There you go folks, and gosh darn internet meme integrated into my comic!  Surely iFame and phenomenal wealth are now within my grasp!


So, I read Thursday’s announcement from Apple with some interest.  I am a firm believer in the digital textbook revolution.  Laurie’s time working in the High School book depository (and my own time as a student paying out in blood for arcane texts that would be functionally obsoleted by the publishers just in time for me to not be able to sell them back) was enough to convince me that the current system of warehousing collections of ex-trees is not an optimum system.   Of course, e-textbooks are hardly new (you can rent them via a particularly bad implementation from Barnes and Nobles), but with a company with the clout of Apple getting into the game, it’s possible that digital delivery of textbooks just might gain some actual momentum.

…of course with all the school districts in serious financial difficulty, it’s an odd market to be dipping one’s toe in… blood from a turnip and all that…

So, I’m pleased as punch to see Apple pushing this particular boundry…

…but they’re doing it wrong.

Well, they’re doing it right for them.  A closed format which only works on their devices.  Free tools to develop product for their devices.  Control of the distribution method.  It is the right system for putting all the profits in their pockets… but we don’t need schools tied to a single-vendor system and tied to devices which are constantly obsoleted and with a publishing standard that can change with each new release of iBooks.

No, what we need is an iTextbook hardware and software spec.  Something that gives school districts and students choice as to devices and allows publishers (even tiny little independent ones) a chance to get in on the game.

And let’s not forget that we are talking about textbooks here.  The latest and greatest hardware is great, but let’s keep in mind the mission when designing the spec.  An iPad2 is a wonderful device, but it’s a bit pricy… do we need that much horsepower?  What are the realistic needs?  I suspect things to be considered are:

  • Minimum screen size
  • Minimum screen resolution
  • Aspect ration
  • Battery Life
  • Required formats: eText, ePub, mp4, HTML5, etc
  • Required performance (say must be able to play mp4 with a resolution of xxx by yyy at zz frames per second sort of thing)
  • Classroom mode – (ability of the instructor to be able to require device check-in at start of hour and lock out non-related functions — No Angry Birds during the lecture)
  • Security – Force every student to carry a tablet device, and the thieves will come a-running.  Method required to iBrick the device.
  • Highlighter mode – (both public and personal)
  • Notes mode – same
  • Information security for the student.
  • Workbook mode

In order for this to work, the specs can’t be in a constant state of flux.  Students can’t start as a Freshman, and be expected to buy a new device every year or two.  Some people/districts can afford that, but others can’t, so we need to think in terms of long-term support/specs.  As technology changes, the specs will have to change, and someone at some point is going to get screwed, but as I said.  Only change the specs when it enhances the learning, not just because we have a new shiny available.  One assumes if one can abide by this philosophy, the hardware available will be able to keep up with any standard change within it’s lifespan… let’s say four years – the average length of a high school or undergraduate education.

Now, since we’re targeting four years, let’s just say that a replaceable battery is a requirement!  Got that Apple?  Not a request.  A REQUIREMENT.  Battery life is going to be critical for these things and we can’t have juniors and seniors needing to tote around cables to get through the day.

The distribution models will need some thought.  College, I think, is easier.  Students must purchase an e-Text compatible device.  Sell the individual books to the students.  Take advantage of the digital medium.  There’s no need to come out with a new edition just to make a few minor changes to bring it up to our current view of the particular field, simply modify the necessary sections and push out the updates.  Elgert’s Immunology v3.0.2a.  When you sell students these books, make it useful to them throughout their educational career.  Push updates to them for four years from time of purchase (after which it locks in its current content unless they wish to purchase updates).  Because everything is digital and production costs are SIGNIFICANTLY reduced, charge SIGNIFICANTLY reduced prices to the students.  $20 for a textbook; $5 for a workbook, perhaps?  Keep them cheap enough, and you can stop worrying about the used book market as what student isn’t going to want continually updated content?!?  You can transform your model from a one-time boom sale per text to a constant flow of new purchases.  Smaller bits of cash, but much more often…  You want to step towards and even more guaranteed revenue stream.  Work deals with universities such that all texts are provided for a flat fee as part of the tuition regardless of classes taken by students.  This would, of course, require some effort by the universities to ensure that their chosen publisher is providing quality materials and not just sending outdated crap as they’ve locked in the fee.  This model may benefit from an e-Text clearinghouse which deals with the schools but which serves up materials from any publisher meeting the e-Text spec.

Primary and secondary education are different markets, of course, and require different considerations.  Students generally don’t buy or even rent textbooks in public schools.  School districts can’t afford to buy new books for each student, each semester… unless you make them really, really cheap.  Districts need to be able to buy a certain number of texts and be able to assign them to individual students for a set period (semester, trimester, year) and then return them to the schools book pool for reassignment.

Think of it.  No more lost books.  No more damaged copies. And when it’s time to upgrade to a new/better text, no need to deal with recycling the old ones.

And as long as we’re dealing with a rights-assignment system, might I suggest it be tied to the students id (or some such) for on-demand use.  Think Steam here.  Want to use the text on your desktop at home?  Simply log in with your credentials, and read it there.  Forget your Textpad at home?  Simply check one out from the media center, log in and carry on as per normal.  I think it would work.

Could, would, should.  I may be babbling now… thoughts?