For months now the blogosphere has buzzed about Amazon’s Kindle – and of course the other players like Sony that are playing catch-up with their own e-readers. Those who have drunk the Amazon Kool-Aid love the device, of course – and it does indeed have the potential to transform the reading experience for those of us whose aging backs groan under the strain of the novels we schlep on airplanes. Others bemoan the Death of the Book. How 20th century!
When Amazon isn’t retroactively snatching back illicit copies of 1984 from Kindles it’s already sold (the irony of a huge corporation controlling whether or not we read Orwell’s novel is almost too delicious to be real), it’s salivating over the next business frontier: The e-textbook. For example: http://www.betanews.com/article/Report-Amazon-looks-to-substitute-textbooks-with-Kindle/1219706068
The larger Kindle 2 is much more appropriate for the typical textbook format and publishers are scrambling to be sure their catalogue is Kindle-ready. The more eye-friendly screen is indeed a relief: I’ve been dreading the day when my students have to review study material from my textbooks on their iPhone screens! Still, academics in many disciplines will eagerly await color text and better navigability before they too line up for a shot of Kool-Aid.
These improvements will come in due course, so let’s focus on what soon will be rather than what is. How should we adapt the textbook to this medium? The advent of e-readers already is pushing some book designers to redicover the mantra of simplification – just the facts, ma’am. This trend is similar to what we see in Web design. Many Web designers have retreated from the glory days when they used every digital bandwidth sucking tool in their toolbox — just because they could — to more elegant ground. Similarly, at first blush it seems the more intimate screen real estate e-readers and cellphones offer encourages a scaling back of the “reading experience”; a return to text-heavy applications.
To this beleaguered textbook author, this pendulum shift begs the question of just how we should define the “reading experience” in educational contexts. I believe that most traditional textbook publishers commit the Ultimate Sin we lecture about in Basic Marketing: Marketing Myopia. This unhappy error occurs when a business fails to adequately define what it sells (the classic example: The railroads blew it because they thought of themselves as being in the railroad business rather than the transportation business so the new auto industry ate their lunch). By the same logic are today’s publishers really in the textbook business – or are they in the educational delivery business? The typical textbook is a tree-killing, hernia-inducing anachronism. Authors don’t like them because they’re difficult to keep current; students hate to buy them and lug them around all day – and they can’t wait to sell them back the second the exam is over.
The role of a good book (yes, even a textbook) is to turn on pictures in your head I question whether tomorrow’s digital natives will in fact have a reading experience as opposed to a multi-media immersion experience. When you look at the strong trend globally toward creating and viewing online video material and the impending wave of cheap video advertising that’s about to engulf the marketing industry, I’m betting on the latter. Despite the popularity of blogs (that skew older), younger people no longer “read” in a linear fashion past a few hundred characters on Twitter. Even then, Tweets often offer a link to a video elsewhere so they are more of an introduction to a visual experience than a pure reading experience. The “textbook” to my mind needs to morph into a multi-media platform that is less of a static holder of type and more of a guided portal. Less words, more pictures and sounds that take the learner to the scene of the crime. Less linearity, more “real” experience.
In this new world of overstimulation (how many cool YouTube clips can you watch in one day?) I see the professor’s role as more like an orchestra conductor who has to organize all the stimuli and use his or her expertise to eliminate the extraneous ones. It’s not that there’s scarce knowledge out there; rather there’s too much crap that competes for the novice’s attention. That’s where the publisher also will play a valuable role — even though today most profs regard these companies as providers of raw material (usually too much and too expensive) rather than as editors and processors of material from multiple sources.
The publisher’s new role should be to create and validate “experience portals” rather than to publish books. The validate part is harder than it sounds. Advocates of true “information wants to be free” open-source platforms that denigrate the value of author and (credentialed) reviewer expertise really just invite intellectual anarchy. Indeed, even Wikipedia, the patrons saint of “knowledge power to the people” just added designated editors to approve or disapprove of many of its entries.
The point is that professors and publishers are co-designers of a multimedia experience that encourages students to learn, question and expand (not just memorize). The textbook reading experience parts company from the fiction reading experience in that the contents should possess external validity. But, it should be similar to fiction in that the “book” should be what old-fashioned novelists like Lewis Carroll envisioned when he sent Alice to Wonderland – the gateway to a fantastic and meaningful experience that transcends the printed word. Good riddance, textbook. Welcome, textbook platform.