexibility. In the process, they can appeal to nonbookworms, such as computer and game geeks.

“If anything, it will lead a lot of kids to books,” says Richter. He’s not alone in this belief. “Early reports indicate that this content is not replacing traditional books. It’s replacing games,” says Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children. “Parents would rather see their kids engaged in book content than in game content.”

The immersive possibilities are clear:

Children can now “literally participate” in a book, says Sharon Streger, owner of Sequel Creative/Sequel Digital, which develops interactive, sing-and-record kids’ apps. “Why do a pan-and-scan version when you can actually put the child into the book for a complete experience?” she asks. “The iPad and other color devices like it will continue to evolve and form a new standard for publishing children’s product that is a mixture of reading and activity.”

Callaway’s Miss Spider’s Tea Party app lets kids do everything from play matching games to color images on screen as in a coloring book, while Oceanhouse Media’s Dr. Seuss apps, which include The Lorax and new releases Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and Gertrude McFuzz allow them to touch a picture and see the word pop out.

How to Get a Free iPad: iPads aren’t just for kids, though. Seton Hall University and Northwest Kansas Technical College will provide the device to their entire undergraduate populations this fall, and many more colleges and universities are distributing iPads to students in particular programs, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bill Handy, a visiting associate professor at Oklahoma State University’s School of Media and Strategic Communications, which plans to give iPads to students in two specific courses, said, “The goal is to push this tool as hard and as far as we possibly can to really see what the limitations are.”

What happens to those iPads when the courses end? That’s up to the students. “It is their device to use however they see fit,” Handy said.

The Textbook is Dead: It’s a safe bet most students will keep their iPads. The same can’t be said for textbooks. With annual average textbook costs of $900 - $1,200 per year, many students try to re-sell their books at the end of the semester.

Some schools are now offering another option: “In an effort to curb escalating book prices amid sky-high college costs, bookstores at more than a dozen campuses across the state and hundreds more around the country will begin renting textbooks at about half the cost of buying them,” writes Tracy Jann in The Boston Globe. “At other schools, professors looking to save students even more money are solely assigning reading materials accessible over the Internet — for free.”

Over at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, marketing and international business professor D. Steven White has given up textbooks in his business class.

“Instead, he finds materials students can download for free from Flat World Knowledge, a three-year-old, open-source textbook publisher based in New York,” writes Jann. “When the company released its first books online in spring 2009, 450 professors used them; this fall, 1,300 will, said president and cofounder Eric Frank.”

Plus: Political science professor Amy Cavender, writing for the Prof Hacker blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education, outlines three reasons why she’s dropping a textbook from a political issues course she teaches at Saint Mary’s College and and is replacing it with “materials gathered from a variety of resources: the web, the news media, the popular press, and more traditional scholarly venues.” Students will also play more of a role in determining course content.

Why the switch? Well, for starters, “Going this route enables me to take up much more recent controversies than I could if I relied on a textbook. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that issues such as schools disciplining students for their Facebook pages, schools monitoring students using the webcams on laptops issued to them, or Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law have yet found their way into traditional textbooks.”

Long Live the Textbook: But others are not eschewing the entire concept of the textbooks; they just believe that digital textbooks offer a more dynamic and enriching experience. Chris Cameron at ReadWriteWeb discusses how new textbook prototypes are part of the popularization of augmented reality (AR) technologies—which the New Media Consortium believes are coming to schools sooner than you think.

A video Cameron cites from Thailand’s Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST) demonstrates what the next generation textbook might look like:

The images, writes Cameron, are compelling—and they “go far beyond just textbooks”:

In fact, augmented reality could make learning safer for kids. Why place dangerous chemicals in the hands of children when virtual chemistry sets could eliminate any dangers? Kids can swap protective goggles for head-mounted displays (HMDs) and beakers and bunsen burners for virtual test tubes with 3D chemicals—all of which could be done from the comfort of the student’s desk, or even at home.

Back to school, anyone?

Update: A reader (thanks, B!) suggested adding this L.A. Times story to the mix—reporters Alex Pham and David Sarno look at how new technologies are changing the concept of a book and what it means to be literate:

As electronic reading devices evolve and proliferate, books are increasingly able to talk to readers, quiz them on their grasp of the material, play videos to illustrate a point or connect them with a community of fellow readers. The same technology allows readers to reach out to authors, provide instant reaction and even become creative collaborators, influencing plot developments and the writer’s use of dramatic devices.

The authors also chat about the future of reading, and here’s their video discussion on new kinds of books.

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