Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

Summary: I love hardware as much as the next geek, but solving our ed tech problems will require one heck of an ecosystem; hardware is a tiny piece of the puzzle.


Last week, Jason Perlow and I both wrote about the "Textbook of the future".

Also read

Textbook of the Future: The challenges Textbook of the Future: The hardware An iPad for every child: Inevitable or impossible?

Jason's articles (and the lengthy discussions we've had over the years, especially in the last couple of weeks following Apple's textbook announcement) led to a couple of reference designs in semi-rugged tablets (one for younger grades, another for older students) that would have done Nicholas Negroponte proud. It actually took me a few days to figure out what was wrong with this picture. It should have been obvious from the start. Making Nicholas Negroponte feel any positive emotions has never been anything at which I have shown particular aptitude (nor, in fairness, much desire). Much the opposite, in fact. He's had more than a few choice words for me.

High expectations meet decentralized control Don't get me wrong. Jason's approach to creating an affordable, scalable hardware infrastructure could actually get a device quite sustainably into many millions of students' hands worldwide. The problem, though, is that this isn't Indonesia or Singapore. There is no Ministry of Education in the United States and the raging popularity of the iPad, iPhone, and smartphones in general has sensitized youth in developed countries to rich, responsive interactions on their touch devices. Colors pop, photos gleam, video is captured in HD, and apps have graphics that rival console gaming systems.

Education, perhaps more importantly, is constitutionally handled at the state and local levels, despite federal funding and programs that might suggest otherwise. There is no way to impose a single device, particularly one that represents the lowest common denominator in hardware for the sake of scalability, nationwide. The constitution doesn't support it (for better or worse) and the consumerization of IT about which so many enterprises worry has penetrated education quite thoroughly: students and teachers will demand better, even if it is at the expense of many students not having access to a mobile computing device and next-gen textbook viewer.

Reference designs are great, but... This hardly means that Jason's thought experiment was wasted. On the contrary, he spec'd out a reference design that could be the basis for an entire generation of educational tablets and I think he did a great job capturing many of the most basic requirements for tablets that need to withstand the rigors of school environments. This is actually where OLPC found some of its greatest success: it wasn't in building and distributing hardware, but defining a market segment (netbooks) that could serve educational needs at an affordable price. Their latest reference designs, though largely vaporware at this point, also stand to help define the next generation of affordable, kid-/learning-friendly devices; thankfully, they've abandoned the hardware business.

I would argue, though, that, while many young people in the US and beyond may very well end up with devices like Jason and OLPC have outlined in their backpacks, a far better approach (especially in developed markets) is BYOD (bring your own device). This is where the real work begins. Whether students are bring their own devices, using school iPads, using Chromebooks bought for 1:1 initiatives, or using some variation of Jason's proposed hardware, all of these must be brought together in a strong ecosystem of content and apps that is hardware-agnostic, inherently open, and based in the cloud.

Next: It's all about the cloud »

One of the most compelling ideas from Jason's piece is that the cloud needs to do all the heavy lifting. Regardless of the device sitting on a kid's desk (or wedged in the crook of their arm or warming their laps under a tree), it needs to be able to act as a thin client with the browser insulating whatever hardware they chose (or could afford or even needed because of a particular disability) from the presentation of educational content and resources.

The Silk browser portends the future Amazon has already introduced the first hints of this technology with their Silk web browser which allows heavy rendering activities to be handled by their EC3 infrastructure, speeding up and smoothing out the web experience on the Kindle Fire's decidedly mid-range hardware. Need to optimize content for a small, low-resolution screen (maybe even an e-reader or a feature phone, the latter of which remains the primary means of Internet access in many developing countries as well as for many underserved populations in the States)? Pull from a robust content ecosystem or resources posted by teachers in whatever format and handle the presentation in the cloud. Need to upconvert simulations or interactive video for devices that support it? Do it in the cloud. You get the idea.

And it's not just about presenting content on heterogeneous student hardware. It's about giving teachers repositories for their own content, enabling sharing among colleagues, creating tools for building and aggregating resources, and developing tools that bring social learning and learning management systems together.

It's the end of DRM as we know it...and I feel fine DRM? It has to go as we know it. Gone. Bye Bye. One of the biggest failures of iBooks is that every student must have a copy of the book and schools can neither share nor transfer ownership of the texts. The last thing we need is to give schools a reason to stick with dead trees, but when an outdated and Draconian view of DRM that barely works for consumers is applied to education, there's just no good that can come of it.

What gets me is that the technology is here. The cloud is thriving, we have great open formats for building and sharing content, we have smart subscription services and software licensing models that could easily be applied to texts and other educational resources, and learning managements systems increasingly talk to student information systems, library systems, data mines, and third-party services. Imagine site licensing for interactive textbooks (50% the cost of paper, 5-year licenses, 10% upcharge for semi-yearly updates...done), licenses that allowed teachers to remix proprietary content with tools from publishers.

Opportunities There are countless ways to make money here, countless ways to save money, and countless ways to make sure that students have equitable access to resources. In a BYOD model, for example, students below a certain income threshold could be provided with low-cost devices, low-cost subsidized loans, or all-out computer scholarships. It would certainly be cheaper than a full-blown, school-sanctioned 1:1 program.

And yet, what we get is a closed ecosystem from Apple who is just a little too cozy with the major publishers and open educational resources that sit on the sidelines because some school committee member thinks everyone should have iPads.

The time has come, folks. Perhaps not quite as Jason Perlow envisions it, but the environment is ripe for some serious disruptors. Kno is on the right track in terms of books, Google is getting there on some parts of the ecosystem, Amazon has some pieces of the content and delivery puzzle, but someone has to fit it all together. One has to wonder if Amazon's recent acquisition of TeachStreet, the staff of which it surprisingly rolled into AmazonLocal, might not actually be the beginning of a play in the ecosystem space. We'll see if the TeachStreet folks remain part of their daily deal site.

Whoever makes it happen, though, needs to worry less about the specifics and more about a holistic picture of e-learning and what it should and can be in the 21st century.

Topics: iPad, Amazon, Tablets, Hardware, Consumerization, Cloud, Browser, Apps, Apple, Singapore

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Ecosystem above device

    I've always said, that it is the eco-system that is important.

    From the majority of parents I know, they would struggle to justify a Kindle for the family, let alone afford a tablet for each child...

    Therefore an "Apple" eco-system would be unworkable, the parents can't afford 3 or 4 iPads and the schools can't fund them either. If it was cross platform, a "school cloud", where each school has an account with a cloud service, providing the books and they provide tablets/Chromebooks for pupils that can't afford one and the wealthier can bring their own device.

    The only problem I can see with that is the old problem of the kids wearing unbranded clothing getting picked upon. You don't have an iPad, you've got the school's OLPC Tablet? You can't belong to our clique. (And that is the mildest interpretation.)
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

      @wright_is [b]my roomate's half-sister makes $78/hr on the laptop. She has been out of a job for 6 months but last month her check was $8255 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on this site ...[/b]
  • The real enemy

    Agreed: it's the ecosystem.
    The problem is that too many people, fuelled by ZDNET and other media corporate sheep, are engaged in the Apple v Microsoft wars ...
    ... when we should all be engaged in the global corporation v The People holocaust.

    And Holocaust it is because Apple, and soon Microsoft,, will have locked up their ecosystems so tight +30% tax that there will be little chance of escape.

    "The time has come, folks ... the environment is ripe for some serious disruptors."
    Boy do we need them.
    What we do not need is Bott telling us secure boot and Flash withdrawal is a generous move on the part of M$ ... SJVN ranting about the death of Windows ... and the DOG's saying that a $750 discount is mean.

    We need to cut back the power of the global corporations ... or we lose.
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device


      "We need to cut back the power of the global corporations ... or we lose."

      Short of a revolutionary war, how do you intend to do that? They pretty much own nearly everything in sight. They definitely own 99% of the politicians.
      • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

        Write your Congressman and explain to them that "Companies ARE NOT people". The Preamble to the constitution does not say "We the Corporations", it says "We the People".
      • Heh. Something I agree with

        @jkohut: Corporations should have no say in politics.
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

      Corporations are not inherently bad, nor is Government inherently good. Yet we give Big Hollywood a pass because they vote one way and demonize Big Oil because they vote another way. And Big Government isn't evil at all, to some, because it's supposedly supported by the public (who vote, from look-alike choices) rather than being supported by customers (who buy, from look-alike choices).
      • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

        @fergdoug I'm not sure I give Hollywood "a pass". I spoke out against SOPA and PIPA and many forms of onerous DRM. Hollywood's world-view doesn't match well with mine, and more than Big Oil's world view does. Nonetheless, now that corporations are people in the eyes of the Supreme Court, we're that much further down the road to world corporatocracies.
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

      @johnfenjackson@... get off the global corporation. They have no power the people do not give them by wanting their products. We are the problem, not them.
  • Joe bin Laden. I think.

    No one who has seen that "Lunch Scholars" video on YouTube believes that 'magical, revolutionary' textbooks will solve what's wrong with education in the U.S. You could give every student a Cray supercomputer connected to a Pixar workstation. Those kids still wouldn't know who is buried in Grant's tomb.
    Robert Hahn
  • It shouldn't be just about books...

    Kids need to learn about the technology itself, not just be content consumers. Out in the hinterlands of Canada a high school (Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg) started a BYOD program that requires PCs that connect to the school cloud. Their homework is posted there by their teachers, they submit it back that way as well. When they have a group project, they have a place to collaborate and exchange e-mails. If e-books were implemented there, then they could be distributed through that as well.<br><br>This iBook scenario is Apple's way of trying to lock in kids/families into the Apple ecosystem. Period. Sell them an iPad to read books, then upsell them to a Mac to do their homework...
    • You have to be a user before you can be a creator

      @Who-Me? : Personally, I don't see it as a lock-in scenario so much as a 'here's-the-tools' one that shows what some have already done.
  • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

    It would seem to me that Amazon and/or Google are well prepared to meet a Public schools Text book/tablet based needs of students much more so than Apple. I specifically say that because the cost difference of a $200 tablet vs a $500 would go long way to putting more devices in the hands of students and reduce the burden on tax payers.
    • Ad-based tablets should be free, marketing to tweens & teens is lucrative.

      @jkohut Amazon would make so much money from in-app [i]Cliffs Notes[/i] purchases that they should be [b]paying[/b] school districts for the privilege to provide tablets. And Google can use enrollment records to have a Goggle+ account ready for each student on their 13th birthday. Hell, by auctioning of the rights to their student's data to highest bidder from among Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. school districts could become money-makers!
  • In general I agree -- about 80%

    I guess my only complaint is the 'thin client' aspect because honestly I think the student should still be able to maintain at least some level of privacy by keeping their working notes and draft papers on the device and not in the Cloud. I also think each student having his own copy of the textbook/workbook on the device rather than constant access to the cloud would be more efficient for battery life and note-taking within the 'books'.
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device


      For 'the Cloud' substitute in 'school Network, sometimes connected to by the Internet'. And you are totally right that the Student should have a private cache. A thumb drive would provide this, or a memory chip. Preferably both.

      Too many people here think that the 'cloud' is magical. No, it's really just an internet connection to a server. Servers have been with us now for 60 years. Why are so many just now discovering them?

      Oh, and the textbooks should be purchasable by the school, and then be distributable to the Students without cost. Think site license.

      Or, even better, Creative Commons.
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

      @vulpine@... Everyone wants to be smart but sometimes ignorance isn't just bliss. The reality is nothing was solved over the weekend in Europe, earnings have come in somewhat tepid, and the best case scenario for the economy over the next six months seems to be somewhere between flat line and infinitesimal growth. While Obama is singing and dancing, we see, the report noted that more legal bills are coming down the road, since the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission just filed a lawsuit against six former senior officers at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From USA. Fannie, Freddie legal fees: $110 million and counting. Christie with Buffett, the world-famous investor who lent his name to a proposed tax hike on the rich."He should just write a check and shut up." No surprise here. With the exception of Ron Paul the remaining candidates are falling over one and other over who is more "conservative". In this case conservative means appealing to the extreme right wing of the GOP. Sadly the GOP has been high jacked by their extremists. Greek budget crisis earlier this week is the fact that the issue hasn't really been Greece at all. Economically speaking Greece will be comatose, at best, for the foreseeable future. "This probably forestalls Spain and Italy from having even bigger problems," the relationship between the U.S. dollar and the Euro has been stuck in a trading range for more than a month, with (EUR/USD) hanging out around $1.30, watching the Japanese Yen saying it's the big story in the currency markets right now If a rabbit defined intelligence the way man does, then the most intelligent animal would be a rabbit, followed by the animal most willing to obey the commands of a rabbit. -Robert Brault, writer (b. 1938). I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA
  • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

    I believe Apple has got the licensing right - the textbook belongs to the student, not to the school.

    I don't know about the US, but in my country, all textbooks for K-12 are free and provided by the Government. They are provided to the student, no the school. I could imagine, that in the US too, education costs (especially textbooks) are calculated on a per-student basis and therefore the textbooks again should belong to the student.
    • Unfortunately the US is different

      @danbi: While the textbooks for K-12 are 'free' to the student, they are owned by the school system and re-used as much as possible to minimize school system costs. This means that grade-school students are prohibited from marking their books in any manner and if the book is severely damaged or destroyed the student's parents must pay for replacement while not permitted to keep the damaged book. As such, our school systems do look at a per-student basis for initial distribution but then that number is divided by the number of years re-use expected before replacement is required for updating--usually on a 5-year or longer basis. As such, the student can never refer to previous texts after leaving that class.
    • RE: Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device


      Actually, Apple got it wrong, as the textbook belongs to them - really.

      You try selling your "textbook" or lending it out, or borrowing it.

      Oh wait, you can't. Hardly the "ownership" you would have us believe it is.